BEHIND THE SCENES AT METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER . . .MORE THAN (BUT BARELY!) EIGHTY YEARS AGO

BEHIND THE SCENES AT METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER . . .MORE THAN (BUT BARELY!) EIGHTY YEARS AGO 

by John Fricke

[Above: This is a familiar setting, to be sure, but here it’s been captured in one of its quieter moments: no green-clad townspeople, no coachman, no horse-of-any-color! Of course, one can see at least three (maybe four) stand-ins for the actors, plus a caught-in-the-act studio workman — all of them preparing to rehearse “The Merry Old Land of Oz” musical number at MGM, eighty years ago. Note the painted backdrop out the door, the bell-pull, and especially the fixtures above the set pieces. Metro had to hook up extra generators outside the OZ soundstages in order to power the scores of lights required to film in early three-strip Technicolor.]

Across the past couple of months, this blog has focused on current Oz news and events, specifically (and understandably) the anticipatory – and joyously fulfilled – excitement attendant to the 2019 OZ-Stravaganza! in Chittenango, NY.  Throughout my days and nights as emcee and presenter for that festival, however, I was confronted again and again by single-minded attendees, all of whom had ONE topic on which they wanted to happily focus.  (Truth be told, it’s been the same at every other locale in which I’ve thus far performed since January.) And the bottom line? Everybody is exhilarated at the thought — and wants to talk about the fact — that this year marks the eightieth anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ motion picture. 😊

Thus, in keeping with all the fan fascination, the blog this month looks way back to 1939, and I hope it will please the MGM adherents among its readers! I’m most certainly always delighted to share information about and material from the movie, and we’ve selected pictures of some of the extraordinary behind-the-scenes underpinnings that helped to make Metro’s OZ timeless, unique, unforgettable, and loved.

[Here’s another example of the amazing lighting equipment required to film THE WIZARD OF OZ just over eighty years ago. By actual count, there are several dozen “lamps” in play here, and this is just one corner of the set. It’s all the more remarkable when one realizes that the battlements and exteriors of the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West were among the darkest scenes in the picture.]

The photo above is reasonably self-explanatory, but in just the casual, between “takes” moment captured here, one can find plenty to examine: Winkie guards, Metro technicians, a bit of another painted backdrop – and a portion of one of the set pieces, used on-screen as an unsuccessful escape route by Dorothy and her friends.

How about an opportunity to examine the marvelous throne-room console of the Wizard himself – without the actors and their irate action (“You humbug!”) in the foreground? Surely the “old Kansas man” himself must have done some early investigation into the real-world magic of scientists, inventors, and creators like Thomas Alva Edison & Company to hook up such a wonder-working piece of equipment. If we are to believe what we see in the movie (and doesn’t everybody?), the whiz-of-a-wiz could stand right there, “behind the curtain,” and set off fire, smoke, and sound effects, image projection, and echoing voice amplification. He’s not only a very good man . . . he’s also a very good Wizard – at least when supported by the expertise of MGM’s technical and FX staff. (And here’s a shout-out to A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie, who oversaw the studio’s special effects department, and who personally made a lot of OZ “work,” in many ways that no one else could have done at that time. And probably since.)

Finally, we have glimpses of two Ozian sites you never saw in the finished movie. The cornfield crossroads is shown here as it looked when director Richard Thorpe began filming THE WIZARD OF OZ in October 1938. Two weeks later, he was relieved of his duties; the film’s producer, Mervyn LeRoy felt that the “rushes” of OZ thus far lacked the right touch of fantasy. He was also displeased at the fact that Thorpe seemed to be leading the actors in incorrect interpretations, especially the blonde-bewigged, overly-rouged, and “fancy/schmancy” Dorothy Gale. With Thorpe spirited away to Palm Springs (and away from inquisitions about OZ “problems” from local columnists), ace director George Cukor came in for a week of corrective suggestions. These included revisions to the appearance of Judy Garland, Ray (Scarecrow) Bolger, and Margaret (Wicked Witch) Hamilton – and even a revamping of the cornfield set. The next time you watch the movie, compare the still above to what appears on your screen. In the actual film, the legendary Yellow Brick Road is neater and curbed; the field itself is glamorized (and includes pumpkins); and the oval floorwork has been swapped out for something that actually looks like bricks – and not bathroom tiling!

Also above: Here’s another self-explanatory visual; just notice the reference board in the foreground that designates the set as the “Jitter Bug Forest.” In this space, the upbeat, jazzy, swing-sounding “Jitter Bug” production number took place, with the four leading actors forced to wildly bop around after being stung by an animated, pink-and-blue-spotted insect. The “Bug” then left them to the mercies of the ruthless trees – not to mention the men inside the trunks who manipulated them. (Hey – they were just doing their jobs!))

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I have been asked many times why I think THE WIZARD OF OZ continues its hold on so many (literally) hundreds of millions of people — from those still with us who saw it in 1939 to those who remember its theatrical reissues in 1949, 1955, or more recent years. Of course, the same fascination is felt by those who’ve only viewed it on “the small screen,” in some of its forty network telecasts between 1956 and 1998, or in its countless revivals since then on cable, or in its (literally) billions of home-video encounters  . . . whether on Beta, VHS, laser disc, DVD, or via streaming services.

WHY does it endure? Well, here’s one component: There are millions and billions of joys in its approximately 145,440 frames of film. Those frames rush by pretty quickly, of course; but the thrills are there to behold – and to try to glimpse.  Hopefully, the more static images above will offer a “happy anniversary” opportunity to more-closely examine some of the behind-the-scene wonders of the merry old land of MGM. They certainly contribute to the overall and incomparable rainbow of delight that is THE WIZARD OF OZ . . .

EIGHT DECADES LATER!

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[And here’s a low bow and hat-doff to those involved in OZ set and prop design, execution, and decoration: Jack Martin Smith, Cedric Gibbons, William A. Horning, Edwin B. Willis, Jack McMaster, Hal Millar, Franklin Milton, Lorey Yzuel, Randall Duell, George Gibson, Henry Greutert . . . and any/all of their compatriots!]

 

IN THE MERRY (HAPPY, JOLLY, AND JAM-PACKED) OLD LAND OF OZ-STRAVAGANZA!

IN THE MERRY (HAPPY, JOLLY, AND JAM-PACKED) OLD LAND

OF OZ-STRAVAGANZA!

by John Fricke

 

 

Dear Oz Fans (especially any/all of you who attended OZ-Stravaganza! earlier this month):

To lift a phrase from legendary Oz book author Ruth Plumly Thompson: “How do you do? And how do you do it?!” That query is prompted here by reports of the official attendance figure for the 2019 Chittenango, NY, festival. It — once again — topped thirty-thousand people.

Thirty-thousand people.

Plus!

And all of them jubilantly gathered in the birthplace of L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), the man who “invented” Oz.

The special guests were dazzling. The diverse explorations of Oz were gleefully welcomed. The live music proved to be thrilling. The parade, contests, vendors, booths, food, rides, and all such celebratory activities were joyous. The weather (well, except for those last couple of hours on Sunday!) was beautifully cooperative.

But the happiness hallmarks were achieved by the participatory presence of the all-ages crowds who love Oz (on any level) and who turned out to have a good time. I think they got a great one.

The invited musical guests highlighted the presentations. Ruby Rakos, who’s been starring as the young Judy Garland in the tryout engagements of the new stage musical, CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ, recounted the evolution of her own Broadway career and then sang four Garland standards: “I’m Nobody’s Baby” and “I Don’t Care” in Judy’s fondly-remembered arrangements, Ruby’s singular approach to “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” and the CHASING RAINBOWS-crafted version of “Over the Rainbow.” The audience twice stood to applaud the ebullient entertainer, and their genuine enthusiasm was such that it would have been possible to sell scores of tickets right on the spot for the forthcoming production of the Garland show. CHASING RAINBOWS plays at the renowned Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, NJ, from September 26th-October 27th; don’t miss it.

Songwriter/arranger/orchestrator Steve Margoshes created further musical magic by premiering the two latest repertoire additions from his forthcoming CD, NEW SONGS FROM OZ. “The Oz Tones” quartet debuted “The Fabulous Wizard of Oz” at the Friday evening OZ-Strav! presentation and brought down the house with their harmonies, ham, and combination of sound and sight gags – all intrinsic to the Margoshes composition. Never failing to delight their listeners, “The Oz Tones” reprised the number along Saturday’s parade route and, again, after the parade on the Oz Park Main Stage. (They also recorded it under sublime professional conditions at Subcat Studios on the Thursday prior to the festival.) Saturday night at the high school, Matthew Baum potently performed the heartfelt — and how! — Margoshes ballad, “Tin Man,” scoring both a personal success and another music-and-lyric triumph for its songwriter.

Elsewhere on the bill, the local Jean Elaine School of Dance won cheers for their award-winning WIZARD OF AHHS choreography and interpretations. The preteen and teenage terpsichoreans offered ample proof of the potency of Baum’s characters and stories, especially as recreated with such élan and choreographic savvy. Author Roger Baum, great-grandson of L. Frank, was honored on the thirtieth anniversary of his first Oz book, DOROTHY OF OZ, and the fifth anniversary of its animated-feature-film incarnation, LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN. Designer Shawn Ryan held forth at the All Things Oz Museum and Baum’s Bazaar Gift Shop, introducing visitors to his professional replications of the ruby slippers and Glinda and Wicked Witch of the West costumes, first seen in MGM’s 1939 film, THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Other splendid moments sparkled across the weekend. A reading room in the Museum was officially dedicated to (and named after) librarian/educator Clara Houck, who devised and produced the first local celebration of native son L. Frank Baum forty-two years ago. That two-hour costume-and-cake party – and Clara’s passion — evolved into the annual three-day weekend now known as OZ-Stravaganza! Additionally, two beautiful bronze plaques were unveiled in the Museum’s front window to further commemorate Baum, as well as several of the Munchkin actors from the 1939 film, who headlined the Chittenango festivities from the late 1980s until just a few years ago.

Given the fact that 2019 marks the eightieth anniversary of THE WIZARD OF OZ film, OZ-Strav! also offered a special remembrance program about those “little people.” For many seasons, it was their announced attendance that really put the annual festival on the map for hundreds of thousands of fans. So Colleen Zimmer and I described the joys of their company across the decades we knew and worked with them — and briefly brought eight of them “back” to Central New York State in video clips from the 1993 documentary, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS.

Finally . . . . It’s no secret that those who return to Chittenango year after year have made of OZ-Stravaganza! its own special, annual family reunion. It’s equally true, as with any multi-generational gathering, that some of our original and treasured family members are no longer with us to rhapsodize and reminisce, among them Clara Houck and such “incomparables” as Munchkins Margaret Pellegrini, Fern Formica, Clarence Swensen, Karl Slover, Jerry Maren, Meinhardt Raabe, Ruth Duccini, Lewis Croft, and Mickey Carroll.

As I think this account indicates, however, the emotional presence of such “Oz celebrities” is FAR from forgotten. Their dedication and devotion; their laughter and love; their song and sass remain an intrinsic aspect of the festival’s foundation, year after year. The more than thirty-thousand 2019 visitors to Oz were – once again and certainly — privy to that ongoing spirit. More importantly, they reveled in it, as each new generation of devotees brings its own fervor and respect to Oz-past . . . and has its own favorites of Oz-present. There seems to be little doubt that they’ll create Oz-future, as well, and Chittenango will continue to herald it!

We hope you’ll plan to come and see and feel that magic for yourselves: June 5th-7th, 2020!

Thanks for reading. 😊

 

OZ-STRAV-A-GAN-ZA TIME . . . ! OZ-STRAV-A-GAN-ZA TIME . . . !

OZ-STRAV-A-GAN-ZA TIME . . . ! OZ-STRAV-A-GAN-ZA TIME . . . !

THE CHITTENANGO CREW

PLANS OZZY FUN FOR YOU!

By John Fricke

[Above: Mysterious newspaper reporter Tim, Dorothy Gale, Jinx the Mifket, and Eureka the Pink Kitten are “out of the woods . . . out of the dark . . . out of the night” – and off to OZ-Stravaganza! in Chittenango, NY, next weekend. This artwork by Dick Martin has been slightly adapted for our purposes! Read about Dorothy and these her friends in Martin’s book, THE OZMAPOLITAN OF OZ (1986).]

 

Pop culture aficionados unite — please!  And sing the headline of this month’s blog to the old-time popular melody, “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.” (If this will simplify the task, think of the tune instead as the theme song from the fondly-remembered HOWDY DOODY TV SHOW.)

However the song is sung, it is indeed that time once again. Countless thousands will trek into, trundle over, and travel blithely to Chittenango, NY, next weekend. Just fifteen miles east of Syracuse, it just happens to be the birthplace of a gentleman defined by Smithsonian.com as “the man behind the curtain.”  Author Chloe Schama bestowed that title a decade ago and continued: “Images and phrases from THE WIZARD OF OZ are so pervasive, so unparalleled in their ability to trigger personal memories and musings, that it’s hard to conceive of . . . OZ as the product of one man’s imagination. Reflecting on all the things that Oz introduced — the Yellow Brick Road, Winged Monkeys, Munchkins — can be like facing a list of words that Shakespeare invented. It seems incredible that one man injected all these concepts into our cultural consciousness. Wouldn’t we all be forever lost without ‘there’s no place like home,’ the mantra that turns everything right side up and returns life to normalcy?”

Schama then concluded, “But the icons and the images did originate with one man, Lyman Frank Baum.

L. [for Lyman] Frank Baum. The Man Behind the Curtain. And the man born in Chittenango, NY, on May 15, 1856. For the last four decades, scores of volunteer locals have banded together once a year to honor and celebrate their native son, and it all began on a Saturday afternoon when Ozzily-costumed kids were organized (not to say commandeered!) by the incomparable, indefatigable Clara Houck. She had them march around a Chittenango parking lot and then retire to the library for Oz stories and refreshments. Since that incident forty years ago, the party “for” Frank Baum has grown into a full weekend festival – and the largest of a dozen or more such annual Oz gatherings across the country. This year, Chittenango’s joyous springtime event is on the calendar Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, May 31st through June 2nd, and everyone is welcome to the merry old Land of Oz — transplanted for the occasion to Central New York State. It’s all about the pride manifested by the comfortably cozy village for a man whose emotional brains, intellectual heart, and happy courage coalesced into a vision both unprecedented and unsurpassed in the history of American fairy tales.

Above all the underlying and overriding recognition, however, it’s Important to remember that Frank Baum’s life-long goal was to entertain — or in his own words, “to please a child.” We can expand this to encompass, “and also to please anyone who ever was a child.” All ages, all enthusiasts, all fantasists, all collectors, all fans – and all the curious! – will find no small measure of magic in Chittenango next weekend. Please visit www.oz-stravaganza.com for the schedule and further information; there’s a lot of it — and all good! 😊

[John R. Neill was acclaimed as “The Imperial Illustrator of Oz” and drew pictures for thirty-five of the original forty Oz Books (plus six Oz short stories, THE OZ TOY BOOK, and a raft of other Ozian art). Here, from his title, THE WONDER CITY OF OZ (1940), Princess Ozma welcomes citizens of her land to a celebration in the Emerald City. Such vista is similar – at least emotionally – to the joys inherent in attending Chittenango’s annual OZ-Stravaganza! Or would you say I’m biased? Oh, well; it’s beautiful art, regardless!]

I’ve been privileged to be part of the Chittenango festival for twenty-eight of the last thirty years. I first participated in 1990, when the festivities were held in mid-May and as close as possible to Baum’s actual birthdate. Eventually, this became problematic: at that time of the year, the local weather often fluctuated between balmy spring and colder-than-chilly rain. One Sunday morning during that era, we all woke to more than two inches of snow on the ground – and it was sticking! There was a mad dash among festival volunteers to break out their children’s winterwear, which had already been packed away for the season. The garb was not, however, for their kids; it was being pressed into service to keep the MGM Munchkin cast members warm during their final day of trucking around town to meet with and autograph for the fans. (It was this “weathery day” that precipitated the date change to the first weekend of June – and understandably so.)

Some other special memories:

a) There were several years that Caren Marsh Doll – one of Judy Garland’s stand-ins for the 1939 MGM film – joined the Munchkins on the “special guest” roster. On one such occasion, she was named grand marshal of the annual parade, and as a surprise, the festival organizers flew in her son from Texas to escort her. He was “unveiled” onstage at Chittenango High School the night before the procession . . . and her delight and rapture were palpable.

b) In 2005, Warner Bros. sent a camera crew to capture the attending Munchkins, the parade, and several other Ozzy Chittenango views for a mini-documentary eventually included in one of the home video DVD releases of MGM’s OZ.

c) For several years, the Oz Parade was locally telecast “live” via Time Warner Cable, and I cohosted the show — most frequently with Ron Curtis, Jr. We got rained on one or twice, were chilled to the bone on another occasion . . . but mostly it was a blast. Up front, Ron and I were always provided with detailed, in-order notes from the expert Chittenango parade organizers, so that we could (at least semi-) intelligently comment on the passing participants. Unfortunately, the sequence of the actual parade units was sometimes unavoidably scrambled at the last minute – and en route. As Ron and I were encased in a small tent and couldn’t easily see what was approaching, we faithfully announced descriptive phrases from our notes, occasionally sometimes describing in enthusiastic detail the totally incorrect float or group of marchers. Ah, live television!

d) I mentioned the Year of the Snow. On that occasion, the Munchkins were jubilant when they were moved from their outdoor tent to a (happily heated) room over the firehouse. Much more recently, however – perhaps only five or six festivals ago – severe spring weather beset Oz Park on Sunday morning just prior to the onset of the celebrity meet-and-greets, vendor and food services, carnival rides, and other activities. Though weather experts later denied that there’d been a mini-tornado, enough locals actually witnessed some of the smaller canvas booths as they were wind-whipped off the ground, briefly rose high in the air, and circled about above the park. (THAT year, the Sunday activities concluded in the nearby American Legion Hall!)

[In a vision similar to that of Chittenango’s Oz Park at its festive best [!], John R. Neill drew this artwork of a celebrity-packed Oz luncheon party on the grounds of the castle of Glinda the Good for his book, THE SCALAWAGONS OF OZ (1941).]

Statistically speaking, however, the total number of fair-weather festivals FAR surpasses such moments of occasional inclemency – and rain or shine, next weekend is THE weekend. As noted, the link above leads you to listings of all the events of the three Ozian days. For my part (and in addition to hangin’ out in the park every afternoon to chat, sign books, or just say “hey!”), I especially look forward to emceeing the Friday and Saturday night programs. Once again, the roster is exceptional, and I’ll recap the names of our special guests right here.

On Friday at 6 p.m. at The First Presbyterian Church (adjacent to OZ-Stravaganza! Park), THE OZ-TONES Quartet debuts one of the NEW SONGS FROM OZ by Broadway composer/arranger STEVE MARGOSHES. Designer SHAWN RYAN previews his latest recreation of an iconic costume from MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ. COLLEEN ZIMMER and I offer MUNCHKIN MEMORIES: recollections, photos, and video of MGM’s tiny cast members on their visits to the festivals. And, as a musical finale, Broadway’s RUBY RAKOS — “Young Judy Garland” of the cast of the new stage musical, CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ – will talk about her experience with the show and sing some classic Garland Songbook selections.

On Saturday at 6 p.m. at Chittenango High School (doors open at 5:30), we salute ROGER BAUM (great-grandson of L. Frank Baum) on the thirtieth anniversary of his first book, DOROTHY OF OZ and fifth anniversary of its 2014 film adaptation, LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN. MATTHEW BAUM introduces STEVE MARGOSHES’ “Tin Man” from the forthcoming CD, NEW SONGS FROM OZ, and a troupe from JEAN ELAINE’S SCHOOL OF DANCE will appear in their brief, award-winning presentation, WIZARD OF AHHS.

All of this is topped, of course, by a screening (for the very first time at OZ-Stravaganza!) of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ in conjunction with the film’s 80th anniversary. I can sum up this attraction in one phrase: If you’ve never seen OZ on a big screen, you’ve never really seen it! And we’ll conduct a question-and-answer session after the movie for those who want to discuss Oz late into the night.

Best of all: ALL these events are open and free to the public!

There’s truly nothing else I can say, except that I hope to greet many of you “in person” next weekend — on or near the Yellow Brick Road in Chittenango.

Many thanks for reading!

IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE . . .IT’S THIRTY YEARS LATER (BUT JUST AS OZZY!)

April 2019

IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE . . .

IT’S THIRTY YEARS LATER (BUT JUST AS OZZY!)

by John Fricke

 

In the Oz books, we’re sometimes told that magic happens so quickly that the time elapsed between spell and effect is very brief, indeed. L. Frank Baum’s THE WIZARD OF OZ noted that Dorothy’s Silver Shoes “took but three steps” to transport the little girl back to her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry from Glinda’s palace in the Quadling Country. Earlier in that book, the Good Witch of the North counseled Dorothy and, when finished, “whirled around on her left heel three times and straightaway disappeared.” (The sage Baum – in a character-defining observation about his heroine from Kansas – then offered that “Dorothy, knowing her to be a witch, had expected her to disappear in just that way, and was not surprised in the least.”)

Referencing all this now grows out of a joyous sense of déjà vu, experienced (and burgeoning!) here across the few months since the onset of this special Ozzy year.  Most every fan is by now aware that 2019 marks the eightieth anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s motion picture version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. The celebratory events were launched with the film’s record-breaking return to theaters in January/February, and — with the Oz festival season almost at hand — there’s extraordinary excitement yet to come as devotees anticipate multiple gatherings, products, productions, and screenings.

In the process of preparation for much of this year, however, I’ve found my mind wafting back to the movie’s fiftieth anniversary. Although I’d then been deeply enamored of (and personally involved in) Oz for more than three decades, it wasn’t until 1989 that I suddenly, unexpectedly found myself professionally blessed, as well. And it has unquestionably seemed merely three steps, three whirls – or the blink of an eye – since all of that launched here.

Some of you will recognize the cover above; it’s the front dust jacket of a volume that became colloquially known as “the green book,” and whose text I largely researched and wrote for Warner Books thirty years ago. We were all happy with its wonderful reception – and the publishers even more so: ultimately, the book went through three hardcover printings in a matter of weeks.

But there was much more to that anniversary year. In that process of assembling the book, I also began an association with MGM/UA Home Video:

I’m sure even more of you (at least those of a certain age!) will remember this fiftieth anniversary VHS video – with its thirty-five-page booklet attached to the cover, and its fifteen minutes of rare Oz supplemental material on the tape, following the movie itself.  MGM/UA brought me on board to do the writing and co-producing tasks of that release, and when it went on sale in late summer 1989, there was much excitement among the Oz-enthused public. At last, they could hear Buddy Ebsen sing his original soundtrack recording of “If I Only Had a Heart” (accompanied by rare visuals of his performance as the Tin Woodman before illness forced his withdrawal from the production). Similarly, there was the principal cast’s rendition of “The Jitterbug,” also as first tracked for the MGM picture and presented here with home movies and stills. (We’ll skip a discussion of the general reaction to a new, Oz-related commercial for Downy Fabric Softener that “opened” the video itself . . . and we’ll just remain respectfully grateful for their corporate underwriting and five-dollar rebate!)

I mentioned “the Oz-enthused public” a moment ago. That descriptive phrase turned out to be an all-time understatement in the case of the fiftieth anniversary video. As of 1989, OZ had been available for commercial purchase for nine years and had already sold nearly two million copies. Videotape recorders were, by then, affordable for many; thus, viewers also had the option of capturing the film “off TV” during one of its annual showings. MGM/UA considered all of that before marketing the fiftieth anniversary tape but thought, realistically, they might tally another two or three hundred thousand sales.

The “enthused” proved them wrong. There’s a framed hologram of the Emerald City on the wall here, presented by MGM/UA Home Video to those of us who’d worked on the anniversary project. It commemorates the three million OZ videotapes that were sold between July 1989 and the holiday season later that year!

Additionally, the book and tape created opportunities and joys for me that I’d never imagined. Even when they were still forthcoming, those two products generated such anticipation that I was invited to make my first Oz festival appearances. I started in June in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and continued to Chesterton, Indiana, in September, and Liberal, Kansas, in October, and I’ve been fortunate to continue such participation ever since.  Each moment has proved thrilling, but there’s no question that — of many happy offshoots of these assignments — the greatest pleasures came in meeting and working (for more than twenty years) with surviving Munchkin cast members of the MGM movie.

In fact, it was “Coroner” Meinhardt Raabe who recommended me to Chittenango in early 1990. As a result, I traveled to L. Frank Baum’s hometown for the first of many visits, and what has since evolved into OZ-Stravaganza! has been my initial, festival-master-of-ceremony gig almost every year since. The photo below provides a captured moment from a decade ago or more; the area behind Chittenango’s Village Hall was dubbed “Meinhardt’s garden,” and we gathered for this portrait there. From left, in the front row: Myrna Swensen (a “Munchkin by Marriage) with her “MGM OZ soldier” husband, Clarence; flower-pot-hat dancing (and “sleepyhead”) Munchkin, Margaret Pellegrini; and Meinhardt. In the rear, Roger Baum – great-grandson of L. Frank Baum and author of more than a dozen of his own Oz books; yours truly; and a winsome local partisan! (I’m sorry I don’t know her name.)

Thanks to the MGM film, another preeminent aspect of the greater Oz legend has been “melodies and lyrics.” (Actually, this has been true ever since Baum’s story was first put on the musical stage in 1902.) Some Oz songs are unforgettable; most are at least catchy – and you may categorize them per your own personal taste as you remember them! Each, of course, has its partisans: the MGM tunes, those from THE WIZ, WICKED, and RETURN TO OZ (the 1964 TV special, not the 1985 Disney fantasy drama). And there’s no way to ignore the TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ cartoon theme! https://youtu.be/GfqrjkhAbqA . As a result, music also has been a popular aspect of the Oz festivals – and most particularly that in Chittenango. Perhaps it’s the proximity to Broadway, but OZ-Stravaganza! has played host in recent years to performers from the New York companies of both THE WIZ and WICKED.

As I was writing this, I came to realize that there are a couple of overriding reasons I’m correlating the fiftieth and eightieth anniversaries. The first leads us back again to Chittenango, as this year’s OZ-Stravaganza! (May 31st-June2nd) is going to present a new sampling of the eternal, great Oz spirit that has permeated these past thirty years. We’ll have Broadway talent yet again in the presence of young RUBY RAKOS, who first appeared on the Great White Way as a thirteen-year-old in BILLY ELLIOTT, and who has been triumphantly portraying the young Judy Garland in the forthcoming stage musical, CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ.

The show traces Judy’s career across the years she worked in vaudeville, was noticed – and signed — by MGM – and was cast as Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ. At the festival, Ruby will recount her history with both Judy and CHASING RAINBOWS . . . and, yes, she’ll sing, too!

Broadway songwriter/arranger/orchestrator STEVE MARGOSHES also will be on hand to debut his latest Oz-related composition. There’ll be video and personal remembrances of the treasured MGM MUNCHKINS from those who knew and loved them in their Chittenango encounters. ROGER BAUM returns to autograph his own Oz legacy of books that have been delighting readers since (you guessed it) 1989 and the publication of his DOROTHY OF OZ. (That story served as the basis for the animated feature-length film, LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN.) And, for the first time in Chittenango, a screening of the classic WIZARD OF OZ film will highlight an OZ-Stravaganza weekend – free and open to the public!

So, given all that, I guess many things have come full-circle, and it’s no wonder I’ve been inclined, of late, to reminisce. The second reason, however, is more a wondrous realization. Thirty years ago, I (probably along with many others) wondered if the enchantment, the pull, the power of Oz had peaked in its fiftieth anniversary year. Could such en masse, public passion be sustained? Would tastes change to the detriment of Baum, MGM, and all? Would there be Oz festivals past 1989?

With jovial hearts, all who love Oz — whether they’re long-term or new partisans – can look around and realize: Everything is still here: prime, premium, and potent. Thirty years may have passed; they were rich and unforgettable . . . yet, like the best magic, they now seem to have occurred in only a blink of an eye.  And in 2019, Oz remains omnipresent, in all its permutations. Fans everywhere can take exultant pride in its continuity, camaraderie, and captivating charisma!

OZ-STRAV! 2019: RUBY & RAINBOWS & ROGER & METRO & MUNCHKINS & MUSIC . . . & MORE!

       OZ-STRAV! 2019: RUBY & RAINBOWS & ROGER         & METRO & MUNCHKINS & MUSIC . . .  & MORE!

by John Fricke

[Above:  Looking back to 2002 and an Ozzy ocean liner cruise, here are four of the MGM Munchkins whose annual appearance in Chittenango, NY, provided a focal point for many of the OZ-Stravaganza! festivals — from the late 1980s until just a few years ago. From left: soldier Clarence Swensen, coroner Meinhardt Raabe, first trumpeter/townsman/soldier/townswoman Karl Slover, and flower-pot dancer/sleepyhead Margaret Pellegrini. Memories of their visits, company, and friendship will be shared as an entertainment highlight of this year’s OZ-Stravaganza! activities.]

Spring is here – calendar-wise, anyway. 😊 And that means that Chittenango and its L. Frank Baum and All Things Oz Historical Foundation and Museum are gearing up for the annual OZ-Stravaganza, May 31st – June 2nd.  This is the town’s forty-second annual festival, created and continued in celebration of the man who was born there (in 1856) . . .  and whose imagination, entertainment savvy, and genius created the Land of Oz and all its citizens.

This year’s theme – THE MAGIC OF OZ – takes its title from Baum’s thirteenth book in the Oz series, published exactly one-hundred-years ago. Such a topic is singularly appropriate, as there is MAJOR magic in the air in 2019: it’s also the eightieth anniversary of the premiere of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s classic motion picture version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. To honor this best-loved, best-known, and recently dubbed “most influential” film of all time, OZ-Stravaganza! proudly presents a FREE and OPEN-TO-THE-PUBLIC screening of the movie as Saturday evening’s festival entertainment. OZ will be shown in the Chittenango High School auditorium, and as OZ-Strav! emcee, I’ll introduce the picture and then conduct a question & answer session after it’s over. (An important note: If you haven’t viewed Judy Garland & Company in THE WIZARD OF OZ on a BIG SCREEN, you really haven’t seen it at all! And if you’ve already seen in such fashion, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll still notice things you never saw before! So, mark your calendars now for Saturday evening,      June 1st.)

 

Attendees of the 2017 OZ-Strav! will fondly remember the appearance of TINA MARIE CASAMENTO, whose stage musical, CHASING RAINBOWS, was then in development after productions at the State Theatre of North Carolina at Flat Rock and Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House. This year, the festival proudly boasts the presence of the young star of CHASING RAINBOWS, RUBY RAKOS. Already a Broadway veteran, RUBY appeared in BILLY ELLIOTT when barely a teen, and she’s played the thirteen-to-sixteen-year-old Judy Garland to outstanding reviews and reception across the past few seasons in CHASING RAINBOWS. The show culminates in the casting of Judy as Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ film, so RUBY’S presence at OZ-Strav! is a wonderful, serendipitous addition to this year’s roster. The photos above show her as herself . . . and as young Judy in CHASING RAINBOWS. By happy coincidence, the man shown with her is MICHAEL McCORRY ROSE, who’s not only appeared in the Garland stage show but on Broadway as Fiyero in WICKED. Many of you will recall MICHAEL as a most welcome guest at last year’s OZ-Strav.

And here’s one more wondrous – magical! — P.S. for everyone in the northeast: CHASING RAINBOWS has just been announced as the season opener at the legendary Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, from September 27 – October 26th!

And the celebration continues: ROGER BAUM’S first Oz book, DOROTHY OF OZ, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. The great-grandson of Frank Baum himself, ROGER’S own literary contribution to the Saga of Oz now includes more than a dozen volumes. OZ-Strav! 2019 will be honored by the return of ROGER and his wife CHARLENE – and we’ll also offer a mini-salute to LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN, the charming and children-adored animated film which now commemorates its fifth anniversary. (LEGENDS OF OZ is based on DOROTHY OF OZ, thus tying everything together!)

Meanwhile, all of that is just the beginning of what’s planned as an enchanted weekend for Ozians. Songwriter STEVE MARGOSHES – whose original Oz melodies and lyrics were a triumph at last year’s fest – returns with the debut of at least two new Oz-related compositions: a barbershop roundelay and “Tin Man” (the latter to be performed by MATTHEW BAUM).  SHAWN RYAN dazzled 2018 attendees with his stunning recreations of Oz stage costumes from THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE WIZ, and WICKED; he’ll be back, as well, to reveal his latest work and to greet fellow enthusiasts at the All Things Oz Museum.

Of course, this is just the beginning of the OZ-Stravaganza! outlay for 2019. Additional specifics – times, locations, activities, parade and contest details, the roster for Authors & Artists’ Alley, and the like – will be forthcoming on the OZ-Stravaganza! website: www.oz-stravaganza.com

As I hope is obvious, it’s time to set that GPS for a trek down to Yellow Brick Road – and to make your plans to be part of THE MAGIC OF OZ! This once-in-a-lifetime weekend of rainbows, music, memories, celebrities, costumes, and emotional joy takes place from Friday through Sunday, May 31st – June 2nd, at OZ-Stravaganza! 2019 in Chittenango, NY. It’s the village that gave us “The Man Behind the Curtain” of some of the greatest entertainments of the twentieth AND twenty-first centuries!

 

SILENCE IS . . . OZZY!

SILENCE IS . . . OZZY!

by John Fricke

[Above:  As portrayed with a fixed and somewhat ferocious smile by Vivian Reed, the benevolent Princess Ozma served as a visual insignia and logo for L. Frank Baum’s Oz Film Manufacturing Company in 1914.]

In last month’s blog, we discussed the reappearance in theaters of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ. These announced “eightieth anniversary” engagements were brief: three days only in some seven hundred cross-country venues. But public demand – and a record-breaking $1.2 million box office gross for just the first of those dates – saw Fathom Events expand the bookings by several additional screenings. The magical and cinematic OZ of Judy Garland & Company once again made history, while simultaneously launching its ninth decade as a pop culture icon.

At this chronological juncture, it seems doubtful that any other Oz dramatization could equal either the power, longevity, or heart and soul involvement achieved by MGM’s OZ. But its brand-new success across these past couple of months led me to remember the personal excitement I felt back in the 1960s, when I first saw what were then thought to be the earliest surviving Oz motion pictures. Produced in 1914 by L. Frank Baum — the “Royal Historian” himself — those movies celebrate their 105th anniversary this year. That makes this a good time to look back and cherish such screen appearances by Dorothy and her friends.

There’d already been brief Oz movies prior to 1914: Baum’s multi-media FAIRYLOGUE AND RADIO-PLAYS (1908) with its hand-colored film clips, and – two years later — William Selig’s three one-reel adaptations of several early Oz books. (These filmic ventures are topics for future blogs, to be sure!) But given his permanent relocation to Hollywood in 1910, Baum found his non-stop imagination increasingly intrigued by the concept of feature-length motion pictures. The movie industry was both growing up and expanding at a colossal rate all around him. With that in mind, he and several business acquaintances from the Los Angeles’ Uplifters social organization banded together in early 1914 to form The Oz Film Manufacturing Company.  Baum himself served as president, and the corporation grandiosely planned, in time, to bring all his Oz titles, stage ventures, and other children’s fantasies to the screen. The author promotionally explained that the price of his Oz books (retailing then at $1.25) often kept Baum stories from reaching a large percentage of their intended young audience. The five or ten cent charge of a nickelodeon theater would put his characters and fairy tales within affordable reach of many more youngsters.

 [Above: The highly-regarded, state-of-the-art physical “plant,” where much of the interior Oz filming was achieved. Nearby Griffith Park, the Pacific beaches, and other picturesque locations were utilized for more spacious and natural outdoor scenes.]

It was a noble – indeed, visionary – concept. Baum launched the enterprise with a five-reel adaptation of his Oz title for 1913, THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ. The scenario followed much of the book’s action, although it added a love interest for two new characters. (Such romance now seems an obvious sop to contemporary adult audiences, playing out as it did amidst the intentionally child-pleasing slapstick and cavorting of the other Ozians.) But the film is best enjoyed during its charming, if sometimes rudimentary, special effects, plus the mere sight and presence of such stalwarts as Dorothy and the Scarecrow – plus Ojo the Munchkin boy, the enigmatic Woozy, and Scraps, the redoubtable title character. The latter was played by teenage French acrobat, Pierre Couderc, whose talent made him an obvious choice when Baum (per publicity) could find no female with similar, extensive agility.

[Above: A two-page advertisement for the first motion picture release from The Oz Film Manufacturing Company.]

While editing and assemblage of PATCHWORK GIRL was still underway, an adaptation of Baum’s QUEEN ZIXI OF IX was quickly put into production. That superlative fantasy, however, was first “Ozzified” in its title (if not in content) as THE MAGIC CLOAK OF OZ. Several of the same “stock company” of PATCHWORK GIRL actors carried over into a number of principal roles, and one of the film’s delights was its recreation of the rotund Roly-Rogues, comic-villains of the original book. They’re shown below in one of Frederick Richardson’s illustrations from QUEEN ZIXI OF IX and (at right) as Baum and the pre-CGI Oz Film crew envisioned and costumed them.

Baum’s third five-reel feature, HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ, merged characters and/or plot situations from THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE ROAD TO OZ with an excellent, brand-new storyline. (The author’s fresh creations would then economically serve as the plot foundation for his 1915 Oz book, THE SCARECROW OF OZ.) The hour-long vehicle was perhaps Ozziest of all the Film Co. endeavors, as it also featured the Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, and Wizard.

I first and gradually saw these silent Oz movies as a preteen and teenager, beginning in 1963 when they were featured as the genuinely “special entertainments” at several International Wizard of Oz Club conventions in Indiana. (Collector extraordinaire Dick Martin and several others had accessed surviving nitrate prints from diverse sources — including members of the Baum family — and then went to the expense of having the deteriorating and highly flammable celluloid transferred to safety film.)  Even then, I was aware that the Oz Company output hadn’t “worn well” as prime entertainment, but such realistic appraisal in no way dampened my appreciation at being able to watch the fun and see the stories brought to life. So many highlights come to mind, even all these decades later: the flirtatious first meeting of the Patchwork Girl and Scarecrow; the descent from the mountains of the Roly-Rogues – in search of soup (!); the beheading of Wicked Witch Mombi by the Tin Woodman (and her picking it up and putting it back on again); the “freezing” of the heart of Princess Gloria; and the introduction of a new animal character with an unforgettably descriptive name: the awful Lonesome Zoop.

Etc.!

[Above left: When Dorothy Met Scarecrow: Violet MacMillan and Frank Moore in HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ. Right: When Vivian Reed Met Mai Wells: Princess Gloria’s heart is frozen by wicked witch Mombi in the same film.]

Despite the much-vaunted fame of the citizens of Oz, however, the high hopes of Baum and his associates for The Oz Film Manufacturing Company were quickly swamped back in 1914. There was litigation from other interests, who claimed patent on certain equipment used in the film-making process. There was ongoing lack of interest from theater distributors, who weren’t excited about product from a fledgling and minor studio. Finally, there was defeat in the (ultimate) fact that any perception of movies as a potential “amusement for the whole family” had not yet come – and was, indeed, a couple of decades in the future. Adults complained about the “children’s entertainment” level of THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ, which made it tough going for the next two projects from the studio. THE MAGIC CLOAK OF OZ took three years to find a distributor; the studio was also forced to make it alternately available by cutting it down to two separate, two-reel programs and sending it out as “filler.” In a semi- (or seemingly) desperate move, HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ was retitled THE NEW WIZARD OF OZ and blithely and falsely trumpeted as “practically a photo-visualization” of the hugely successful OZ stage musical, which had triumphantly toured the country for seven seasons between 1902-1909.

There were further efforts from the Oz Company: a few fantasy “short subjects” (as yet, these remain missing) and two feature-length dramas specifically geared to appeal to adults, THE LAST EGYPTIAN and THE GRAY NUN OF BELGIUM. The latter, a World War I drama, is not known to survive. The former was based on Baum’s 1908 novel of the same title, and only three of its five reels have thus far been recovered. Whatever the themes or intent of these offerings, however, there was no overcoming the lack of distributor OR public interest in anything disseminated by the Oz Film Company. After a year-and-a-half of decreasing activity, the enterprise was dissolved.

[Above left:  Surviving prints of Oz Film Company movies are often incomplete. When discovered in the early 1960s, the extant HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ was missing its opening title. So, Dick Martin, Oz collector and artist supreme, crafted a new one of his own design. Right: A vintage 1914 ad for the Oz Film Company’s output.]

All tribulations apart, however, the three major fantasies produced under Baum’s auspices remain good fun on a number of levels. They can be enjoyed as imaginative manifestations of the man who actually invented Oz and created its characters; as wondrous (if sometimes uneven) examples of early motion picture making; and – perhaps best of all – as an additional opportunity to spend time with beloved friends, including a number of those who make their only on-screen appearances in the artifacts of The Oz Film Manufacturing Company.

All three of the Oz movies discussed above are readily available on DVD; perhaps the best surviving and well-presented versions are those included as “extras” in the various Warner Home Video deluxe packagings of MGM’s irreplaceable 1939 musical. Wherever you track them down, however, here’s to your cheery viewing!

And here’s a heartfelt and happy 105th birthday wish to The Oz Film Company!

MGM’S “OZ” AT AGE 80: BACK ON THE BIG SCREEN!

MGM’S “OZ” AT AGE 80: BACK ON THE BIG SCREEN!

by John Fricke

If you’ve been watching the Turner Classic Movies cable channel over the past few weeks, you’ll probably have heard the happy news: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s musical masterpiece, THE WIZARD OF OZ, is going to be shown at 350 movie theaters across America for three days this weekend and next week. Such a booking, handled by Fathom Events, launches the film’s eightieth anniversary; yes, it was 1939 when audiences first heard “Over the Rainbow,” encountered Miss Gulch, were dazzled by the Munchkins, and (in general) got the entertainment delight of the season . . . and many seasons since.

If you’ve never seen OZ on “the big screen,” it IS true — as they say — that you’ve never really seen OZ! So, don’t miss this opportunity, whether on Sunday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, January 27th, 29th, or 30th. (You can research locations near you, plus performance times and ticket availability, via this link: fathomevents.com.)

Even if you’ve already watched THE WIZARD OF OZ in an actual theater, it quite honestly remains an event not to be missed – at any opportunity. Indeed, one of the most frequently-heard comments from diverse, world-wide OZ fans encompasses words like: “I look at the movie over and over . . . and every time I do, I see something I never saw before!” This eightieth birthday celebration is a great chance for everyone to spot new moments to treasure, new marvels to notice, and new wonders to share.

In keeping with that concept of sharing (segue!), this month’s blog actually has been designed to pave the way to glimpses of Ozian legend — or errata — that might be new for you, no matter when or where you next view the film.  For example:

 

[Above left: Ray, Terry, and Judy – with Dorothy’s longer braids, November 1938. Above right: Ray and Judy, the latter with slightly (but perceptibly) shorter braids, March 1939. The differential is even more apparent when one watches this sequence in the film itself.]

The scene in which Dorothy (Judy Garland) and Toto (Terry) initially meet the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) was filmed three times — first in October 1938. But on that occasion, Judy’s hair, make-up, and costume were different, Ray’s make-up was different, and the Yellow Brick Road consisted of oval “pavement-ing”; it looked like a patio in Pasadena. All of that footage was junked after director Richard Thorpe was removed from the project. When new director Victor Fleming took over in early November, the trio’s first encounter was re-photographed, and the stars and set looked as we’ve known them ever since. Judy’s braids, however, were rather long and somewhat free-form and flowing as they cascaded down the front of her jumper, and those in charge apparently decided that such a casual look needed to be neatened a bit. When Fleming & Company next moved on to the apple orchard scenes, Dorothy’s hair hung somewhat shorter and prettier. It was kept like that until being completely reconfigured for the scenes in (and, per the plotline, after) the Emerald City Wash & Brush-Up Co. segment of OZ.

Principal photography for the motion picture was finally completed in early March 1939. By then, however, it had been decided that Ray Bolger should deliver a less whispery rendition of “If I Only Had a Brain,” as well as dance a more complicated, special-effects version of the song. So, he rerecorded the vocal and returned to the cornfield with Judy and Terry for retakes – and Judy’s hair was (whether forgetfully or intentionally) configured in the less-lengthy but neater style. When film editor Blanche Sewell assembled OZ over the next few weeks, she drew her finished footage from takes done in both November 1938 and March 1939. As a result – and just watch! – Dorothy’s braids waft back-and-forth between tousled or tight (and back again!) throughout the scene.

[Above: “What a world! What a world!” I’ve always theorized that Judy – as a sixteen-year-old minor – must have been commandeered away from the set at this moment to fulfill some percentage of her required-by-law, three-hours-per-day of schooling. Of course, she’s in the movie scene itself, but she missed the opportunity to appear in a classic OZ still.]

One point that film historians often offer is the reminder that THE WIZARD OF OZ movie was created long before there was such a thing as computer-generated-imagery (CGI). Every effect, every prop, every bit of scenery and costuming had to be created “for real” in 1938-39 . . . or in at least some semblance of real. One of the most memorable of the film’s visuals involved the melting of the Wicked Witch of the West. Yet this wasn’t an especially difficult challenge for “F/X” honcho A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie and his staff. He later confessed that it simply involved placing Margaret Hamilton on a small elevator platform, with her skirt tacked to the floor outside the parameter of the slowly-lowered foundation on which she was standing. Dry ice was placed under the far edges of her skirt and soaked by hose with water just prior to Fleming’s cry of “Action!”; the resultant, rising steam heightened the vision of her “dissolution.” But two other inventive bits added to the graphic image of the Witch as she disappeared. Her Winkie Guards gradually lowered their spears as she was, herself, lowered – further propelling the sinking visual on-screen in the eyes of movie audiences. Even more creatively, costume designer Gilbert Adrian provided a larger hat for that moment for Hamilton; it was placed on her (also just prior to “Action!”) and gave the illusion that her head was shrinking away in the same manner as her body.

At the top of this blog, you can see Judy, Ray, and Jack Haley in a photo posed to capture the moment immediately following the Tin Man’s “If I Only Had a Heart” song-and-dance. Note the oil can in Judy’s hand; in this specific film scene, she’s shown as she takes it out of her little wicker basket and proceeds to provide some additional comfort for her still-somewhat rusty friend. But when you next view OZ, watch the end of the preceding edit: As the Tin Man almost topples over and stumbles back to sit on the tree stump, Dorothy and the Scarecrow endeavor to catch and save him. In that process, and just before the end of the cut, the oil can falls right out of Dorothy’s basket. Yet, immediately thereafter, she retrieves it from there for her use!

[The Fabulous Fivesome – with Bert Lahr as the beloved Cowardly Lion — are about to be beset by the trees of the Haunted Forest in “The Jitterbug.”]

One of the most obvious inconsistencies in THE WIZARD OF OZ “continuity” still goes unnoticed by many — until it’s actually pointed out.  So, we’ll wrap up this month’s blog with a final bit of history and trivia. In her tower room, the Wicked Witch summons her fleet of Winged Monkeys to “Bring me that girl and her dog! Do what you like with the others, but I want her alive and unharmed. They’ll give you no trouble, I promise you that. I’ve sent a little insect on ahead to take the fight out of them! Now, fly! Fly!” With that dictate, the Monkeys depart, and in the very next moment of the film, they’re seen as they swoop down into the Haunted Forest. They chase off the Cowardly Lion, disarm the Tin Man, disassemble the Scarecrow, and then fly off again, having captured Dorothy and Toto.

“Little insect”?  Well, as OZ devotees can tell you, the Witch is referencing “The Jitterbug,” an animated, pink-and-blue spotted flying pest who was to sting Dorothy and her friends, infecting them with “the jitters,” and leading them into a wild and exhausting dance in which even the trees of the Haunted Forest took part. The routine was rehearsed, prerecorded, and filmed – it took five days for the latter – but the entire, light-hearted, swingy/perky song and its orchestration were totally wrong for the movie at that moment in its arc of storytelling and terror. So “The Jitterbug” was cut from OZ after its initial sneak preview in June 1939. However, as most of Hamilton’s dialogue was integral to the preceding, special effects-fraught, one-long-take scene, it pretty much had to be kept intact in the movie as it was released two months later. It’s been there ever since, yet only seldom does anyone ask, “What little insect?!”

So! Would you like to see these moments, bigger than life – along with so many others? Why not check that Fathom link above, dispatch yourselves to OZ over these next few days, and become happily overwhelmed by the magic, music, and majesty of it all? You’ll certainly be able to spot and enjoy these little errors of continuity (there are plenty more, too!) as they sail on by . . . on The Big Screen!

(Of course, watch here and on Facebook for forthcoming details about OZ-Stravaganza! 2019, as well: May 31st-June 2nd. There may be some big-screen surprises there, too!)

 

TO WISH YOU THE OZZIEST . . . !

TO WISH YOU THE OZZIEST . . . !

by John Fricke

 

How to celebrate December in an Ozzy fashion for those who read here? (Well, there are a couple of suggestions to put forward!)

How about pictorially? The artwork above provides detail from one of Dick Martin’s ebullient illustrations for THE VISITORS FROM OZ and shows some celebrated Ozians in a friendly — but futile! — race with Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. The 1960 picture book (now a collector’s item) was adapted by Jean Kellogg from L. Frank Baum’s original 1904-05 weekly newspaper serial/comic page, “Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz.” In Kellogg’s storyline, a jubilant climax is reached when the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Sawhorse, Woggle-Bug, and Jack Pumpkinhead visit Dorothy on Uncle Henry’s farm in Kansas – and then stop off at the North Pole to leave toy images of themselves for Santa to distribute to boys and girls world-wide. As can be seen, those Ozzy visitors traveled in the Magic Flying Gump, whom fans remember was an integral part of the saga in which “rightful ruler” Princess Ozma was brought to the throne of the Emerald City in another Baum title, THE LAND OF OZ.

 

[Above: Our old friends, The Tin Woodman, The Scarecrow, Jack Pumpkinhead, and Professor Woggle-Bug are announced upon arrival at the castle of Santa Claus in the Laughing Valley of HoHaHo. They’re carrying the self-created toys they conjured as gifts for the children of the world – although even the magical VISITORS FROM OZ couldn’t provide enough such souvenirs to answer the demand. Artwork by Dick Martin.]

Of course, there’s another way to honor the season – and for that bit of journalistic joy, we turn to Baum’s successor as “Royal Historian of Oz,” Ruth Plumly Thompson. Ms. Thompson was specifically and especially selected by publishers Reilly & Lee to carry on the Oz Book Series after Baum passed away. To his fourteen “official” Oz titles, she added nineteen of her own – one per year between 1921 and 1939. In later years, she contributed two more, published by The International Wizard of Oz Club in 1972 and 1976, which means she penned more Oz histories than any other author.

“RPT,” as she often signed herself, was a masterful, inventive, inspired story-teller – and a champion of children, imagination, and fantasy. In addition to a nonstop schedule of writing assignments, she personally answered thousands of Ozzy fan letters between 1921 and 1976. A tireless, creative advocate for the magical land and its unforgettable characters, Ms. Thompson produced timeless work that has been (and is continued to be) cherished by millions.

 

[Above: A grateful and gleeful Santa holds a toy Scarecrow and toy Tin Woodman in Dick Martin’s 1960 drawing for THE VISTORS FROM OZ. Two years later, “Royal Historian” Ruth Plumly Thompson depicted – in rhyme! – the Scarecrow’s puzzlement over a proper gift for Princess Ozma of Oz: What DOES one get for the supreme potentate of a country at Christmas time in 1962? (Please see the poem below!)]

Ruth wrote from childhood until her own passing in 1976, and several of her blithest and brightest epistles – including the 1926 novelette, THE CURIOUS CRUISE OF CAPTAIN SANTA — honored Christmas as a treasured holiday of childhood. One such piece, a poem, was fashioned for THE BAUM BUGLE (journal of the Oz Club) and appeared in its final edition for 1962. In these verses, Ms. Thompson details a shopping problem for the beloved Scarecrow. To wit:

A CHRISTMAS PRESENT FOR OZMA

The Scarecrow was thinking

His broad cotton brow

In furrows and wrinkles,

No wonder, for HOW

Was he ever to find

The right gift to delight

And please Princess Ozma

On Christmas Eve night?

A present for Ozma

Was hard to decide on

Something to wear –

Something to ride on?

Something she does not have

But what could that be?

She has everything now

Sighed the Straw Man, Oh me!

He toured the whole castle

And then sat him down

His brow still screwed up

In that deep thinker’s frown.

Then all of a sudden

He leapt in the air,

He had found what was missing:

Not a one anywhere.

That’s what I’ll give Ozma –

A fine rocking chair!

So he did, and this year

When state matters grow pressing

Like Kennedy, Ozma

Will find it a blessing!

— RUTH PLUMLY THOMPSON

Historians, “baby boomers,” and many of those of a certain age will doubtless catch the rationale behind the solution to the Scarecrow’s avowed dilemma! Those unfamiliar with United States hierarchy at that specific time may have to do a bit of research to ascertain the “home remedy” our then-President utilized to combat his chronic back problems. (They’d begun with a college football injury and were exacerbated by events during his service in World War II.)

[Above left: The incomparable Ruth Plumly Thompson, with Taffy. Above right: As a holiday greeting to all the MGM movie fans out there: here’s the most famous incarnation of the Scarecrow of Oz, as portrayed by Ray Bolger. This pose was selected, as he looks as if he might JUST have thought of providing Ozma with a rocking chair!]

So, here are season’s greetings in an Ozzy manner! I want to send my heartfelt appreciation “over the rainbow” to L. Frank Baum, Ruth Plumly Thompson, and Dick Martin for their invaluable contributions and inspirations for this month’s blog. And to any and all of you who read here — whatever your respective ages, holiday celebrations, or Ozzy preferences — may I gratefully extend the very best of healthful and happy wishes to each and every individual . . . and to all of those you love and cherish. It’s a privilege to honor Oz with you in these reminiscences and histories, and I hope our association and mutual joys will continue for a long time to come.

Many thanks for the pleasure of your company — and here’s to a blessed new year . . . and way, way beyond!

THANKSGIVING . . . IN OZ!

THANKSGIVING . . . IN OZ!

by John Fricke

     

[Above: To Oz? To Oz! . . . as we review some of the happy moments for which the remarkable residents of the land are most thankful.]

Because of the wonderful books written by the “Royal Historians of Oz,” we’ve come to know much about the extraordinary citizens of that marvelous land.  As a result, I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasize the gratitude expressed by many of them for the experiences they’ve enjoyed across the 118 years since L. Frank Baum first brought Oz to our attention. Perhaps a number of you will read here for the very first time about such happy moments; others will already know them by heart! Regardless, they’re worth citing, especially at this thanksgiving (and Thanksgiving) time of the year.

The following is, of course, just a perfunctory “primer,” drawn from countless examples of the personal joys of some favorite Ozians. But every reference is meant to honor the appreciation felt by such genuinely loved inhabitants – and to celebrate the past week’s United States holiday.

Of course, it was Dorothy Gale who introduced most of us to Oz, and it was her cyclonic journey that first carried innumerable readers (and even more moviegoers and television viewers) “over the rainbow.” But her connection to Oz didn’t end when Baum’s silver shoes took her home to Kansas. In fact, she was delighted to return to the magic kingdom via other mystical routings: when swept off a ship during a Pacific Ocean storm; by falling victim to a California earthquake; and by becoming the pawn of a magical multiplication of Kansas roads. The Midwestern girl never failed to offer thanks for such adventures, but it’s safe to say that even they were surpassed when Princess Ozma invited her – plus Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and Toto (too!) – to permanently relocate to Oz. [For specifics of Dorothy Gale’s second, third, fourth and fifth escapades, please (respectively!) see the books OZMA OF OZ, DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ, THE ROAD TO OZ, and THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ.

[Above: An unexpected encounter of the best kind is explained and described in the paragraph below.]

It’s likely that the famous Scarecrow (often regarded as “the most popular man in Oz”) might describe himself as most appreciative of the brains given to him by the legendary Wizard. However, the straw genius is equally notable for his own capacity to care: One of the most rapturous and riveting (if emotionally fleeting) encounters in any of the hoztories comes with his first glance of Scraps, THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ, in that volume of the series. Significantly — In Baum’s perfect world — Scraps is equally bedazzled by the Scarecrow, and although they eventually settle down to become “just good friends,” their initial meeting is (you should pardon the expression) one for the books!

The scope of the Tin Woodman’s magnificent heart is a matter of record across many Oz legends. But like all three of Dorothy’s first companions, Nick Chopper (his given name) already possessed the gift he most sought from the Wizard of Oz. When the story of the Tin Man’s first trip across Oz with Dorothy & Co. was brought to the screen by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1939, the film’s limited running time meant that many indications of Nick’s care for his fellow travelers had to be dropped from the plot. However, those who would know more about the Tin Woodman’s sensitive response-and-defense (and sometimes necessarily ruthless use of his strength and ax) will find many examples in the full-length, first Oz book, THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Read how Nick saved the Queen of the Field Mice from a ravening wildcat! Discover his skills with the trees of different Oz forests, as he creates a bridge over an impassable chasm, builds a cart to transport (and save the life of) the Cowardly Lion from the Deadly Poppy Field, and teaches a lesson to the fighting saplings who would prevent Dorothy from reaching the palace of Glinda the Good! Learn how he dispatched the howling wolves of the Wicked Witch of the West – and overcame so many other challenges to those he loved. And let it be noted that he undertook many of these actions before he ever possessed a heart; they’re all described in THE WIZARD OF OZ book!

In that same title (and in another episode that never made it into the Judy Garland musical), the Cowardly Lion rescues a forest of animals from a giant spider. In the process, the Lion also has a brief, pleasant encounter with “the biggest of the tigers” in those woods – a meeting which foreshadows a companionship that gave him much for which to be thankful across other Oz stories. When we next come across them in OZMA OF OZ, the Lion and the “Hungry Tiger” have become best of friends; they’re also Emerald City dwellers, serving as duo honor guard to Princess Ozma. Their later sojourns into the wilds of the land involve them in no little excitement and danger, especially in THE MAGIC OF OZ, when a single word of transformation turns them into a Munchkin boy and a rabbit! How the Lion and Tiger return to their original forms, save two other friends from shrinking away to nothing when they become literally ROOTED on an enchanted island, AND help to provide Princess Ozma with an amazing birthday gift . . . well, it’s nothing short of miraculous. There’s no question that such an amalgamation of events is something the Lion and Tiger were most beholden to experience together.

[Above:  Dorothy and the Wizard himself are “processioned” into the Forest of Gugu by the Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger in the book, THE MAGIC OF OZ.]

Finally, what of the Wizard himself? Of course, the citizens of Oz built the Emerald City under his wise guidance (although in later years he modestly claimed he “only bossed the job”). Additionally, the Wizard most certainly gave the residents a sense of security during his rule; when he departed in his balloon, the populace was most sorry to see him go. All that being said, the Wizard’s most grateful moment is easy to pinpoint: When he unexpectedly returns to Oz in DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ, Princess Ozma welcomes him graciously and warmly — and then offers him “a home here as long as you live. You shall be the Official Wizard of my kingdom, and be treated with every respect and consideration.” When describing this scene, L. Frank Baum notes that the Wizard had “tear-drops . . . standing in his keen old eyes. It meant a great deal to him to secure a home like this.” Even better, the former humbug thereafter goes on to study at length with Glinda the Good; in the process, he becomes a genuine, wonder-working Wizard.

[Above:  A combination of royal and fairy lineage has made Princess Ozma a supremely right and rightful ruler of Oz. Her kindnesses to her own citizens – as well as to Dorothy, the Wizard, and others from the “Great Outside World” – are copiously described in the Oz Books.]

So, as you can see, there’s always much for which to be thankful in Oz! Indeed, as noted above, these are just a very few depictions of the hundreds that could be cited. Imagine Glinda’s delight at possessing the Great Book of Records, in which every event that happens anywhere in the world – no matter how minor — is immediately noted. Conjure up the joy of Jack Pumpkinhead when he’s able to grow a pumpkin large and spacious enough to use as his home. Or consider the ebullience of Santa Claus when he takes a couple of days off from his North Pole duties to attend Ozma’s birthday party in the Emerald City.

All of these adventures are told in The Oz Books – there are forty volumes in all — and well worth the exploring by any “reading children” you might know. Or any children-to-whom-you-read. Or any people you know who used to be children — and who would welcome a reminder of the fact that some of the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. (Chittenango’s All Things Oz Museum and Shop stocks many of the Oz Books . . . and Christmas is coming!)

Finally, and given all of the foregoing, it might be best to conclude with a slight reconsideration of the title of this month’s blog – and offer that it could just as easily be called:  THANKSGIVING . . . TO  OZ.

Here’s every heartfelt wish that your holiday was happy, fulfilling, and suffused with gratitude — Ozzy and otherwise! 😊

THE NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM . . . (SMITHSONIAN, THAT IS!)

October 2018

THE NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM . . .  (SMITHSONIAN, THAT IS!)

by John Fricke

[Above: The Smithsonian’s pair of Ruby Slippers – newly-conserved, protected, and in an environmentally-controlled casing – were revealed and celebrated for the first time at a private reception and party last Thursday night, October 18th.  The shoes were an absolute magnet for the two hundred invited guests at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (The next morning, Judy Garland’s famed footwear went back on public display for the first time in nineteen months.)]

What words best describe last Thursday night at the Smithsonian?

These might be some:

Elegant.  Magical.  Classy.

And Oz-Permeated!

It was a beautiful, exclusive triptych of an event: the simultaneous opening of the Ray Dolby Gateway to American Culture, the Nicholas F. and Eugenia Taubman Hall of Music, and the reappearance of that unique icon of both pop culture and song . . . The Ruby Slippers.

Just two hundred guests were invited to participate in the evening; perhaps forty of us attended the ribbon-cutting that officially opened the wing at 6:30 p.m.  Another one-hundred-and-fifty arrived to attend the 7 – 10 p.m. reception, which featured a special presentation honoring the Dolby and Taubman families — plus musical programming — from 7:30 – 8:30.

I was fortunate to be present, as I’d participated — on-camera and off — in the Museum’s Kickstarter Campaign of 2016 to “Keep Them Ruby.” At that time, funds were (swiftly!) offered by the public to aid in the conservation of the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer pumps that have long since become legend. A year later, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to join in meet-and-greet breakfasts and tours with Kickstarter contributors who’d selected such a premium in exchange for their donations; there was also a lengthy international video chat for several fans who’d opted for that experience.

Thus, last Thursday evening was the culmination of a lot of work, investigation, science, creativity, research, support, cooperation, conversation, and camaraderie on the part of many, many people. To attend the debut/launch/re-premiere of the shoes as a sort of climax to the mass effort was extraordinary for me, and my first “move” that night will come as no surprise to anyone reading here. Once the ribbon was cut, I quietly and directly walked to what we’ll call “The Oz Room.” There I enjoyed a private, first-personal-glance, few minutes with the Ruby Slippers; such an experience would be difficult to top. The suddenly silent, rest-of-the-world-gone-away fantasy of Oz once again became the particular, spiritual home it often is for countless people — and has been for me since age five.

The shoes have been [re]established in their own cool, dark, and large room, on a platform covered in glass, with maximum space around the case for simultaneous viewing by many. The walls inside and out of the gallery — even the flooring of the new wing — are “mural-ized” with OZ concepts and silhouettes: poppies, yellow bricks, Dorothy & Toto, etc. In The Oz Room itself, the walls display additional Ozian touches: motion picture dialogue quotations, scene stills, and photographs of the shoe-conservation process.  (Also on display: Ray Bolger’s own “Scarecrow” hat, gifted — with his original costume — to the Smithsonian by the actor’s wife, Gwen, after Bolger’s passing in 1987. A Glinda wand, used by Billie Burke in an off-set photo shoot but not seen in the actual OZ film, is on view, as well.)

[While only Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow hat is seen in the current Smithsonian exhibition, their archive actually boasts his complete 1939 costume. It’s shown here, cushioned in its protective wrapping and file drawer at the Museum.]

In three different areas of the Museum across the evening, there was live music. A children’s chorale of scores of voices sang Broadway show tunes in the main foyer of the building to greet arriving guests. The vocalists were rehearsing Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” – seemingly all the verses and choruses! – when I entered, which evoked an instant “no place like home” emotion here.  Both the Smithsonian’s individual chamber and jazz ensembles performed as part of the official programming in the new third floor music hall, offering selections that ranged from an excerpt of a Bach Brandenburg concerto to Duke Ellington’s melody for “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart” and the Harold Arlen/E. Y. Harburg “Over the Rainbow.” Finally, in the spacious promenade around the third-floor west wing, a cabaret vocalist and her accompanists also shared “Rainbow,” plus “Tomorrow” and other standards. Every performer and aggregation were beyond excellent.  (Plus, the food and drink were superlative; the crowd beautifully dressed!)

Yet, despite all of that – not to mention the initial one-on-one with the shoes — the moment[s] that resonated most happily here came across the rest of the evening. Apart from two young preteen girls, all of the invited attendees were adults: a few in their twenties but otherwise older. Being in the presence of The Ruby Slippers, however, they were once again reduced (all of ’em!) to happy childhood. There was complete awe, silence, fascination, and curiosity in the manner in which they entered The Oz Room, gingerly (in some cases) approached the case, and walked around the slippers on display. There followed muted comments and marveling . . . and then, as if on cue (or as if a dam had burst), there was eager, enthusiastic conversation. Virtually everybody seemed happily compelled to share the special — and apparently unforgettable — impact that the amalgam of MGM, Judy, and L. Frank Baum’s THE WIZARD OF OZ has had on them.

Elegant.

Magical.

Unforgettable.

And a blessed privilege to be part of it these past thirty months! Thank you, Smithsonian and Warner Bros.!

[Okay, it’s not OZ! But I know full-well that we have some first-rate, first-class Garland devotees among the readers of this blog. And to be found amongst the Smithsonian’s massive holdings is her immediately identifiable waitress garb from MGM’s Academy Award-winning musical, THE HARVEY GIRLS (1945). It was donated to the Museum by the film’s director, George Sidney.]

 

[Photographs courtesy Ryan Lintelman.]