By Donalevan Maines
Johnny Trlica makes the Yuletide gay by throwing a boozy Christmas party each year that honors the late Judy Garland. He will host the 24th annual affair at 8 p.m., Saturday, December 17, at his Montrose apartment.
As always, the “main event” is a showing of The Judy Garland Christmas Special, an hour-long program (complete with vintage commercials) that was first seen in 1963 as part of Judy’s regular TV variety series on CBS.
“Judy was a once-in-a-lifetime entertainer,” says Trlica, an apartment-leasing specialist who enjoys educating friends and co-workers about the talented, tortured singer’s pivotal role in gay history. “Young people today need to know our history, and how Judy’s death was the spark that ignited Stonewall and the gay-rights movement.”
This year, he tells guests, “For a little fun, come dressed as your fave Judy character. That might be a role she played in a film or on TV, or a character from one of her films—think scarecrows, tin men, and lions, oh my!—or someone from her personal life, such as maybe Liza with a Z.”
Gay icon Liza Minnelli, Garland’s daughter who was a teenager when the TV show was taped in Hollywood, performs in the Christmas special. She is partnered with handsome Tracy Everitt as her “beau.”
“That was funny,” says Everitt, a former Broadway hoofer (Bye Bye Birdie, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) who’s now 74 and a ballroom-dance teacher in Hoboken, New Jersey. He might not have been Liza’s beau off-screen, but he played one on TV.
“Our relationship is perfectly expressed in the dance we did,” Everitt tells OutSmart, referring to a tame but playful rendition of “Steam Heat.” Everitt choreographed their TV dance segment without having seen Bob Fosse’s original steamy version from The Pajama Game on Broadway in 1954.
Liza and Everitt became friends in New York City while studying acting at the HB Studio in Greenwich Village. “She liked my dancing, and told her mother,” he says.
Judy hired Everitt to dance on The Judy Garland Show. “We only had one week to prepare the Christmas special—really three days,” he says.
Trlica spends more time than that preparing a feast of down-home eats for his annual Judy tribute. “The first one was kind of a whim,” he explains. After finding a VHS tape of the Christmas special, he decided it would be fun to invite a few friends over to watch it.
“We ate and drank, of course. Then after most everyone was there, I popped in the cassette and we all watched it. After Judy’s show, we also watched a tape of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and a funny old episode of The Red Skelton Show. The small gathering got a kick out of watching TV from a simpler time.”
The next year, Trlica invited a few more people to his second viewing party, and the event continued to grow each year.
“The revelers enjoyed watching an obviously intoxicated Judy stumble around, miss words, and nearly run into a fireplace,” says Trlica, who has been a fan of Judy’s since childhood, when he watched her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz each year on TV. “At times, I’ve felt uneasy and bad about us gathering around to mock a woman of such enormous talent, but who was so troubled. Now I like using the event just as my way of showing everyone how much I love them, and to encourage a little discussion of the importance of Judy in gay history.”
Judy was only 47 when she died from an accidental overdose of barbiturates in 1969. A crowd estimated at 20,000 filed through the funeral home in New York City where she lay in state, and 1,500 mourners stood outside during Judy’s funeral service on June 27, 1969. Both of those crowds included many of her gay fans who had heeded the siren call of her voice while also empathizing with her lifelong battle with drugs, alcohol, and depression. Some of those gay fans were still drinking at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, when a routine police raid in the wee hours of June 28 sparked a violent reaction that turned into about six days of rioting that spilled out onto Christopher Park and the surrounding streets.
“Gay people were used to being repressed,” explains Trlica, “but after Judy’s funeral service, they were not in the mood—not on this day. And so they fought back.”
When contacted by OutSmart, Everitt was surprised to learn that Judy’s death helped set off the Stonewall Riots and the ensuing gay-rights movement. “But I understand,” he concedes, recalling the pre-Stonewall gay oppression that he witnessed. “I understand, because as a little boy [in show business], I was the
only heterosexual kid among all these gays, whose world I loved. I saw how they were treated, how they had to hide. They felt that Judy had suffered. She had a hypnotic ability to show passion and emotion.”
The premise of The Judy Garland Christmas Special has Judy inviting viewers (and the live studio audience) to join her family and friends on a set that suggests the opulent, sunken living room of her ranch-style home on Rockingham Avenue in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. “It was extremely well-produced—a very expensive show,” says Everitt.
Judy kicks off the special by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Lorna Luft and Joey Luft, her children by late producer Sid Luft (A Star Is Born). “Next year, all our troubles will be miles away,” sings Judy, before informing the audience that “Liza’s out skating with her beau, but she’ll be in later.” (Just two years later, in 1965, Liza debuted on Broadway in Flora the Red Menace, becoming, at age 19, the youngest performer to win the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.)
Once Judy’s family is assembled on the set, other guests arrive, including singer Jack Jones, Judy’s accompanist/composer/arranger Mel Torme, six Santa Clauses who dance the Charleston, and some Christmas carolers.
In 1974, Torme would write a scandalous tell-all, The Other Side of the Rainbow with Judy Garland on the Dawn Patrol, revealing drama behind the scenes of Judy’s variety series. “It’s a traitorous book,” says Everitt, whose photograph appears in the 1974 hardcover and 1991 paperback editions. “I despised it. He was not an author, so he had to tell everything under the rug in order to get published.”
Among the show’s sponsors are the cold medication Contact, with its “tiny time pills,” and Pall Mall cigarettes. (The federal government eventually banned TV advertising of all cancer sticks in 1971.) Another commercial on the Christmas special answers the question, “What’s a mother to do?” to get her kids to meet their daily vitamin requirements.
Everitt adds, “That show has brought much pleasure to many people ever since it was broadcast, and I am gratified that I had a part. As a time-capsule [of the] era in which it was created, as well as a psychological study of all who were involved in making it, it interests me as well, occasionally.”
Trlica says that in 1976, he went to the Galleria and found a picture of an adult Judy that had a sketch of the Oz characters in the background. “It was my first piece of Garland memorabilia, and I still own it, along with dozens more Oz collectibles.”
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.