15 questions in 15 minutes with Lorna Luft
As the daughter of legendary Judy Garland and producer Sid Luft, and sister of Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft has been in the spotlight since birth. And that was just the start of his “fifteen minutes of fame” rehearsal cycle. In 1963, at age eleven, she made her CBS TV debut singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on the Christmas episode of The Judy Garland Show. At sixteen, she performed at the Palace Theater in New York with her mother, and in 1971 made her Broadway debut as a replacement cast member in the musical promises, promises at the Shubert Theatre. Luft also became a regular presence with Andy Warhol and his entourage at the famous Studio 54 nightclub in the 1970s-80s, and had her portrait painted by the Pop artist in 1983.
The singer and recording artist, stage and film actress, writer and producer has since made countless appearances around the world as a concert and cabaret performer, performing at such iconic venues as Carnegie Hall, The Hollywood Bowl, The London Palladium, and L’Olympia in Paris; as a star and guest star in popular movies and TV series such as Fat 2 and Where are the boys, The Murder She Wrote and Trapper John, MD; in Broadway, Off-Broadway, International, Touring and Regional productions of Snoopy the Musical, ends, They play our song, pack of lies, Gypsy, Fat, guys and dolls, Mom, The unsinkable Molly Brown, and many more; and as co-executive producer of the five-time Emmy Award-winning miniseries Life with Judy Garlandbased on his bestselling memoir me and my shadows.
In recent years, Luft has starred in American and British stage productions of Irving Berlin white christmas; his cabaret concert Songs My Mother Taught Me – The Judy Garland Songbook won two Ovation Awards and released on CD by First Night Records; and she performed numerous sold-out engagements at Feinstein’s/54 Below (downstairs from Studio 54). Next week, she will return to the first supper club for three nights, from March 31 to April 2, to sing The joy of spring – embracing change, perseverance through obstacles and life, with selections from the Great American Songbook, songs made famous by his mother and personal stories from his life in show business.
Lorna kindly spoke to me about her home in California for a fifteen-question Pop-quiz interview about the show, her career, and her fame.
- What about the Great American Songbook?
Lorna: We were the initiators and champions of musical theater in this country, with Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter. . . And Michael Feinstein coined the phrase. It’s an important part of our history, it’s what preceded us and we must not forget where we come from! A lot of schools don’t teach it, and that really bothers me, but now you can look it up online. It’s the fabric of who we are in American musical theatre.
- Is there a song that is your absolute favorite that you never get tired of playing?
No, I don’t have a song. It depends on the show I’m doing and his mood. Also, if you tell people your favorite, they think that means the others aren’t. I have a trunk full of gear and it’s nice to drag around a song that’s my favorite for the day!
- What three emotions do you feel when you go on stage?
Fear, number one. Excitation. And relief.
- What is your first creative memory?
I came from such a creative family, so my mother was always rehearsing; it was always happening around me. But from about eight years old until my teens, I knew all the songs on the radio and that was really important to me. Then in 1963, when the Beatles hit, these four guys were heaven’s door!
- What is your fondest memory of your mother?
I had her for sixteen years of my life, so I don’t have one, I think of her every day. Physically, she’s not there but she’s still on my shoulder. How to choose a souvenir? That’s why I wrote a book about her.
- You are rather Paulette Rebchuck (Fat 2), nurse Libby Kegler (Trapper John, MD), Martha Watson (Irving Berlin’s White Christmas), peppermint pancake (Snoopy the Musical), or Miss Adelaide (guys and dolls) in real life?
I’m not like any of them but I have a love in my heart for all of them, because I was able to find these characters and get inside their heads for quite a while. These were not one-night-only performances; I played Miss Adelaide for a very long time. And guys and dolls is an almost perfect show, so I love it.
- Which of the shows or roles you’ve done so far has been your favorite?
We had a pandemic and neither of us was able to work for eighteen months so when I got home I had the same feeling of fear I had when I was 20 wondering what was going to happen there, what was going to happen. I hate digital media, so going back to work brought me a sense of excitement and relief, to hear applause again. Singing at my daughter’s wedding is a moment I will always remember; it made me feel like I remember how to do this!
- What do you enjoy most about playing at Feinstein’s/54 Below?
I like the physicality of the piece. It is laid out without poor visibility; it’s brilliantly designed. I also like where it is; it’s great for people who live in New York and anyone who doesn’t live in New York. That’s where I started, and there’s nowhere to hide when you’re there; there is no character, it’s just you and a piano, so you have to be honest. A lot of other famous people said they could never do that. But that’s what we do, and we can’t say we didn’t write it, because yes, we did! And I love everyone who runs this room. They make it so easy and always say “Welcome home”.
- Is there a menu item you always order that you would recommend to customers?
It’s funny because I’ve never eaten there. I don’t like to eat before a show and then we have to leave when it’s over, for the next show to come. But I know all the chefs, and my musicians have eaten there and they say it’s fantastic!
- What three things do you always have in your closet?
Makeup (a lot). Costumes (lots of them). And photos of my grandchildren and children; those are the only personal things, the rest is regular show stuff.
- If you weren’t a performer, what would you be?
Something in the creative arts; I don’t know exactly what. I would never want to be a producer because money terrifies me. I don’t know if I would like the responsibility of being a director, but I love interacting with young artists, teaching them history, what I know and what I’ve learned, to keep going.
- What’s the most memorable reaction you’ve ever had from an audience member?
I’ve had so many audiences – good, bad and indifferent. Once when I was playing at the St. Regis, a couple started dancing before I came out, and I thought, “No! You can not do this ! Sit down!” That’s the wonderful thing about playing live – you never know. In Sacramento, I was doing white christmas, and someone went for my wig and grabbed it so fast I couldn’t get it back. So when I was on stage, I hid behind others, using them as a human shield to not be seen.
- What are the three things you value most in life?
The first is my health, because I’ve been battling breast cancer for eight years now and I’m lucky to have great doctors. Second, my children, my grandchildren, my husband and my family; it is reality. And the third thing I cherish is doing something for someone else every day. I feel like we’ve lost the human being to each other and it shouldn’t be just “me, me, me, me, me” like a singing lesson! So I appreciate being selfless, not selfish.
- What’s the hardest part of being famous?
I was born famous, I didn’t become famous, so I don’t know how not to be famous, but I never equate fame with talent, hard work or art. It’s addictive, like a drug, and it’s also fleeting and inconstant; it is a double-edged sword. One minute you can be on top, the next minute on the list of what happened to him.
When I was young, there was a mystery around movie stars, they were protected by the studios, their agents and their managers. We have always been taught to control our lives. Now, with all electronic devices, we no longer have privacy, so you have to make the choice to keep your privacy private. I admire people like Keanu Reeves, who do that. He’s a brilliant actor, he does publicity events when he has to promote his work, but nothing else is known about him; he’s not here for the wrong reasons. Once you’ve given up your privacy, you can’t go back. You shook hands, you made a deal. The idea of having cameras in my house, like reality TV, is horrible; so I guess I’m good at being a dinosaur! The reality is your family, your friends and the people who say no.
- What’s the most rewarding thing about fame?
I guess the fact that it has its benefits, but I don’t take it for granted. For example, if I make a reservation at a restaurant and they know my name, that’s nice. But I would never line up in front of anyone else.
I was very close friends with Andy Warhol and he was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He was smart enough to see the future, to know where he was going; he watched and recorded everything. When he said, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes,” no one believed him, but he was right. It happened with social networks. So that’s another thing that was gratifying; I was very lucky to have known Andy, I loved him and the people from The Factory, like Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, Bob Colacello and Fred Hughes. They were important and innovative; they started it all. I’m glad I was born when I was.
Thank you, Lorna, for a fabulous conversation and for doing something good today for our readers and me! It was a pleasure talking to you.
Lorna Luft: Joy of Spring plays Thursday, March 31 through Saturday, April 2, 2022, at Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54and Street, Cellar, NYC. For tickets (priced at $65-130, plus fees and a minimum of $25 per person for food and beverages), call (646) 476-3551 or meet in line. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination and photo ID are required to enter the building.