Interview with Hugh Fordin (Author, Producer, President of DRG Records)
Hugh Fordin is the author of Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein; Jerome Kern: The Man and his Music; and The World of Entertainment: Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals (now titled MGM’s Greatest Musicals) about the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM. Originally published in 1975, the book details the formation of the now legendary unit and the making of all of its (Freed’s) films, providing facts and information you won’t find anywhere else. Fordin has been a producer in both theater and film, including producing Edith Piaf’s final concert tour in 1962-63. As head of casting for David Merrick, he was involved in the making of M*A*S*H, Hello, Dolly!, and Play It Again, Sam. He is currently president of DRG Records, bringing us great Garland releases including: Judy & Liza: Live! At the London Palladium (CD 2010); The Garland Touch (CD 2009); Garland at the Grove (CD 2008); The Letter (CD 2007); Cut! Outtakes from Hollywoods Greatest Musicals (1970’s 3 LP series); and The Beginning (1979 LP). Thank you Hugh for taking the time to answer our questions, and a special thank you for bringing us such amazing Garland related releases over the years!
The World of Entertainment: Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals is, to this day, the prime reference on the Freed Unit and the MGM musical. It provides wonderful details. What was the impetus for the decision to do such a book? And has your perspective changed any since writing it?
My friendship with Roger Edens, and in some way with Kay Thompson, came at a fortuitous time. I had promised Roger that I would do it (during our working together on Hello, Dolly!); and I began working with Kay on a possible TV special for Alexis Smith in 1975 (during Ms. Smith’s starring in the Broadway hit music, Follies). It was Kay who furnished Arthur Freed’s phone number in Bel Air, California.
My perspective hasn’t diminished or changed. What I was surprised at is that there is an enormous amount of interest since my book was first published.
Have you thought of creating a revised edition?
I have thought from time to time on a revised edition (and there exists about 200 pages that I needed to cut from the original book that could be reedited and inserted).
Are there any stories involving Garland that you did not recount in your book?
Look Magazine wanted to do an interview with Jane Powell. Howard Strickling, the head of publicity at M-G-M (and the one person responsible for saving the personal lives of all Metro actors, directors and producers), instructed one of his associates, Ann Straus, to accompany the Look reporter to Jane’s house.
“Well, Jane” the reporter continued, trying to get Jane to talk, “tell us, do you think Judy sings sharp? Or flat?”
“Sharp,” came Jane’s answer. And nothing more.
“Tell us, Jane,” the reporter prodded.
”Yes” came Jane.
“Tell us about Lily Pons. Does she sing sharp or flat?”
“Flat” was Jane’s simple reply.
And that was it. The reporter left with Ms Straus and said she’d have to make up the interview. When the article was published, Judy happened to read it and a call was placed from Evansview Drive (Judy and Vincente’s home) to Howard Strickling.
“Howard,” Judy began, “how dare you, why I’m going to blow up that damn Thalberg building with you in it! What’s that Powell broad up to?!!!”
Strickling immediately put in a call to Jane Powell.
“Jane,” Howard began, “Judy is very upset with your comments about her in Look Magazine. I think you’ll have to write her an apology.”
“Yes,” Jane replied.
And so Jane went over to her writing desk and got a piece of stationery with Lassie in the upper left hand corner, and with her perfect Dr. Palmer handwriting, wrote:
I’m so sorry about the recent article in Look Magazine. I hope it will not happen again.”
There have been conflicting stories about Arthur Freed and what type of person he was to work with. When you met with Freed for your book, what was your take? Were there any insights or anecdotes that he told you that at the time you could not include in the book?
First of all, I would like to set the record straight. Arthur Freed was born with the name Arthur Freed. It was Kevin Brownlow, I believe, that misread his resume and stated that he was born Arthur Grossman. His mother’s maiden name was Grossman and on his resume his mother is listed (née Grossman). Freed was a fantastic man who I’m sure ruffled many people who were not on his wave length. Meaning they weren’t as bright or as professional. I found him like an adopted father. He began, as a matter of fact, interviewing me about David Merrick, the Broadway producer. He knew that I had worked for Merrick for several years, and he wanted to know a lot about him as a person. When we began working on the interviews on tape he remarked that he wanted me to see his “kids.” I knew he had a daughter, but I didn’t know about any other children. When I asked him about what he meant, he said “I mean Gene and Vincente and Fred and others.” I said, “Mr. Freed, it’s one thing that I was lucky enough to get you to agree to a book, but I’m not about to just pick up the phone and call them for an interview.” He said not to worry and that he would handle it. The following week, at a lunch at the Friar’s Club, he said to go ahead and call, and he handed me all their phone numbers. At the top of the list was Fred Astaire. I grabbed for a cigarette (I was smoking 40 odd years ago) and I called him. Astaire got right on the phone and told me to drive over to his house. I told him that I would do so after two days or homework (I wanted to be sure of what I would ask him).
I should also let your readers know that 50% of what I was able to assemble for my book was contained in Freed’s archives that he had gifted USC Special Collections. The scripts, budgets, memos, letters, stills, pre-recordings and sketches, etc. were all there. And each in its own box.
Most of the time, Garland worked in the framework of the Freed Unit, which influenced the esthetic and making of her movies. How, on the other hand, did Judy influence the Freed Unit and the films she made at MGM?
Judy’s influence on the Freed Unit came by way of her extremely close association with Roger Edens. Edens pushed Garland into The Harvey Girls when she would have wanted to be in Yolanda and the Thief. Meet Me in St. Louis was always to be a Garland picture. When Freed read Sally Benson’s short story in The New Yorker magazine, he thought it would be perfect for Garland.
The Cut! Outtakes from Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals trilogy of LPs was the public’s introduction to the wealth of outtakes from movie musicals. Can you tell us how the project came about, and where the source materials came from?
The Outtake series came about when I discovered all these lost treasures in Freed’s archives. They were on 80 rpm acetate discs (this higher speed was used in order to uncover pirates that would get their hands on these discs and play them on the radio in advance of the films release).
Has DRG Records ever thought of revisiting the outtakes albums for CD in expanded and remastered format?
The CD release alas can’t ever happen as the rights belong to M-G-M and they’ve used many of these tracks in the That’s Entertainment film series.
One of your most recent releases is the CD of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli at the London Palladium in 1964. You are no doubt aware of the brouhaha over this disc, and the failed efforts by Scott Schechter to get it released integrally. How did you make the decision to release it in a somewhat expanded version, although not integrally?
The release of Judy/Liza at the Palladium came from the Garland estate. They were very impressed with my release of The Garland Touch and offered me the Palladium project and told Capitol to do so as well.
There are no future releases of Garland on DRG. I believe Capitol (US) would be doing any if there ever came to that.
DRG has reissued a good number of Judy Garland recordings over the years. How do you choose which to release? And how are sales compared to other DRG releases? Is Garland commercially viable in the 21st century?
The previous DRG releases were all of my taste and choice. The commercial value of Garland in the 21st century is somewhat of a battle considering the limitations of so few retail outlets.
DRG is one of the long-standing labels interested in classic American popular music. How does your love of this music translate to the declining sales of CDs in general? Otherwise said, how hard is it for a label to stay in business in 2011?
It’s very hard to stay up there with the majors, but I’m a fighter and will be around another 35 years.
Would you describe Judy as the “world’s greatest entertainer?” If so, why? If not, why not?
I wouldn’t say the Judy was the world’s greatest entertainer. That’s too sweeping a statement. Even though I was at that famed original Carnegie Hall concert sitting in F 2 in the orchestra.
The ups and downs of Judy’s life would seem to be the perfect stuff for a biopic. One – based on Gerald Clarke’s biography – is currently in the works, but besides a couple of telefilms, none has yet made it to the screen. Why is that? Do you think her life might be too complicated to capture on screen?
Biopics are so hard to do and be great. La Vie En Rose was so flawed. It stayed too long on Piaf’s early career and said nothing of her greatness during World War II and onward. And she wasn’t a bitch as the film describes at the end. And “Non, je ne regrette rien” wasn’t written just before she died either. It was written almost 10 years before. Yes, Piaf and Garland are two very complicated personalities. They are always subject to bad research.
You produced Edith Piaf’s final tour in 1962-1963. Many people have compared Piaf to Garland. Would you?
Piaf and Garland, two totally different people. Piaf was a musician, meaning she could write songs and she befriended talented people like Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand, (they also became her lovers). Garland was known personally as a user of people and not one who gave much in return. But both ladies died about the same time in their lifetime.
I answered that earlier. I was at her original Carnegie Hall concert, wow! I should also preface this by saying that I knew what I would be in for as I had seen her a few months back at the Olympia Theatre in Paris where she had done a sort of tryout. I’m sorry she didn’t include “Bonjour Paris” at Carnegie Hall.
A Star is Born was Garland’s first film after leaving MGM, and was quite different in style and content compared to what she had previously done. Could you tell us what you think of it and Garland’s performance? How do you place it in the history of the musical?
I think A Star is Born is a masterpiece and Garland was cheated out of an Oscar!
What do you think of Garland’s last film, I Could Go on Singing?
I think her last film, I Could Go on Singing, has a pretentious story, and Bogarde is not believable as a doctor.
As a person who is so knowledgeable about the Hollywood musical, what do you think of the musicals being made today?
I’m not at all happy with the musicals of today. Keep the bloody camera on the person singing or dancing, and stay away from the commercial editing!
Are you surprised by the growing interest in Judy Garland and her body of work over the years?
I’m not at all surprised by the growing interest in Garland and her body of work. People discovering her soon realize how great a talent she was.
In a word, who was Judy Garland?
In a word: Amazing!