By Brad Dison
Frank Gumm was the owner of the New Grand theater in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. His wife, Ethel, was a former actress, pianist and singer. Together, they had three daughters, Suzanne, Virginia, and Frances. Being the youngest, the family called Frances “Baby.” With the help of their mother, the three Gumm sisters developed their voices and their ears for music. Before her third birthday, Baby showed an aptitude for singing and dancing. Even at such a young age, Baby was persistent and practiced constantly.
Just before Christmas, 1925, Baby decided that it was time to make her performance debut on amateur night at her father’s theater. If her parents made any attempt to dissuade her, it failed miserably. She was a determined three-year-old. She selected a seasonal song and rehearsed it numerous times in front of the family on the stairs which led to the second floor of their home. On the evening of the performance, Baby wore a white dress donned with sprigs of holly for a seasonal flare. Someone led her onto the stage and showed her where to stand. She waited patiently and calmly behind the curtain. Perhaps she had not yet reached the age when stage freight develops.
The curtains parted and the public got their first glance at Baby. Seeing such a small child alone on such a large stage must have been a curious sight. The crowd probably thought the performance was going to be just another “cute” act at which they were supposed to politely smile and clap. The orchestra gave Baby a chord as a vocal cue. That was all she needed. Baby began singing the song and the orchestra came in right on cue. As she sang “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All the Way,” the audience members’ eyebrows raised and their mouths dropped. Baby sang in perfect pitch, with perfect timing, and did not miss a single syllable of the lyrics. The crowd cheered as the song neared the ending and the orchestra played the last few notes. Baby’s successful debut was over, or so everyone thought.
As soon as the orchestra finished the last note, Baby began singing the song from the beginning again. The shocked conductor played along and led the orchestra through “Jingle Bells” a second time. Again, Baby performed it flawlessly. Just as before, the crowd cheered for Baby, but she was still not through. She started the song over and the orchestra played along again. She performed “Jingle Bells” the third time just as perfectly as her first two performances. Fearing that Baby would begin the song for a fourth time, her father marched out onto the stage, picked Baby up, and carried her backstage. Even over their cheering, the crowd chuckled as they heard Baby yelling from backstage, “I want to sing some more.” However, this was to be her only performance at her father’s New Grand Theater.
Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Lancaster, California, about an hour and a half north of Hollywood. Baby’s parents developed two different singing acts under different names. One act featured Baby’s sisters, while the other act featured her parents. For some unknown reason, Baby was not included in either act.
In 1926, when Baby was four years old, her parents enrolled her in a training program which prepared children for the stage. Baby’s talent and wit quickly drew attention. She tried out and got the feature role of Cupid in a production held in downtown Los Angeles. Vaudevillian performer Gus Edwards watched Baby perform and met her and her two sisters after the show. Their mother mentioned to Gus that Baby’s older sisters performed as a duo. Gus watched eagerly as Baby’s sisters performed a song from their act, followed by another song from Baby. At Gus’s suggestion, Baby and her sisters formed a trio.
The Gumm Sisters performed a wide variety of popular songs and became a popular act. “Gee, we had a lot of fun,” Baby remembered. “I was the smallest, so I was always in the middle with my arms around Suzanne and Virginia. If things seemed to be dull, I used to tickle them in the ribs. Virginia thought it was funny, but Suzanne took things more seriously. I certainly did catch it when we got off the stage.”
Ethel, acting as manager of the Gumm Sisters, drove the trio from California to Chicago to perform at the Oriental theater. “We were to have billing and everything,” Baby reminisced, “and did we get it! We no sooner arrived on the scene than we saw there, in lights on the marquee, a sign reading ‘The Glum Sisters.’” The girls were disheartened. George Jessel, another performer on the same bill, felt sorry for the girls. He suggested they change the name of their act. From then on, the trio performed under a new name. Soon thereafter, the trio dissolved when Suzanne, and then Virginia, married.
Baby, now twelve years old, went on vacation with her parents to Lake Tahoe. While there, she performed in a program at the lodge. A talent scout from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios happened to be at the performance. A few days later, the talent scout called and asked her to audition at the studio, as they were looking for girl singers.
Entering the grand gates of the movie studio would have intimidated most aspiring performers, but Baby remained calm. When she began singing at the audition, everyone within earshot stopped and listened. Baby had a “childish freshness, naturalness and enthusiasm.” More experts entered the room and she sang again. Then another group of experts listened. All of them agreed and suggested that Louis B. Mayer, head manager of MGM, give her an audition. Mayer, usually busy with a myriad of tasks, auditioned her on the spot. Baby sang beautifully and gracefully. Mayer immediately signed her to a film contract.
Baby went on to have a successful career in motion pictures, television, and as a recording artist. She starred as a farm girl from Kansas in one of the most beloved films of all time. You know Frances “Baby” Gumm by her world-famous stage name…Judy Garland.
- The Atlanta Constitution, October 6, 1940, p.53.