Friend of Dorothy

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

S2: This podcast contains explicit language.

S3: I remember the first time I saw it, I was just five years old, four and a half. And it was my birthday because I would always screen it in the in the springtime. And my at sat me down in front of the television set in our house in Queens Village, and it was like a religious experience. I was transfixed and I fell in love with a little girl in the blue gingham dress. We must be.

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S4: When I was 12, we were going on a family vacation and we were in a place called Genevieve’s, which today would be the equivalent of Duane Reade, and there was a audiocassettes, there was one that said Judy Garland over the Rainbow. And I looked at the cassette and I said, well, she kind of looks like Dorothy, but she’s older. And I showed it to my mom and she said, yeah, she did more than just the Wizard of Oz. She. She made other movies. She played Carnegie Hall. She had a television series and she made record albums. And I was like, Dorothy made records. How cool. So they bought me that cassette and I made my family listen to that tape all the way to Hershey, Pennsylvania, and all the way back to New York. They must have listened to it about 100 times. She managed to just. Get right into the deepest recesses of somebody’s soul. And she could tap into this sadness. But more importantly, the joy within someone. And I was miserable enough as a as an adolescent. So I never viewed Judy as a tragic figure. She represented this great sense of joy to me, and that’s what the voice represents.

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S5: I got news. I got I got Daisy in green pasture. I got my man.

S4: My name is Peter Mac and I manage Judy Garland, tribute artist. I have been now for 17 years.

S6: This is Decoder Ring, a show about cracking cultural mysteries. I’m Willa Paskin. Every episode we take on a cultural question, habit or idea. Crack it open and try to figure out what it means and why it matters. Fifty years after her death, Judy Garland is still with us as the star of The Wizard of Oz, among many other things. She’s part of our cultural education, passed down from generation to generation. Her combination of incredible talent and incredible frailty continues to make her fascinating. Just recently, she’s been the subject of a biopic starring Renee Zellweger and a documentary on Showtime, which she’s always been particularly fascinating to and beloved by a community that feels a particularly special connection to her queer people and gay men in particular. In this episode, Dakota rings. producer Benjamin Fresh is going to explore this special relationship through the life and work of Peter Mac, the Judy Garland impersonator. You’ve just heard from. We’re going to look at the history and future of Judy Garland, of celebrity impersonation and a female impersonation to try and figure out why Judy still resonates. So today, decoder ring. Who’s still in love with Judy Garland?

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S7: One person that loves Judy Garland is, as I said, Dakota rings. producer, Benjamin Fresh. Hi, Ben. Hey, Willa. So how did you get into Judy Garland?

S8: I think I saw The Wizard of Oz when I was really young. I don’t remember ever having seen it for the first time. It was just always a part of my world.

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S1: I guess I didn’t really obsess over her as an adolescent. And I’m sort of embarrassed to admit that I knew almost nothing about her life for most of my life. But when you’re a gay person, references to Judy Garland, they just kind of pop up everywhere, like the term friend of Dorothy to mean a gay person. I think I first heard that in the movie Clueless when I was a kid and I had no idea what it meant was he’s a disco dancing.

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S9: Oscar Wilde, Reed and Streisand take friend and thought they know what I’m saying.

S8: It’s references like that that made me really want to dig in and learn more about Judy Garland. So I recently started listening to her music and watching her movies, and I got really into her 1961 live album, Judy, at Carnegie Hall, which is widely considered to be the high point of her singing career.

S10: I wanted to find out exactly why this woman was and is so spellbinding to people like me and to people like Peter Mac, who you heard at the top of the show. He performs as Judy Garland every Saturday in New York City.

S8: Peter shows one of the most wholesome things I’ve ever seen. Judy Cursus a little and needles the audience a bit, but it all feels sort of removed from time. From another era, the setlists and style of the show changes every few weeks. But when I saw it, it was a cabaret of Judy Classics from the Broadway songbook. He wore a black sequined gown, black Judy wig and makeup to block out his eyebrows in order to look a little bit more like Judy. At first it’s a bit strange because, you know, it’s a man wearing a dress in front of you. But when you see Peter actually start to sing and move around the stage, muss up his wig and throw the microphone cord over his shoulder. You totally forget that he’s not Judy Garland.

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S11: He does get shots.

S12: What Peter’s doing here? It might seem really, really niche. He’s a male Judy Garland tribute artist, after all, but it’s actually part of a centuries old mainstream tradition.

S1: In other words, it’s not niche at all. And to see that, we need to go back to vaudeville.

S13: Female impersonators have existed as long as theater has existed originally because women weren’t allowed to perform on stage.

S1: But even after that changed, female impersonation persisted as popular entertainment well into the 20th century and vaudeville.

S14: Female person nation was just another one of the acts. Joe E. Jeffreys is a professor of theater studies at NYU and the new school with a focus on gender performance. Generally, these acts took the form of the impersonator coming out and telling perhaps a funny little story, singing a song or two, maybe doing a simple dance. And some of the acts at the end would take off the wig to reveal that indeed this was a man underneath this outfit, because portions of the audience might not have known up until that point that that was a pain up there on stage in front of them.

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S10: Some of these performers became quite famous. Julian Elton’s was a vaudeville star for decades, appeared in films and was one of the highest paid stage actors of his era. Here he is on camera in 1929, dressed in a full showgirl frock, complete with a huge feather plumed headpiece and feather boas cascading his dress.

S15: Greetings, ladies and gentlemen. I am back in the Hollywood making my first talking picture. I have had seven ladies on the set. And ladies around the different studios asked me this year as to who is making my costume.

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S10: Frank DeCaro is a writer and the author of Drag Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business.

S16: He was someone who was kind of the RuPaul of 1912. He was the hottest thing. He had a magazine. He was on Broadway. He was films. He had a Broadway theater named after him in 1912. I mean, when it’s still there, it’s a multiplex on Forty Second Street, but it’s there at this point.

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S8: There wasn’t a strong connection between homosexuality and cross-dressing on stage. What Elton was doing was thought of more like a magic trick than it was like gender performance and impression he contributed to with his hypermasculine offstage demeanor.

S17: You called him a drag queen. He’d taken the alley and punch in the nose. It was a staunch defender of his masculinity.

S1: Drag and female impersonation continued happening in many traditional heterosexual environments. Well, into the 1950s and 60s, Joe E. Jefferys again in New York City.

S14: In the 60s, there were places like the 82 Club, which was a mafia run establishment in the basement at 82 East 4th Street down in the Bowery, had a lavish floor show of female impersonation, 25 30 female impersonators and was performing nightly three times a night for a primarily heterosexual audience because you couldn’t serve alcohol to known homosexuals. Derrick City at this point in time.

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S13: Some of these performers were female impersonators, but some more a subset of the female impersonator. The celebrity female impersonator. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when celebrity impersonation cross-pollinated with female impersonation, but it too can be traced back to the early 20th century stage. There was a performer named Albert Carroll who impersonated both male and female celebrities on Broadway in the 1920s and 30s. Celebrities like Groucho Marx, John Barrymore, Gertrude Lawrence and even Queen Elizabeth the first. By the 1950s and 60s, celebrity impersonation was a staple for female impersonators. Some popular figures early on to impersonate would have been Tallulah Bankhead, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West, who all had big personalities and mannerisms to imitate.

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S14: Judy Garland wasn’t one of those personalities, female impersonators who I know who are working in the 50s and 60s will tell me Judy Garland was the last person we wanted to do an act as because, well, let’s face it, she wasn’t glamorous. I mean, she’s not wearing outrageous outfits. I mean, yes, she has mannerisms that are a little kooky and off or she’s eminently imitating Bill. But as far as how the female person daters wanted to look and present themselves, she’s a little dowdy for them. So they just kind of straight away, not to mention the voice. She’s such a vocal powerhouse that to find somebody who can vocally do her live is truly remarkable. So she’s a daunting figure to attempt to build a impersonation act around.

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S1: But over time, and despite the difficulty of doing her vocal justice, Judy became a staple. And to explain why, I want to explore the idea of divas a bit. Explore a little why Gaiman loves certain women from Mae West to Katharine Hepburn to Lady Gaga to Judy Garland. So much.

S13: I think that there are two kinds of divas that appeal to gay men, and you can think of them on a spectrum at one pole are the divas that gay men aspire to. Ultra confident women that have everything under control have a way of moving through the world in command of the people around them. Joan Crawford is an early example of this kind of diva. But Marlene Dietrich, Joan Rivers and Madonna would also probably apply. On the other end of the spectrum is not the kind of diva that you want to be necessarily, but the kind of diva you feel you are. These figures are often tragic, whose exploits in the world make you feel a kinship with them. Figures like Whitney Houston, Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse fit this mold. But Judy Garland is the ultimate feeling diva, an immensely talented woman whose real life was hardly glamorous.

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S1: Judy was born Frances Gum in 1922 into a family of vaudeville performers, making her theatrical debut at age two and a half. She had an uneasy home life and lived in fear of her parents separating, which they did constantly. She was signed to MGM Studios at age 13 and was infamously hooked on pills to keep her weight down and her energy up. And she continued to struggle with addiction through multiple marriages and financial mismanagement for her entire life.

S4: Peter Mac, again, she had bullies at MGM. You know, she was being called names. She was being called a fat little hunchback by the owner of the studio, Mr. Mayor, and told that she was fat. And I had the kids calling me names and she felt like she didn’t fit in. Here she was with these glamorous pussies like Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr. And she really felt like the odd kid out. And she came from a broken home. I came from a broken home. So there were things that I could relate to.

S8: Her most famous character is even more relatable as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She’s a girl who leaves an oppressively dull black and white home to find a color soaked world of friends and a new chosen family.

S1: We’re just being yourself is enough to overcome adversity. It’s a perfect metaphor for adolescent queer longing. By the 1970s, then Judy had become a part of the drag canon and was being performed by conspicuously queer artists right under the noses of unthinking heterosexuals. You may not have heard of Jim Bailey, but like Liberace and Elton John, he was a mainstream success. He became famous in the late 60s for impersonating stars like Judy and Barbra Streisand. Frank DeCaro.

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S17: Again, he had this career that was so absurdly mainstream. I mean, he was on. Here’s Lucy as Phyllis Diller. He performed as Barbra Streisand Circa a Star is born. Singing Don’t Rain on my parade in an open convertible at a prime time television salute to the Super Bowl.

S18: He was on a Super Bowl salute dressed as Barbra Streisand. That is the most mind boggling thing that I think has ever been on TV related to dread. And it was just what television was like in the 70s.

S8: And if you needed further proof of how mainstream Bayley’s style of drag impersonation was.

S10: Here’s Bailey performing his duty at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Some Bailey might be the most famous Judy Garland impersonator of all time, but there have been many other notable ones.

S1: T.C. Jones, Jimmy Lane, Caleb Starn, Jimmy James and Tommy Femia to name a few. And then, of course, there’s Peter Mac, who continued to love Judy Garland’s music into his high school years in the mid 1990s.

S19: I started singing with Judy’s albums in my basement. I could come home from a really lousy day at school, having my eyeglasses broken. In one case, having a sewing needle jabbed into my shoulder multiple times and being called every gay slur you can possibly think of. But I would go downstairs and listen to Judy’s albums when I got home and sing along with them, and that was how I started singing.

S4: And then my mom started getting me voice lessons. So that’s how I started singing. It was because of Judy. She was my first voice teacher. I guess you can’t ask for a better voice teacher.

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S20: Judy Garland.

S2: I did not fit in any kind of hardhats, working class football neighborhood that I grew up in. It was a tough time.

S21: I’d missed about 52 days of school and I was told that I was on the brink of being kicked out of school anyway because of that. I would stay home. I was sick.

S19: My mother would keep me home. Then I would bring social service. She was being an unfit mother. Meanwhile, she was just trying to protect me. Even when mom dropped me off at school, made sure I went into the building, I would walk clear out to the other side because I was terrified.

S21: And after I missed that many days, they decided they would ease me back in. And so nobody knew I was there, supposedly. And I went from my gains counselor’s office where I was being hidden to a social workers office. And in the hour that I was gone, I came back in on my winter jacket. It said in bold black marker, I suck cock and I had a breakdown. I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade because I was on the brink of committing suicide. Second time I I thought it would be better to bump myself off. I attribute the fact that I had Judi’s records to listen to her movies, to watch some of her television shows. That voice is what saved me because I would always turn to that voice to listen to or to sing with.

S22: And that’s what got me through the other end of the.

S23: I’m always chasing.

S22: And I signed myself out of school that year and started going on auditions when I was in my senior year to an eight shows a week and getting paid pretty nice money for it and doing what I loved.

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S21: I did a cabaret show called Judy and Me, which was just me singing as myself using Judy songs to tell my story. And for me to explain why I feel Judy resonates with the gay community and why she resonated with me and how she saved my life. So we did that. And then a friend of mine saw it and said, this is more than a one person show. Peter, this is a play. You should really turn this into a play. And I turned it into a six person play. And Judy, whereas in real life, I would just listen to her record albums and they would comfort me every time we hear the music. Judy comes to life and she counsels me through all of these horrible things that are happening with my mother and father, plus the terrible things that are happening in school. Initially, I was playing myself and we tried to find an actress to play Judy. We were having a hard time doing so. And a friend of mine said, just play, Judy. Peter, we know you can do the voice. You’ve done it. Just do it. Why don’t you play Judy and hire another actor to play yourself? And that’s what happened.

S11: We just hired another young actor to play me at 16, and I started playing Judy High at the time of.

S24: Posing as a landlord has to call a loan. I sign live.

S10: A big part of impersonating Judy isn’t just the voice, though, it’s the mannerisms, the little things during the show.

S1: I was really taken by this one detail the way Peter throws the microphone cord over his shoulder. It appeared studied like I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed Judy Garland do that during a filmed performance. But seeing Peter do it, it makes you feel like that’s the only way Judy could have thrown a microphone cord over her shoulder.

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S21: You have to immerse yourself in it. You have to listen to the recordings over and over and over again. Watch the movies, watch the television shows. It’s homework, but it’s fun homework for any of the characters.

S19: But particularly for Judy, they the elbow that the dangling arm messing up the hair.

S21: All of those little, little things that she would do when you’re singing the song, slinging the microphone cord over your shoulder. If she was here now, she would say, yeah, mom.

S25: So marvelous. Then I think it’s wonderful. Yeah, Danny’s a pod cast. I don’t really know pod people. I don’t know. The pod cast said this is a marvelous way to get away out there. Said maybe. Oh, give me a break. Kids get similar people at my my shows.

S1: Peter doesn’t just perform Judy. He and his husband, John Mack, do about 60 different women between them. Joan Crawford, Betty Davis, Ethel Merman, Megan Mullally, they’re real. Golden Goose is Golden Girls Live. Peter plays Sophia. John plays Dorothy, which pays their bills in which they perform several times a week at the theater. They rent together in the theater district in Manhattan. So how did you two meet?

S26: We actually met at a screening of The Wizard of Oz in Chelsea. It doesn’t get better than that. I’ve recently gone through a breakup of many years and I was sitting there very nervous. And Peter and his brother and his aunt came and sat across from me and I thought, oh, my God, this kid’s really cute.

S4: So Judy is not only my guardian diva, but she’s also my matchmaker.

S8: Peter thinks of what they do more as tribute art than as drag.

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S21: Now, RuPaul has called me a drag queen and I will gladly take it because I can’t think of a higher compliment. I think there’s drag and there’s tribute art. And it’s not to say that one is better than or superior to. They’re just different. Drag is typically, I think, a little more. Over the top tribute art is more about it’s a character acting. You want to make the audience believe you are that person. And I think trag is just a little bit more. Larger than life, this I think we walk a fine line.

S1: Peter is trying to create the most authentic experience possible.

S21: I don’t like it to ever be campy or over the top or a caricature. And I’d seen that happen too many times with Judy. And people were using her addictions to get cheap laughs and portraying her as this pill-popping falling down drunk.

S27: And I didn’t want to do that. My mantra is imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, not battery. So that’s that’s that’s how I approach what I do. And the whole goal is to make the audience when they come into that theater, hopefully by the second or third song, they feel as though they’re watching Judy. And that by the time they walk out, particularly with the current show that we’re doing, that they knew a lot. They know a lot more about her than they did before they walked in and hoping that we’re helping to preserve her legacy.

S1: Peter wants to preserve Judy’s legacy because he’s anxious that Judy, as a performer, is not as known to younger generations as she used to be, as she should be. But he’s trying to change that with a kind of female celebrity impersonation that is itself unlike the kind of drag you see in gay bars or on RuPaul’s Drag Race, sort of on the wane.

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S28: It’s kind of a lost art, I think, in the drag scene.

S1: Queen Robert is a Brooklyn based drag queen who specializes in impersonations like Kathy Bates and Jennifer Coolidge.

S28: Drag used to be considered largely female impersonation. Now a drag race, everybody out there is trying to create their own brand and become their own vision and their own character.

S10: Ironically, creating your own character is more true to the vaudevillian roots of drag than doing celebrity impersonation. But the point stands that the kind of celebrity impersonation that Peter does, it’s just less popular than it used to be.

S29: You know, we’re so oversaturated and in celebrities and different people to like that, it’s kind of just busy and noisy. It used to be that seeing a celebrity was rare.

S10: You’d have to be lucky enough to be in the right city and be paying the right money to see someone perform. I think that that was part of the appeal of the impersonator. They allowed people to experience the glamour of an icon in the comfort of your local gay bar. Perhaps hundreds of miles away from New York or Los Angeles these days, celebrities are everywhere. If I want to see Lady Gaga, I can just type Lady Gaga into the search bar on YouTube. They’re also more physically accessible with huge mega tours and Las Vegas residences. There’s just a lot less scarcity of celebrity now and so a lot less need for celebrity impersonators.

S1: But because Judi died young and so long ago, we don’t have access to her in the same way we do with more modern celebrities. But I think that there’s another powerful force working in Judy’s favor, and that, ironically, is her place in straight culture. Unlike most pieces of a gay culture, early Judy Garland fandom comes from being sat in front of the Wizard of Oz as a child in mostly straight households. It’s the fact that The Wizard of Oz has remained such a classic for everyone that young people continue to be exposed to it. And thus so many gay people have the reference point regardless of their background. Then when they’re a little older, they find the special queer valence that Judy Garland possesses through interaction with other gay people. Brian Louder is a writer at Slate and co-host of Outward Slate’s LGBTQ podcast.

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S30: For me, it was there was a sense somewhere along the way or someone was like, you know, you need to to be like a good gay, like, understand who Judy Garland was. And so then I went and like.

S31: To that sort of haphazard research.

S30: What is good about it is knowing that our community has had a particular cultural history, not just a political history, not just a history of tragedy and triumph. And that adds richness to like your view of where you come from. Lisa does for me. I mean, I have listened to that Carnegie Hall concert, not so much because I love hearing Judy Garland sing, but because I like to think about all of the gays in the audience, you know, in the 60s who were living for her the same way that I might have lived for, you know, Lady Gaga when I was in my early 20s, knowing that someone else related to Judy that way is enriching to my sense of myself as a gay person.

S1: Queer culture isn’t passed down through family lineage in the same way that straight culture is. It’s passed down through chosen family. Yes, but it’s also passed down through art and media, knowing there’s a kind of lineage of love for and devotion to art. It makes you feel a part of a community, even if the objects of devotion have changed. Peter Mac also sees himself as part of a lineage.

S21: Someone once said to me, you know, Judy Garland is your role. It’s ridiculous. Hamlet is nobody’s role any more than Judy Garland is anybody’s role. What I do with the role makes it my own.

S26: But that doesn’t make it mine from a social aspect with Judy specifically. We have to keep Judy going. One. You’re brilliant at it. I can say that. Yeah. Not just as your husband, but because we feel we have to correct the misperceptions about Judy.

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S27: Again, one of the things that we hear repeatedly, which is thank you for keeping these people alive. Because, again, for the younger generations. They’re not familiar with a lot of these ladies or they don’t know the body of work. And so this. Show where this kind of a show brings that and leads them to the real person. Because we have the return customers who say I downloaded Judy at Carnegie Hall or I bought episodes of the television series. I rented A Star is Born. That’s what we want. I want you to go and see the real thing after you see me. Because there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

S12: Personally, I don’t think Judy is going anywhere anytime soon, but the idea is that she might. And I try and take that for what it is. The implication that there will be other artists and singers who will mean as much as she did to future generations of gay men, because even though the specifics of Judy matter, all the songs and her trials and tribulations and how she swings the microphone cord, it’s her meaning that matters more. The promise that exquisite beauty and joy can coexist with terrible hardship and that, you know, somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue. All you need is to hear Peter Max sing that song, which he closes out his show with every night to remind yourself of what Judy is still trying to teach us.

S1: And how does it feel to sing Over the Rainbow at the end of a show?

S27: I look forward to it. Because you’ll hear murmurs from the audience, especially once they hear the intro. Sometimes you’ll hear someone crying. And. It’s it’s it’s huge. It’s it’s a big responsibility because. As Liza Minnelli once said, nobody’s saying it better than her mother did. So the pressure is on at that point to really make sure this this is it. You got it. If you haven’t won them over by this point, you know you know, you certainly don’t want to lose them with over the rainbow.

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S22: So it’s the responsibility to sing that song.

S32: The median 2y.

S1: This is decoder ring. I’m Benjamin Fresh.

S7: And I’m Willa Paskin. You can find us on Twitter at Willa Paskin and you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode? You can e-mail us at Decoder Ring at Slate.com. If you haven’t yet. Subscribe and read our Feed an Apple podcast wherever you get your podcasts and even better tell your friends. This podcast was written and produced by Benjamin Fresh and edited by Willa Paskin. Benjamin Fresh also does illustrations for every episode. Cleo Levin is our research assistant. Thanks for Assemble. Andrew Kahn and June Thomas. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in a few weeks.