Judy’s still here, thanks to Tommy Femia

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday January 20, 2010

"You've got to be known for something if you want to get anywhere," Tommy Femia likes to say. He celebrates his twentieth season of Judy Garland LIVE! at Don't Tell Mama, his home base in New York, this winter.

The energetic and still-youthful actor ("I'll have your legs broken if you tell them my real age!") never expected it to go as far as it has. "Every time I got a gig, I lit a candle and made the sign of the cross," Femia said of those early days.

Originally, a friend coaxed Femia to join him in a duet act of Ann Miller and Judy Garland. After a year or so, the friend moved on to other performing work and Femia decided to go solo with "Judy."

Since then, his impersonation has won him seven MAC Awards and brought him to sold-out engagements at such famed venues as The Cinegrill in Los Angeles, The Plush Room in San Francisco, Earle Hall in London and many others, including virtually every nightclub stage in New York.

Born and raised in Brooklyn (where his parents, married fifty-two years, still live, and who still attend all of his New York shows), Femia went to the High School of Performing Arts, where he graduated in a class with Suzanne Vega and Ving Rhames. "I was doing a play at night and school in the day," he recalled.

Femia later did a lot of dinner theater and bus and truck tours. In the late '70s and early '80s he lived in Los Angeles as the guardian of his younger brother, John, who was a child star on the sitcoms "Hello, Larry" and "Square Pegs." (John now performs stand-up comedy.) While there, Tommy himself appeared on "One Day at a Time" and "The Facts of Life."

Always a fan

Back in New York, Femia appeared off-Broadway in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Whoop-Dee-Doo! as well as several regional productions. As Judy Garland LIVE! began making an impact, Femia appeared on the talk shows of Montel Williams, Jerry Springer, and even co-hosted an episode of Geraldo Rivera's show.

"I've been a fan as long as I can remember," Femia said of Garland. "When she died, I was the only one in school wearing a black armband."

"Cabaret is scary shit," Femia went on to say, explaining why he chose to remain at Don't Tell Mama all these years. "Sidney Myer [the booking manager] is loving and nurturing. If I left, it would be like leaving my favorite it uncle." He remembered Myer encouraging him to do his show a few days after 9/11, telling him people needed escape. "The show was sold out," Femia said.

As for his part, Myer said, "I had the privilege of seeing and meeting Judy Garland and it was a life-changing experience. Tommy is keeping her alive for today's audience."

Indeed, one of the secrets to Femia's success is perhaps his insistence that Judy has never left us. In the show, he comments on Liza's recent Tony Award and doesn't sugar coat Garland's addictions, mining them for added comedy bits. "I recently did an engagement in Billings, Montana," Judy told the audience in a recent show. "And ladies and gentlemen, if you have the choice between going to Billings, Montana and going down in a plane crash, choose the plane crash. Honestly," she closed, pausing for comic effect, "there isn't a pill big enough."

Femia also includes songs that Garland might have sung had she lived. "I know what the kids want," she says, before launching into a Vegasized version of "The Greatest Love of All." Story continues on following page.

Watch Tommy Femia as Judy sing Liza's signature song, New York, New York.>

Rest cures, religions and pills

And perhaps even more fitting, "I'm Still Here" from Sondheim's Follies, with its lyric: "Reefers, and vino, rest cures, religion and pills, and I'm here." It makes one wish Garland had lasted long enough to sing it herself. Yet Femia's hand gestures, facial nuances, mic technique and roof-raising vocals with that signature vibrato, recall the real thing, and it is obvious to any viewer that-even with the jokes-the care taken with the impersonation is a loving tribute.

Fred Kaminski, a new fan, said after the show. "I'd heard so much about it and I was not disappointed. The sincerity and the jokes . . . the body language. And that voice: you just close your eyes and you can't tell the difference."

"I don't like doing a museum piece," Femia said of his portrayal. "I like to keep it relevant and do songs that she would have done. I like to change it so I don't get bored." Although the audience expects certain songs, he won't do them just because Garland did them. According to Femia, his biggest challenge is getting the makeup just right every week, a process that takes a couple of hours.

As for the family's reaction, Femia said Liza Minnelli was a friendly acquaintance. He recalled once going into the old piano bar 88s to do a few songs as Judy to promote his shows. He got through four numbers and only found out afterwards that Liza was sitting six feet in front of him, hidden by a phalanx of friends at her table. "The manager later told me that I had kind of freaked her out," Femia said. Liza herself allegedly once said of Femia, "He does Mama better than Mama did Mama."

As for Garland's other daughter, Lorna Luft . . . not exactly friends. "I made a joke about her at an awards show and she found out about it," he said. "She's probably just jealous because I get more work than she does."

Femia always has a special guest at his shows, a cabaret legend or a Broadway star, or, recently, columnist Michael Musto.

After his New York shows, Femia scrapes off the makeup and glitz, dons a baseball cap, and takes the train back to White Plains, where he lives with Doug, his partner of twenty-three years. "I spend the whole day in pajama pants and a sweatshirt when I'm at home," he said.

Tommy Femia appears in Judy Garland LIVE! at Don't Tell Mama every other Saturday through March. After that, he has a long engagement with Steven Brinberg (as Barbra Streisand) at the St. Germain Theatre in London, and then the two will play an engagement at San Francisco's Rrazz Room in the fall.

"As long as I'm not sick of it, I'll keep doing it," Femia said of his plans moving beyond the twenty-year mark. "It never gets dull playing someone who is completely out of her mind!"

Tommy Femia in Judy Garland LIVE! next appears at Don't Tell Mama on January 30 @ 8:30. Please check www.donttellmamanyc.com for additional appearances

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).