Your Activist was still a school boy in the early 1960s, probably the year 1964, when Judy Garland was booked to appear at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester.
The first Your Activist knew of this was to pick up the evening paper, the Leicester Mercury, which had an editorial style column called “Mr Leicester” (probably written by the Duty Editor of the day). This evening, Mr. Leicester was in top form. The City Council-run De Montfort Hall had booked Judy Garland for a concert later in the year. The tickets, which were usually in the range of ten to fifteen shillings, would be more than two whole pounds! Mr Leicester considered Judy Garland to be a has-been who nobody would want to see in the age of Beatlemania. The whole thing was going to lose a lot of money for the rate payers and would be a disaster.
The De Montfort Hall is a beautiful theatre, fit for a diva and certainly for a gay icon. In 1964 Judy Garland was already a gay icon. Two pounds ten shillings! That was a lot of money. But luckily a quick check of my money box revealed that I had enough left over from my last birthday and the previous Christmas. I went back downstairs, found the advertisement for the De Montfort Hall, and made a note of the phone number.
The following morning, at break (around 10.45 am), I sneaked out of school to use the telephone box just outside the school main gates. It was one of the old Press Button A – Press Button B type boxes. There was no subscriber trunk dialling, I don’t even remember a dial, you had to press a button and when the operator replied, ask the operator for the number you required, and they would try to connect you.
I got through to the De Montfort Hall. The tickets had only been on sale that morning and there was only one left. The kind gentleman on the other end of the phone said he would put it in an envelope for me, so that I could go into Leicester on the bus on Saturday morning and pick up (and pay for) my ticket.
The next evening, Mr Leicester was in full flow again. How lucky Leicester was to have such a clever marketing team at the City Council! The concert featuring Judy Garland had sold out in a single morning! The event would make a profit for the City Council and the rate payers. We were so fortunate to have such a first class facility!
Your Activist should point out that in 1964 we were still illegal and largely hidden from view. What had happened was simple. Leicester has a railway station which is on the rail line running from Birmingham in the West Midlands to Norwich and Cambridge in East Anglia. Gay pubs the length of the line had spotted the advertisement in their evening paper, put parties together, and phoned up the following morning to book the tickets! But the Leicester Mercury would not have known.
The evening of the concert came, after some weeks. The Hall was packed to overflowing. Almost the entire audience wore red shirts, the traditional colour for gay men going to the theatre (so those on stage would know where the gays were in the audience). The first half of the concert featured an orchestra and singer, and was very politely received, but everyone had really come to see Judy Garland – but knowing her many problems, nobody really believed that she would actually appear.
The audience resumed their seats after the interval, the orchestra struck up – then Judy Garland walked on stage. After a few seconds of stunned silence the audience leapt to their feet and there was a sheer torrent of cheering and noise. The cheering and applause went on for more than a minute and Judy could not begin her set because of the noise. Then she signalled to the house manager to turn the auditorium lights up so she could see the audience. Eventually the noise subsided and the audience sat down. You could have heard a pin drop. Then she just said, quietly, “Hello girls,” and set the whole audience off again.
Since the days of Judy Garland, gay icons have come and gone. There are theories that the Stonewall Riot in New York – which was led by members of a well known American drag troupe – was sparked off because the police actually decided to raid the bar so close to Judy Garland’s funeral. These are the dates: Judy Garland died on June 22nd 1969 in Chelsea, London, Judy’s body was flown to the states and her funeral, after 20,000 people lined up for hours at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan to pay their respects, was held on June 27th 1969, and the Stonewall raid took place on June 28 1969.
Updated 18 November 2014: Photos no longer available