The legendary Judy Garland clearly was not at her best.
“She had trouble getting through her first song and for that matter, getting about the stage,” Evening Sun critic Lou Cedrone wrote the following day of her Feb. 18, 1968, appearance at the Baltimore Civic Center. “Miss Garland seemed to be as unsure of foot as she was of lyric.”
By that time in her career, the 45-year-old Garland, the subject of Renee Zellweger’s Oscar-nominated performance in “Judy,” had become notorious for her hit-or-miss stage shows. On a good night, few could top her, as anyone who’s ever listened to 1961′s “Judy at Carnegie Hall” album can attest. With her magnificent voice and commanding stage presence, not to mention a repertoire that stretched from “Over the Rainbow” to “Get Happy” and “The Man That Got Away,” she could be a crowd-pleaser of the first order.
But then there were the other performances. Sometimes she was so paralyzed by stage fright that she had to be all but shoved onstage, and her concert never really took off. Other times, the drinking or the drugs were too much, and their effects showed. There were scheduled appearances where she never showed up at all.
That February night at the Civic Center (now Royal Farms Arena) was not one of the good ones. Taking to the stage around 10 p.m., after her audience had been warmed by stand-up from Woody Allen and singing by Tony Bennett, Garland appeared unsteady and confused. Twice, according to reports in the next morning’s Sun, she tried to perform “I Feel a Song Coming On,” but couldn’t remember the lyrics.
“She could scarcely walk; she balanced herself as on a tightrope, faltering with each step, until she reached the microphone; then she clung to that with both hands,” Gerold Frank wrote in “Judy,” his 1975 biography of Garland. “When she tried to sing, the sound was more croak than voice.”
Garland clearly knew she wasn’t in top form. She told the audience she was sick from food poisoning; as hundreds of people got up to leave, she pleaded with them to stay. “Please don’t go, I’ll be all right,” she told the crowd, according to Frank. “Don’t go! Come back — oh, come back."
Her fans, the ones devoted to her regardless of what was happening, tried to pull her through. “Several thousand” gathered in front of the stage to urge her on, according to The Sun’s report; some handed her flowers, some reached out to touch her, assure her that she was loved. Garland managed a few more songs, exited, then came back for an encore, sitting on the stage and singing “Over the Rainbow.”
“I think I finally made it,” she told the crowd when it was all over.
“It was quite a spectacle,” Cedrone wrote, “and one couldn’t help but feel compassion and yes, admiration for this girl-woman buffeted by life." Frank called the entire episode “heartbreaking.”