She was one of the biggest and most popular movie stars of all time, making her first film appearance at the age of seven and earning the first of three Oscar nominations at 17 for her starring role in what may well be the best-loved American movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz. She was also a prolific recording star, selling millions of records and winning five Grammy awards in a single year nearly three decades after starting out as one of the youngest performers ever signed to a major record label. These accomplishments alone would be enough to impress anyone who was somehow unfamiliar with her work, but “to experience Judy Garland’s full power,” as the PBS series American Masters put it, “one had to be in the auditorium when she brought her God-given gifts to bear on a suddenly unified collection of strangers.” Never did Judy Garland so unify a collection of strangers than on this day in 1961 during the famous Carnegie Hall performance often called “the greatest night in showbiz history.”
The raucous standing ovation that greeted Judy Garland when she took the stage that night at Carnegie Hall set the tone for the evening that followed. “They were on their feet even before the goddess grabbed the microphone,” wrote Lewis Funke for the New York Times. “And then she sang,” wrote Judith Christ for the New York Herald, “And she sang, let it be reported, as she hasn’t in years.” She sang 27 numbers in front of the rapturous crowd that night and was frequently interrupted by extended ovations. Was it merely the quality of Garland’s performance that night that earned her such an incredible reception? Perhaps it was, but it is also fair to note that the concert took place on the one night a week that Broadway performers have off—Sunday night—and that the audience was therefore, to say the least, a friendly one.
Judy Garland’s performance on this night in 1961 was captured on a live recording that would go on to spend 95 weeks on the U.S. album charts (including 13 weeks at #1) and sweep the 1962 Grammys. But the experience of seeing it live was clearly something else entirely. “She’ll be back in May,” wrote Frank Aston for the New York World-Telegram. “Try to get tickets. Just try. This kid is still a killer.”