A REAL GONE BRIDGE: Judy Garland's 1959 Remake of "San Francisco" Turns 60
For four weeks in 1952 — from 26 May to 22 June — Judy Garland was in residency at the Curran Theater, in San Francisco.
The Curran show marked the end of an extremely successful 1951-52 concert tour — a tour which itself marked a comeback for Garland, who had “left” MGM in September 1950 after 15 years.
According to Scott Schechter’s meticulous and indispensable account, Judy Garland: The Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Legend (Cooper Square Press, 2002), it was seven years before Judy Garland would return to perform in San Francisco. The occasion was an 11-night stand that began 60 years ago today at the War Memorial Opera House. The run was from 1 July to 11 July 1959.
At this 1959 engagement, Garland introduced a version of a 23-year-old San Francisco song that was so new as to be…new.
Here’s an ad for the show that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Here are some leafs from the program:
In 1959 — as in 1952 — a key figure behind the scenes was Roger Edens (1905-1970), who had been Garland’s personal accompanist, musical director and mentor since Garland signed with MGM in 1935.
Edens, who was gay, was one of the most influential creative figures of Hollywood’s golden era. He received numerous Academy Award nominations for film scores and songs. He won the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, three years running, in 1948, ‘49 and ‘50 — for Easter Parade, On the Town and Annie Get Your Gun.
In the 1950s, Edens worked on Showboat (1951) — it was Edens who discovered William Warfield, who sang “Ol’ Man River” in the film — An American in Paris (1952) and Singin’ in the Rain (1953).
In 1957, Edens was the producer of Funny Face, with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.
Earlier, Edens wrote “It’s a Great Day for the Irish” for Garland, who sang the song in the film Little Nellie Kelly (1940).
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Indeed, Roger Edens wrote and arranged an abundance of special material for Judy Garland to sing in concert and television appearances.
This included in 1959, when Edens’ new version of “San Francisco” — the chestnut title song of the 1936 film — was added as an encore for Garland’s Opera House shows. (The song originally was composed by Branislaw Kaper and Walter Jurmann, with lyrics by Gus Kahn.)
The emphasis here is on “version.”
As originally sung by Jeanette MacDonald in the film — where MacDonald co-starred with Clark Gable — “San Francisco” is a singalong, in which the song leader — MacDonald — veers from Al Jolson-esque pleading to high operatic bleating (albeit of a high quality).
When “San Francisco” is sung today, at events like the annual earthquake commemoration at Lotta’s Fountain, the song tends less towards singalong than to sing-song — with a slow, plodding, metronymic beat born largely of the fact that few people know all the words.
Roger Edens dialed up the tempo and dialed up the swing.
It was the addition of big “bookend” sections written and composed by Edens that made “Judy’s” version totally new!
The encore opened:
I never will forget Jeanette MacDonald
Just to think of her, it gives my heart a pang
I never will forget how that brave Jeanette
Just stood there in the ruins and sang
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On the flip side of Garland’s fast, swinging take on the MacDonald original is the showstopping heart of Eden’s new version of “San Francisco”:
Right when I arrive
I really come alive
And you will laugh to see me
Perpendicular, hanging on a cable car
Let me beat my feet
Up and down Market Street
I'm gonna climb Nob Hill, just to watch it get dark
From the Top of the Mark
There's Brooklyn Bridge, London Bridge
And The Bridge of San Luis Rey
But the only bridge, that's a real gone bridge
Is the bridge across the bay (to….)
San Francisco, I'm coming home again
Never to roam again, by gum
San Francisco, I don't mean Frisco
San Francisco, here I come!
Here’s Judy’s fabulous take, from The Judy Garland Show (CBS), which aired on 25 February 1962.
A couple of key footnotes…
“By gum” is a winking reference to Judy Garland’s birth name: Frances Gumm.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a 1927 novel by Thornton Wilder.
The bridge across the bay (to)
would be the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge — what, around here, we like to call the Emperor Norton Bridge.
But, it’s reasonable to guess that the “real gone bridge” that Roger Edens had in mind was the Golden Gate Bridge.
As to “Frisco”…
There’s no evidence that Judy Garland herself had any opinion, one way or the other, about what to call San Francisco.
Indeed, it’s worth bearing in mind that Roger Edens wrote the line “I don’t mean Frisco” in 1959. This was just six years after the publication of Herb Caen’s 1953 book, Don’t Call It Frisco — and thus was at the cultural high-water mark of anti-”Frisco” sentiment in San Francisco.
Most likely, Edens simply was being media-savvy and tapping into what he understood to be public sentiment — and what he thought could get applause.
No doubt, the crowds at the Opera House ate it up.