How the Joy and Melancholy of an Ohio Childhood Shaped Vincente Minnelli’s Movies

The Oscar-winning director, husband of Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli drew inspiration from his youth in Delaware, Ohio.

Peter Tonguette
Director Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland (left) with their daughter, Liza Minnelli, in 1965

As dusk approaches on Halloween, trick-or-treaters begin to mass on leaf-strewn sidewalks in Delaware, Ohio. Above them, an overcast sky looms, and all around them can be heard distant bird calls that seem to beckon any ghosts, goblins or witches who might be in the area.

Dressed variously as cats, skeletons and superheroes, the children trudge from one pumpkin-bedecked Victorian house to another in this college town north of Columbus, home to Ohio Wesleyan University. Grown-ups bearing candy sit on their front porches or lawns; some have bonfires going to keep everyone toasty. Flashlights appear as darkness sets in.

It’s an iconic American scene, memorialized in countless pop cultural ways, from Peanuts to Stranger Things. But perhaps no storyteller captured it better than the filmmaker Vincente Minnelli, who was born in Chicago but spent much of his youth right here in Delaware.

In 1944, Minnelli directed the classic MGM musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring his first wife, Judy Garland. Because the story unfolds in just under a year—from the summer of 1903 to the spring of 1904—Minnelli incorporates the changing seasons. Among the holidays represented is Halloween, which Minnelli evokes in all of its dark splendor in a famously terrifying passage: rustling leaves, a blazing bonfire, young people dressed up and on the lookout for trouble. “There’s something magical with that film—how it can capture the joy and melancholy, and the melancholy of joy, and just contradictory emotional states simultaneously,” says Chris Stults, associate curator of film/video at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

And, for Minnelli, the source of that joy and melancholy seems to have been Delaware, memories of which informed “Meet Me in St. Louis” and several of his other great films. “It was a university town set in a semirural area of truck farms which serviced Columbus,” Minnelli recalled in his memoir, “I Remember It Well” (a reference to the song in the musical “Gigi,” which Minnelli filmed with Leslie Caron in 1958 and for which he won his only Best Director Oscar). “Its houses were furnished in bilious green overstuffed sofas, tiny rosebuds in its ceiling and wall paper and pongee curtains which were so serviceable year-round.”

One of the houses in which young Minnelli lived, on North Washington Street, also influenced “Meet Me in St. Louis.” “It wasn’t as American Gothic as the one in ‘Meet Me in St. Louis,’” wrote Minnelli, whose name at birth was Lester Anthony Minnelli (“Vincente” was an invention arrived at later on). “In fact it was rather ordinary.” But squint and you can see it: the front porch, the yellow siding, the blue trim …

On Halloween this year, that house, which still stands and bears an Ohio Historical Marker calling it the “Meet Me in St. Louis Home,” looks to be a favored destination for the swarms of trick-or-treaters. A giant dinosaur romps around in front of the house where, over a century earlier, a future moviemaker was collecting bits of inspiration.

As a filmmaker, Minnelli easily jumped between genres—his repertoire included musicals (“An American in Paris”), melodramas (“Some Came Running”), romantic comedies (“Father of the Bride”), even a farce starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (“The Long, Long Trailer”). But no matter what kind of movie he was making, he assured it was made with consummate care: the actors positioned just so, the costumes and sets exactingly designed, the camera’s movement plotted out to the last inch.

“The way he composed a frame was really something,” says Columbus-born singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, who knew Minnelli and is good friends with his daughter with Garland, Liza Minnelli. “He understood the Technicolor, and how to shoot something, and understood the way it would appear on-screen.”

“It’s amazing to me just how smoothly he makes that transition from musicals to melodramas,” says Dave Kehr, curator of the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art. “He just steps right into it; he’s good at it right away. He’s using a lot of the same techniques, such as that kind of Broadway expressionism where everything radiates from the emotions of the central character.”

Delaware, Ohio, might seem like an unlikely point of origin for an artist as stylish, refined and discerning as Minnelli. But the small town, in fact, was home base for multiple generations of his family, which boasts a rich lineage in music and theater. In 1848, Vincente’s grandfather, Vincenzo Minnelli, emigrated from Italy, arriving in New York smuggled aboard a fruit steamer. He didn’t stay on the East Coast for long, however. A musician who worked as a kind of professional demonstrator of pianos for the now-defunct Wm. Knabe & Co. piano manufacturer, Vincenzo was dispatched to Delaware to perform for the public at Ohio Wesleyan. The trip had lasting implications: Vincenzo married a local girl, Nina, and eventually ran the music department at the university.

His grandson never knew his grandfather, who died in 1877, but in “I Remember It Well,” Vincente describes him as “the town eccentric.” “He was said to walk to work, singing to himself, whacking at flowers along the way with his rattan cane,” Minnelli wrote. “He might look back half a block later, and come running back to administer the coup de grace to any flowers he missed along the way.”

What the locals thought of so flamboyant a figure is impossible to say, but Vincenzo’s sons, Vincent Charles and Frank, were certainly not dissuaded from the artistic life: Vincent Charles was a musician; Frank, a press representative with the Barnum & Bailey circus. In 1902, the year before Vincente was born, came the formation of the siblings’ traveling theater troupe, which achieved renown as the Minnelli Brothers Tent Theater in tours throughout Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. In Chicago in 1903, Vincent Charles and his wife, Tent Theater leading lady Mina Mary LaLouche LeBeau Minnelli, became parents to Lester, later known as Vincente. Three elder brothers had each died young, leaving two sons: Paul and Vincente.

In his memoir, Vincente puckishly recalled his parents’ productions. “We did pirated versions of Broadway shows, and we didn’t pay royalties,” Minnelli wrote. “I was an active conspirator, playing all the child parts, many of them walk-ons. I’d squirm uneasily in mother’s lap as she put the makeup on my face. If I didn’t have to perform, she would put me to bed before the evening’s performance.”

Feinstein, who has researched the Minnelli Brothers Tent Theater, was surprised to find what a big deal the troupe was. “It wasn’t like a small production,” Feinstein says. “It was a huge undertaking that would park somewhere for a long time, and they had thousands of people and spectacle. That’s what Vincente grew up in.”

This transient upbringing—the family went from place to place all summer long—gave Vincente a unique perspective on show business. “When Vincente was just a chubby little fellow we began taking him with us on our summer stock tours,” Vincent Charles told The Columbus Dispatch in 1935. As a boy, Vincente would watch the male actors put makeup on. “Before the season was over, the cast would not go on without Vincente’s OK of their makeup,” his father recalled. “If he said ‘eyebrows too black’ or ‘not enough red,’ the change would be made to suit him.” In his biography “Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer,” author Emanuel Levy wrote of Vincente intently observing his mother on stage, but, when he got sleepy, “he would slip into her wardrobe trunk for a catnap.”

It was a jolt, then, to return to the real world during the winters, when Vincente lodged with grandparents. His paternal grandmother, Vincenzo’s widow, lived in the so-called “Meet Me in St. Louis” home on North Washington Street.

“I lived with my paternal grandmother in Delaware during my first year in school, arriving from the summer tour after the term had started,” Minnelli wrote. “Never was I made to feel more unwelcome. I withered under the curious stares of my new classmates.”

Curious stares notwithstanding, Delaware became the default home for the family when the Minnelli Brothers Tent Theater faced headwinds from a new medium. “I’ve often thought what was driving his parents into financial difficulties with the tent shows was that you had a new thing called the movies,” says Brent Carson, a 74-year-old retired teacher and Delaware historian who has researched the Minnelli family’s years in Delaware.

Seeking to add some stability to their lives, Vincent Charles and Mina made a permanent move to Delaware when Vincente was about 8, first to Vincente’s grandmother’s house on North Washington Street and eventually to other residences in town. The tent theater finally stopped performing altogether in 1922, The Dispatch reported.

Despite the end of his theatrical itinerant life, Vincente nurtured his artistic gifts in Delaware. In his memoir, he remembered being 13 when he got a gig to repaint an advertising curtain for a Delaware movie theater. And he continued to perform. At Delaware High School, where he spent his senior year, he won the role of Deadeye Dick in a student production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.” The 1921 yearbook entry for Minnelli describes him about as you might imagine: “From the crown of his head to the soul [sic] of his foot, he is all mirth.”

“He was certainly very dramatic, even walking down the street,” Carson says. “I’ve heard the stories that he was a little bit eccentric.”

In Delaware, Minnelli’s family may have found a comfortable way station in their nomadic lives—Mina, his mother, came to run a dance school on North Sandusky Street—but Vincente was bound for bigger things. Foregoing college, Minnelli decamped to Chicago. There, he was hired to design the store windows at the Marshall Field’s department store. “Despite their safe and traditional look, the windows at Marshall Field were considered the finest in the country, looked up to even by New York,” wrote Minnelli, who parlayed the gig into a job as a set and costume designer at theaters in the Balaban and Katz chain. That led to similar positions in New York, including at Radio City Music Hall, and soon he was directing on Broadway.

Despite the distance between Delaware and the Great White Way, Feinstein believes that Minnelli’s early exposure to the theater in Ohio and parts adjacent was good preparation for his later triumphs. “When you are among an audience like that, you learn what works, what doesn’t work,” Feinstein says. “He was primed to go to Broadway, and he brought with him an understanding of what appealed to the unwashed masses.”

On the strength of his burgeoning Broadway career, Minnelli was courted by Hollywood, but a brief sojourn at Paramount in the 1930s came to nothing. After a spell, he resumed his stage work back East until MGM producer Arthur Freed, sure that he belonged behind a camera, managed to get him signed at the studio.

Within a few years of making his film debut with “Cabin in the Sky” in 1943, Minnelli had directed three classic films: “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the glorious wartime romance “The Clock” (1945) and the Cole Porter musical “The Pirate” (1948)— all starring his first wife, Judy Garland, whom he had met some years earlier, coaxed into giving a magnificent performance in “Meet Me in St. Louis” (a project she was not at first keen to do) and, as he wrote in his memoir, was living with by the time he entered the cutting room.

“Liza always said that he made [her mother] beautiful on-screen,” Feinstein says. “He brought out not only her beauty and her humor, but he was able to show a part of her inner soul, to reveal a part of her through the flat or cold medium of cinema.”

Minnelli and Garland divorced in 1951, but that decade was, in some respects, even more fruitful for the director than the one that preceded it. During the year of his divorce from Garland, he directed “An American in Paris,” starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron swaying to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. Minnelli took pains to diversify his output with a series of potent, lushly realized melodramas, including “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), “The Cobweb” (1955) and his masterpiece, “Some Came Running” (1958), starring Frank Sinatra as Dave Hirsh, a writer who fled his small hometown in Indiana but makes a disastrous return appearance years later. Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine co-star in the movie, which has long been a favorite among filmmakers.

One fan is Richard Linklater, director of “Before Sunrise” and “Dazed and Confused,” who first saw “Some Came Running” at a screening in Austin, Texas, in the 1980s. “It was just so beautiful and sophisticated and got to me,” says Linklater, who, ever since, has made it something of a mission to make the movie better known. “You’ve got to carry the torch for some film. For some reason, ‘Some Came Running’ has been mine.”

In February 2000, he introduced the film at the Wexner Center, where, he says, the audience was receptive—as they are in most places. “His films age well,” says Linklater, who sees the film as the ultimate story of an artist confronting the limitations of his background.

“No one in that town, none of your relatives, nobody is on your wavelength artistically,” Linklater says. “To go outside that, and then to come back to that—you’re the prodigal son returning. … When Dave [Sinatra] returns, he’s hitting up against just small-town American conservatism. There’s a pettiness in the air.”

Minnelli called on memories of Delaware when making “Some Came Running,” but to darker ends than in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” For the tragic carnival climax of "Some Came Running," he tapped memories of carnivals back home, as he wrote in his memoir. “Booths would be set up in front of the stores on Sandusky—Delaware’s main street—and spread over onto West Winter,” Minnelli wrote. “A merry-go-round and Ferris wheel would be set up nearby. Banners and bunting would transform the dreary business streets during these fall pumpkin shows. People would come from as far away as Marion and Worthington.”

Dean Martin’s daughter Deana remembers her father telling her about Minnelli’s typically scrupulous approach to filming during that key carnival scene. “My dad said that Vincente looks through the camera, comes back and goes, ‘OK, wait a minute: Move the Ferris wheel 10 feet to the left!’” Deana Martin recalls.

By the 1960s, old-school directors like Minnelli were increasingly out of place in Hollywood. Unmoored from MGM, his studio since his earliest days, he foundered on subpar projects elsewhere, such as the Tony Curtis comedy “Goodbye Charlie” (1964) and a fatally underfunded collaboration with Liza, “A Matter of Time” (1976). Apart from the massive fame of Liza, who won a Best Actress Academy Award for “Cabaret” in 1973 at the age of 27, Vincente started to fade into the background. Maybe that suited him. “He was so modest and receding,” says MoMA film curator Kehr, who was introduced to Minnelli at the Chicago Film Festival in 1970.

Feinstein met Minnelli in 1977, and even then, saw signs of some decline. He was supposed to direct a tribute to the Gershwins at Carnegie Hall, but, Feinstein says, could not, “because he already had symptoms of what was later discovered to be Alzheimer’s.” Feinstein still remembers Minnelli as a “very sweet, charming man.” He died at age 83 in 1986.

Minnelli’s was a life of contradictions. He made a musical that celebrated hearth and home, and a melodrama that questioned the same. He was bursting with creativity yet dependent on Hollywood to express that creativity. He was married to four women and was the father to two children—Liza and Christiane, a daughter with second wife Georgette Magnani—but, according to his biographer Levy, also had relationships with men during his New York years. “Still uncertain about his sexual orientation, Minnelli found it useful to have brief encounters that seldom involved commitment on any level, not even sexual,” wrote Levy, noting that Minnelli had liaisons with men during his marriage to Garland. Levy also observed that gay directors in Hollywood, such as George Cukor, had to live closeted lives or face industry blowback. No one can say to what extent Minnelli conformed his personal life to the demands of his professional existence.

Stults of the Wexner Center says that several Minnelli films scrutinize American masculinity, such as the intriguing but flawed melodrama “Tea and Sympathy” (1956), about a young man cruelly ridiculed for being, by the lights of society at the time, effeminate. That film asks, Stults says, “How can a more sensitive man, queer-coded, exist within the masculine culture?”

In his memoir, Minnelli himself sounds at peace with the multitudes within him. He wrote that he admired the example of fellow store window designers at Marshall Field’s, from whose example he learned “that one could happily function as the male animal and still give vent to his so-called feminine traits. As a result, I wasn’t cowed at this impressionable age into more conventionally male avenues of expression. I’m thankful for that. I’d make a miserable football coach.”

Yet he grew up not far from the ultimate football town, Columbus. What did he think of this heritage, if anything? In 1994, Carson, the Delaware historian, found a way to meet Liza Minnelli, briefly in town to perform at what was then the Polaris Amphitheatre, and present her with a scrapbook of his research. Carson spent 40 minutes backstage with a fascinated Liza. When she looked at a photograph of the house on North Washington Street, she marveled. “She said, ‘Look, it has that rolling yard with the steps that go up to a front porch. … It’s just like he described it,’” Carson recalls. “She said, ‘I’ve never seen it before.’ And I asked her again, ‘You mean that’s what they copied the movie from?’ She said, ‘That’s what he said’—that they copied it from this house.”

Liza looked at renderings of the family plot. “She said something like, ‘You know, the sad thing is, I don’t know these people. Of course, my parents were show people, and we just didn’t talk about it,’” remembers Carson, who, by the end of their encounter, asked Liza to promise she would make a later trip to Delaware. “Unfortunately,” he says, “she never has.”

Perhaps that’s not surprising. Maybe Delaware is just so, so long ago in the story of Vincente Minnelli. “Like many people, he reinvented himself when he went to New York and came to Hollywood,” Feinstein says.

Then again, look at “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which, after all, is not really thought of as a Halloween movie. It’s a Christmas movie—maybe the best one ever made. Watch those Christmas scenes, especially the moment when Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The song’s tentative optimism—“Through the years we all will be together / If the fates allow”—is particularly poignant, because the family in the movie still plans to pick up stakes for New York. Through the lyrics, Garland is wondering where they will be—how they will be—a year from now. It’s a lament for home, and for Vincente Minnelli, Delaware was as close to home as any place on Earth.

This story is from the December 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.