WIZARDS, WIZARDS EVERYWHERE – SINCE 1956!

WIZARDS, WIZARDS EVERYWHERE – SINCE 1956!

by John Fricke

Above: My first copies of THE [WONDERFUL] WIZARD OF OZ! I received the much-condensed picture-book version of the story, at left, just twenty-seven days after I’d been initially Ozzified by first exposure to the 1939 MGM motion picture. At right: the cover of the first full-length edition of Baum’s text I ever owned, which I purchased circa summer 1957.

This time of the year makes me especially nOZtalgic. It encompasses my birthday and Christmas — and for many of my preteen and teen years (and beyond) that meant Oz!  😊

It was November 1956 when I first saw THE WIZARD OF OZ on television, and a few weeks later when I turned six, I received the movie’s soundtrack record album and a WIZARD OF OZ storybook for my birthday. The cover of that edition is shown above at left; it had been issued in 1950 following the successful 1949 theatrical reissue of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical. At that point in history, however, only The Bobbs-Merrill Company had publication rights to L. Frank Baum’s first Oz book, and Random House had to contract with them and Mrs. L. Frank Baum to offer “an adaptation of the beloved story, specially prepared for younger readers.” The picture book then included information on its copyright page to explain their licensing agreement. They used such a candid word as “abbreviated”; a phrase that acknowledged “a brief retelling”; and made the honest declaration that “the whole wonderful story [is] many times longer than this.”

I was an early reader, and when I put together all those statements (and had one of my parents explain the word “abridgment”), I was – by early summer 1957 — propelled out to any store that stocked books to find a complete WIZARD OF OZ. It was an easy task, for one simple reason. The copyright had expired on Baum’s original WIZARD OF OZ book in 1956. That meant that any publisher, anywhere, could reprint – complete or abridged and without licensing or paying royalties – the story of Dorothy’s first jaunt to the Emerald City. Whitman Publishing Company in nearby Racine, WI (we lived in Milwaukee) was one of the first to take advantage of this freedom; their board-bound editions of – among others — ALICE IN WONDERLAND, TREASURE ISLAND, LITTLE WOMEN, and ROBINSON CRUSOE were joined by THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1957, which was conveniently stocked by a nearby Woolworth’s. For fifty-nine cents, I could (and DID) take home, read, re-read, and re-re-read the whole thing.

It was just a year later that I discovered the entire Oz series. I’ve written about this in earlier blogs — along with the fact that, by December 1958, I began receiving five or six Oz titles every Christmas, courtesy Santa Claus, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. (For about four years, I was VERY easy to “buy for” – as long as everyone kept up with which of the thirty-nine Oz books I already had!)

  

Above: Two early paperback WIZARDs. The Scholastic Book Services edition (1957) was made available by in-class order forms in countless schoolrooms, as well as at school book fairs across the country for many years. The Crest Book (1960) boasted an introduction by the legendary James Thurber, adapted from his semi-paean to Baum that appeared in THE NEW REPUBLIC in 1934. Crest’s reprint also included a handful of W. W. Denslow’s original WIZARD OF OZ illustrations from 1900, which had been unavailable in new editions of THE WIZARD since 1944.

But, as indicated above, the floodgates were opened in 1956 for the first, most popular, most familiar, and most cherished of the Oz series. Publishers went on a rampage and there were dozens of new editions of THE WIZARD OF OZ from then onwards. (The rampant popularity of the quickly-to-become-annual telecasts of the MGM OZ — beginning in 1959 — were a further factor in the “everywhere” status of the first Oz book.) Naturally, these were MOST collectible, as well, and well into the 1960s, I continued to try to amass as many different WIZARDs as I could. Some were full-length, some were condensations of the story, but they were all Oz.

One of the major attractions of all these new publications was the fact that many featured brand-new artwork. Some of the illustrations continued in classic-line fashion. Others were more of their time: sketchy or modernized or cartoony or MGM-influenced. (The latter approach, however, was for the most part scrupulously avoided. The Judy Garland film was still – and remains to this day – under copyright. And while anyone can draw Dorothy, the Scarecrow & Company for publication, they canNOT draw Judy-Garland-as-Dorothy, Ray-Bolger-as-the-Scarecrow, and et al, without first securing a licensing agreement with Warner Bros.)

    Above left:  Dorothy (vintage contemporary!) appeared in Anna Marie Magagna’s cover art and interior pictures for the Grosset & Dunlap WIZARD in 1963. At right: A “sci-fi lite” mystique permeated this drawing by Roy Krenkel, heralding the 1965 Airmont Publishing Company paperback; their version also featured a fine appreciation of Baum by Donald Wollheim.

Between this blog’s journalism and artwork, I think any reader here – whether rabid Oz fan or casual browser – can get the idea. There have been and continue to be countless new editions of THE WIZARD OF OZ since 1956, whether in English or in scores of other languages. (The foreign treatments of Baum’s story and characters sometimes feature the most off-beat, appealing, and/or appalling visuals of them all!)  It would be easy to show another twenty different WIZARD OF OZ book covers from the early years of its public domain status; in fact, they’ve all been pulled off the shelves and are sitting here on the desk, waiting to be scanned! But I thought those selected here would be reasonably representative – and not too overwhelming. 😊

Meanwhile, one more vintage version before I go — please. It’s the edition that absolutely meant the most to me when I was nine. I forget how I found out it was going to appear, but in early 1960, Dover Publications announced that they were going to produce a paperback WIZARD OF OZ that included (for the first time since the story’s 1900 debut) ALL the original Denslow pictures, including the color plates. At that stage of fandom, I’d never seen most of those illustrations (or any early edition of the book), and I was overwhelmed with joy and anticipation; I hastily sent Dover my $1.45 and waited.

 

The cover of Dover’s WIZARD – the heart-stopper edition of ALL of my preteen copies of the story.

The book was virtually everything I could have wished. Virtually. I reveled in the pictures, I thrilled to Denslow’s full-color artistry and scores of line-drawings. I was “back there” in 1900, so far as I could tell.

Except . . . .

As you can see by the proclamation on the Dover cover, they announced the presence of “twenty-three color plates.” And even then, I knew that the first edition of OZ had included twenty-four. I even knew which one Dover had (as it turned out) unintentionally omitted; LIFE Magazine in its December 23, 1953, issue, had printed a brief retelling of THE WIZARD OF OZ, accompanied by some of Denslow’s art. They included the plate, “The two Kalidahs fell into the gulf”; seven years later, Dover did not. (It turned out that the copy of the first edition OZ they’d used as reference and source was missing that one picture.)

I wish I knew how I phrased the letter; I hope it was genteel and polite. But I immediately wrote to Dover to inform them they were minus one plate. And within a couple of weeks, I had a very kind, typewritten, business-like, adult-to-adult, on-company-stationery response from the head of the firm. He thanked me for pointing this out to them (I doubt I was the only one from whom they’d heard!) and informed me that a correction would be made in the immediately forthcoming second printing of their WIZARD. The letter concluded with words to the effect that I would be sent “a complimentary copy of the new edition.”

P.S. They did. And THAT made this nine-year-old’s day! week! month! year!

As I write this, the TBS Cable Channel on TV is repeatedly running commercials for the screenings of OZ they’ll present this Thanksgiving. Such notice is rapturously received here; it’s a throwback for me to that “most wonderful time of the year” when all of us kids of all ages could ONLY ONE TIME EVERY TWELVE MONTHS see the MGM film on CBS.
Equally (if not more) important: That was also a time when there was a heartfelt, childlike hope for a coming holiday that would be family-warm, calm and bright, healthy and blessed, and (please!) so very much full of Oz.
Here’s to all of you at the onset of the 2019 holiday season, with my gratitude to everybody who finds their way here — or to any aspect of Baum’s incomparable kingdom and work.

BEYOND “GULCHERIA” & ELPHABA: A SMALL GALLERY OF BAUM’S MEAN GIRLS!

BEYOND “GULCHERIA” & ELPHABA:  A SMALL GALLERY OF BAUM’S MEAN GIRLS!

By: John Fricke

[At left, the incomparable Margaret Hamilton at her MGM worst, 1939. At right, her present-day and softer counterpart, Idina Menzel, the original Elphaba of WICKED, 2003.]

First of all, Happy Halloween!

And second of all, did you know that – in one of the early drafts of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie script for THE WIZARD OF OZ – the Wicked Witch was supposed to have a name? It’s true; they were going to call her Gulcheria, as word-play on the appellation of her Kansas counterpart, Almira Gulch. Of course, at another point in plans for the film, Gulcheria was also to have a dimwitted son named Bulbo. She planned to put him on the Emerald City throne as the king of all Oz – after her legions of Winkie Guards killed [!] the Wizard.

But that’s another story. 😊

Much attention has been paid to the Wicked Witch of the West over the years. Although she appears in only one chapter of L. Frank Baum’s original book, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900), her liquidation remains a major component of the overall story. (Amazingly – given her comparatively few moments of screen time — Margaret Hamilton made the character even more pivotal and unforgettable in the OZ movie.) Author Gregory Maguire more recently brought new depth to his WWW, the renamed Elphaba, when he detailed her not-so-evil behavior in the gleefully dark novel, WICKED (1995). “Elfie” then became an even greater pop culture heroine in the musical renovation of Maguire’s work, Broadway’s WICKED (2003).

Thus, the Wicked Witch of the West has been given due historical homage. Her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East (or “Squash,” as Oz historian Fred M. Meyer once playfully tagged her) is famous, as well . . . if only for her feet and the madcap stockings that protruded from beneath the Kansas farmhouse after it was deposited in Munchkinland.

All of that being said, however – and in honor of this week’s horrific holiday — we’re now going to take a look-back at some of L. Frank Baum’s OTHER wicked witches.  He certainly didn’t limit himself to the evils of East and West after his first Oz story; in fact, to paraphrase a Glinda line from the movie, some of his later creations are “worse than the other” ones were!

For example . . . .

[Tip unhappily responds to Mombi’s plan — as the typeset caption underneath John R. Neill’s artwork would indicate.]
In THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ (1904) — the second book in the series — old witch Mombi is the guardian/warden of a small boy, Tip. She makes him work and slave for years and ultimately decides to turn him into a marble statue. (In reality, the boy is actually a transformation of Princess Ozma, rightful ruler of the land, and Mombi has been entrusted to keep the girl from coming to power.) Across the course of the saga, she also uses her black magic to torment the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and their friends; to perform additional “unscrupulous” transformations; and to defy Glinda the Good. By story’s end, she is stripped of her powers, although she reappears in Ruth Plumly Thompson’s THE LOST KING OF OZ (1925) to create more Ozian havoc.

[“The most popular man in all the land of Oz” powder-izes Blinkie the Witch for a second time — after she (however unwillingly) corrects all of her evil deeds.]
More than a decade later, Baum saw fit to plague Jinxland (a mini-domain in the southern quadrant of Oz) with an equally despicable character. THE SCARECROW OF OZ (1915) features witch Blinkie, a sort of walking malevolence who is employed by King Krewl – the duplicitous, false ruler of the kingdom — to freeze the heart of his niece, Princess Gloria. He is in hopes that this will end her true-love affection for Pon, the palace gardener. On Krewl’s command (and in receipt of “a quantity of money and jewels”), Blinkie entirely shuts down the girl’s emotions. She also transforms a visiting and innocent old California sailor into a grasshopper; leaves the Scarecrow helpless by divesting him of all of his straw; and attempts a magic spell that would destroy half the population of the country. Once restored to himself, the Scarecrow uses one of Glinda’s magic powders to slowly shrink Blinkie; in order to save her even-diminutized life, the crone must reverse all of her heinous charms and spells.

[The hateful Coo-ee-oh disdainfully dismisses both Dorothy and Ozma in Baum’s final Oz book, GLINDA OF OZ, published posthumously in 1920.]
Baum even created a new breed of sinister sorceress in GLINDA OF OZ (1920). Queen Coo-ee-oh announces herself as “a Krumbic Witch – the only Krumbic Witch in the world. I fear the magic of no other creature that exists.” The arrogant, defiant woman makes fast prisoners of Princess Ozma and Dorothy, who have come to her to deter a local war between Coo-ee-oh and the neighboring Flatheads. (The latter are ruled by an equally nefarious Su-dic — aka Supreme Dictator – and his witch wife, Rora.) In a preliminary skirmish, Coo-ee-oh is poisoned by the Su-dic. She becomes a Diamond Swan and forgets all the magic she ever knew. This is particularly unfortunate, as only she possessed the power that could raise her island city from the bottom of the lake in which she had immersed it when she saw the approach of the Flatheads. All of Coo-ee-oh’s subjects are thus – along with Ozma and Dorothy – underwater prisoners in a submerged city in the middle of a Gillikin Country lake.

And you thought Gulcheria was bad!

Baum’s apparently endless imagination never wavered. There are many other magic-workers in his Oz books – some good, some bad. But their powers are ever-mystifying and wondrous to readers, even one hundred or more years after the fact.

So, here’s a suggestion.  When this year’s trick-or-treat is over, curl up with any remaining candy, pick up one of the Oz books referenced above (or any Oz book at all, for that matter), and learn about some of L. Frank Baum’s other extraordinarily creative examples of wicked witchery.

I can promise you a happy ending!

(And if there are any plain M&Ms left over . . . . )

 

 

 

 

SOMETHING ABOUT WHICH TO BE GRATEFUL: THE MGM “WIZARD OF OZ” PLOTLINE WE NEVER GOT TO SEE!

SOMETHING ABOUT WHICH TO BE GRATEFUL:

THE MGM “WIZARD OF OZ” PLOTLINE WE NEVER GOT TO SEE!

By John Fricke

This two-page spread in the August 1939 issue of MOTION PICTURE was one of dozens of magazine features and/or ads that heralded the late summer release of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Eighty years ago this month, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ was in the midst of its initial theatrical engagements all over the United States and Canada. The film would soon open, as well, in Mexico, Central and South America, Great Britain, Australia, and other global locales. What a joy it is to realize – all these years later — that the ceaseless power and potency of OZ have made 2019 a celebratory anniversary occasion for countless world-wide fans!

There have been many opportunities since January to reflect on the magic of Metro’s OZ, and how wonderfully well all of its diverse scripting, songs, characterizations, and visual and aural effects managed to coalesce more than eight decades ago. I’ve been privileged to discuss the making of MGM’s movie more times and in more places, coast-to-coast, than ever before. Even more importantly, audience fascination never seems to fade when it comes to this topic, and the age range of listeners and inquisitors is as vast and all-encompassing as ever. (Ah, the articulate six-year-old girl in Illinois last week who wanted to reassure me that there is NOT a hanging Munchkin in the background of one scene. Of course, I don’t mean to discount the older — by decades and decades — folk in San Diego who insisted in June that this unique fabrication was fact. 😊 )

It seems that, these days, the public is actually, actively most intrigued by anecdotes concerning the plot twists and turns that a dozen writers proposed for (or actually scripted into) the OZ scenario, long before the cameras started turning. There were, of course, many different ideas for casting, costuming, and makeup, as well, but it’s the divergent storylines that garner the wildest response from auditors. Their reactions have encompassed everything from bemused chucking to awed disbelief, and they’ve especially liked the Cowardly Lion concept that almost was.

So, for any of you who might not know it – or might want to share it — here it is!

In 1938, MGM executives, advisors, and counselors bemoaned the fact that L. Frank Baum’s original book, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, was bereft of any prominent romantic narrative. (The backstory of the Tin Woodman’s dismemberment by witch-enchanted axe – all due to the love he shared with a Munchkin girl — was comparatively minor, not to mention potentially gory. The backstory of the Winged Monkeys and their sassy treatment of handsome Quelala – to the objection of his fiancé, the sorceress/princess Gayelette — was too far afield from the major plot to consider.) So, in a concentrated attempt to eventually attract the all-important teen and young adult audiences to OZ upon its release, those who oversaw MGM studio properties devised a way to overcome the amorous shortcomings of Baum’s tale.  As the film was to be a musical, they decreed that a young, operatic Princess Betty of Munchkinland — and her intended, the Grand Duke Alan — should be written into the plot. Both would sing, as a sort of late teens’ incarnation of Metro’s successful adult vocal team, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy — and the opening Betty/Alan “simple love” duet was tentatively scheduled for an early scene in OZ, shortly after Dorothy’s arrival. Later, the starry-eyed duo would be captured by the Wicked Witch of the West and separately encaged in her courtyard. Their cages would be reasonably adjacent, however, so that they could continue singing.  (No, I’m not kidding.)

It wasn’t until later in 1939 that “Princess Betty” Jaynes (at top, with screen and real-life partner Douglas McPhail) teamed with Judy Garland – here with Mickey Rooney – in BABES IN ARMS.

What, you might ask, has all this to do with the Cowardly Lion? Well . . . later in the film, the Grand Duke Alan was to be transformed INTO the Cowardly Lion by the Wicked Witch and sent out to prove his bravery by battling a dragon. (In later scripts, he would have fought a gorilla.) True to the tradition of singing royalty, he’d triumph over the beast, regain his human form, and he – not Dorothy – would then dispose of the Wicked Witch.

Beyond that? As the OZ scripts continued to evolve, Betty and Alan’s characters were also given Kansas counterparts and new names: Sylvia and Kenny. The girl was the niece of MRS. Almira Gulch (which is another long detour in an early OZ scenario), and Kenny was Sylvia’s beau. Once the story reached Oz — and as Dorothy’s delirium was in full swing — the niece would reappear as Princess Sylvia, and he would become Prince Florizel.  (His moniker became Kenelm or Kenelin in later drafts of their dialogue.) At the end of the film, back in Kansas, the two young people were scripted to elope. In her attempt to stop them, the furiously peddling Mrs. Gulch would topple off her bicycle into a trough of water — an ironic (if slightly obvious) finish.

OZ producer Mervyn LeRoy planned to cast teenage soprano Betty Jaynes as Betty/Sylvia, as she was already under contract to MGM. Her Alan/Florizel/Kenelm/Kenelin vis-à-vis would be played by radio and motion picture tenor Kenny Baker.  For further musical pow, Judy Garland’s Dorothy was initially scripted as a hot-swing-singing Kansas orphan — a definite counterpoint to the Princess’s classical refrains – and the two girls would team up in the Emerald City for an “Opera Vs. Jazz” challenge duet.

(How do you like it so far? 😊 )

Yes, it’s Judy and Betty Jaynes. And yes, they’re singing the Roger Edens arrangement of “Opera Vs. Jazz” (which included such contemporary pop tunes as “You Are My Lucky Star” and “Broadway Rhythm,” a swing amalgamation of music from THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, i.e., “Figaro,” and an excerpt from LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR). Fortunately, they’re performing it in a fictional living room in Seaport, Long Island, NY, in BABES IN ARMS . . . and not in the Emerald City in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

It took nine months of preproduction planning before THE WIZARD OF OZ went before the cameras; thankfully, by Month Six, the entire romantic Betty et al/Alan et al subplot had been dropped from the script. Baker went over to Universal Studios to star in THE MIKADO; Jaynes remained at MGM and was featured in Judy’s next film there, BABES IN ARMS. In that scenario, their “Opera Vs. Jazz” coupling found a more logical, contemporary, and exciting home; please see the photo above. (Or maybe you’d rather watch it? Courtesy YouTube, in two parts:  https://youtu.be/CtUwC1y8bdQ and https://youtu.be/sHBi3MTg9MY .)

Potential Cowardly Lion Kenny Baker never made it “over the rainbow.” But in THE HARVEY GIRLS (1945), he made it as far the American Old West, playing a saloon singer for those denizens who traveled, worked, or lived along the rails of “the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” train line. These included – from left – Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, and Angela Lansbury.

If you’ve followed all of this thus far, you might again be thinking, “But what did they do about the Cowardly Lion?” (If you’ve followed all of this thus far, you should be eligible for an Ozzy endurance medal.) According to studio promotion — and it may well have been just that: hype rather than fact — MGM’s next idea was to use their own living logo, Leo the Lion, in the role.  Varying representatives of the “king of the beasts” had been seen as the opening visual of virtually all of the studio’s releases since the mid-1920s (and as the mascot to herald “A Goldwyn Picture,” beginning in 1916). The purported plan was to elevate the current Leo to costar status in OZ, with an actor’s voice dubbed in.

Had Leo the Lion matriculated into the OZ cast in 1938, the concept of edible Munchkins might have predated a Dunkin Donuts campaign by thirty-four years.

Wiser (safer) heads prevailed. By late spring 1938, Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg had begun to write the songs for THE WIZARD OF OZ. They’d twice worked on Broadway with comic actor/singer Bert Lahr – in LIFE BEGINS AT 8:40 (1934) and THE SHOW IS ON (1936) — and they rhapsodized about the sort of material they could prepare for him as an Ozian lion. MGM went into action, hired Lahr, and ultimately provided OZ with Dorothy’s quintessential cowardly companion.

            Aren’t you glad?

Thanks for reading!

EIGHTY YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, BUT . . .WHEN DO WE CELEBRATE THE ANNIVERSARY PREMIERE OF “THE WIZARD OF OZ”?!

EIGHTY YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, BUT . . .

WHEN DO WE CELEBRATE THE ANNIVERSARY OF “THE WIZARD OF OZ”?!

by John Fricke

[Above:  An August 14, 1939, trade paper ad for the Hollywood launch of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s The Wizard of Oz.]

Across the last few weeks, there have been numerous social media posts about the eightieth anniversary of the debut/premiere/release of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ. Any number of people have commemorated what they think – or have heard or have read – is the “official” date on which the film was first seen by the public . . . or is recorded (however inaccurately!) as that instance.

Some of these proclamations have come with built-in – or written-in – problems: far-from-major but nonetheless and certainly curious.  Furthermore, if one looks back eighty years, there are several specific occasions that can be termed THE official OZ anniversary; it all depends on what one is celebrating!  😊 Thus, the topic of this month’s blog pretty much suggested itself, in the hope that (just maybe) it might offer a little clarification.

Apart from those working at the movie studio in such post-production facilities as the MGM editing and scoring departments, any members of the mass public who first saw THE WIZARD OF OZ did so unexpectedly during “sneak previews” in June 1939. As far as can be ascertained, these were held at movie theaters in San Bernardino, Pomona, and San Luis Obispo, CA. (There may have been other locations; studio records for that period are fragmentary at best.) It was across these screenings that the audience reactions guided MGM in cutting OZ down from what was then considered an unmanageable two-hour length to an hour-and-forty-one minutes. I wrote about these “sneaks” and the subsequent deletions from the movie in the text for THE WIZARD OF OZ/THE OFFICIAL 50TH ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL HISTORY, published by Warner Books in 1989. (This is “the green book,” as it came to be dubbed by fans.)

[Above: On June 17, 1939, the Pomona, CA, PROGRESS reviewed the June 16 “sneak preview” of OZ at the local Fox Theatre. Imagine, if you will, the subsequent panic of MGM executives who’d sunk three million dollars in what was intended to be musical entertainment for the whole family, for all ages – only to be directly told by one of its first respected critics that OZ “was not for children”! Careful readers will note that the film ran for 111 minutes in Pomona; by the time of the OZ release in August, another ten minutes were gone, including as much as possible of Margaret Hamilton’s performance as the Wicked Witch of the West.]

In the green book, I also wrote about what was – at that time — thought to be the first screening of the finished film in August. This was NOT a “sneak preview,” however; it was an announced and heralded engagement. Unfortunately, there were no surviving studio records whatsoever about such bookings in MGM’s OZ legal files when I vetted them in 1988-89 and again a couple of decades later. But earlier in the 1980s, my hometown daily, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, JOURNAL, reprinted an August 11, 1939, advertisement for OZ from the Oconomowoc ENTERPRISE newspaper. (That town is about an hour west of Milwaukee.) The 1939 ad heralded “World Premier Showing!” of THE WIZARD OF OZ, opening the next day, August 12, for five days at Oconomowoc’s local Strand Theatre. That ad itself was reproduced in the 50TH ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL and is shown here:

As can be seen, it very clearly states those dates; a couple of weeks ago, a much-viewed internet post cited the film as opening in Oconomowoc on August 11 and running through September 16!  How facts become so conflated, I don’t know. But this is the kind of social media information that always needs to be checked multiple times before it’s reiterated anywhere as incontrovertible fact. Meanwhile, the 1980s Milwaukee JOURNAL article that accompanied the ad reproduction noted that Strand Theatre owners, Harley and Ruth Huebner, were told by the local film distributor in 1939 that their venue would, indeed, host the first actual engagement played by the movie.

All of this was duly covered in the green book, along with quotations from VARIETY (the weekly show business newspaper) about a similar booking in Spirit Lake, Iowa, which began on August 17. Per VARIETY, the “Spirit Lake reaction . . . will serve as a key to OZ’s possibilities in the entire Midwest.” Like Oconomowoc, Spirit Lake was a summer vacation spot for those from surrounding major cities. Such small towns were considered likely locales from which MGM could gauge family and general audience reaction to OZ.  At that point, it was too late to further edit the movie for its looming bookings in major cities, but local reaction in the lesser venues was considered useful as a means of — if necessary — revising a movie’s ad campaign and possibly doing any other edits for the all-important and countless villages where OZ would play throughout the autumn.

Anyway, that’s the background of the Oconomowoc screening, and how it came to be regarded as the OZ “world premier” [sic]. The widespread success and visibility of the 1989 green book meant that some Oconomowoc residents jumped on the “historical” aspects of the information (and the reproduction of the 1939 ad) and, eventually, began having local, celebratory OZ “events.”  They continue to happen to this day and have grown to the extent that Oconomowoc now boasts a Yellow Brick Road and statues of the major MGM film characters.

However, very soon after publication of the 1989 book, further research turned up the fact that – despite the film exhibitor’s vow to the Huebners of the Strand Theatre — OZ actually opened in at least three OTHER resort communities the day BEFORE it opened in Oconomowoc. OZ debuted in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and in Appleton and Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 11. This was recounted in the text I wrote for the 2009 70th anniversary book, THE WIZARD OF OZ: AN ILLUSTRATED COMPANION TO THE TIMELESS MOVIE CLASSIC. Furthermore, it has since been reported that OZ opened on August 10, 11, and 13 in additional Wisconsin towns; and in at least five more locations (including Augusta, Maine) on August 13 or 14. Most of these burgs were vacation spots, and the rationale behind these advance MGM bookings followed the Spirit Lake concept referenced above.

Now, some additional significant dates, just for the record: The official “press showings” of OZ were privately held in Los Angeles and New York on August 9; critical response was, for the most part, absolutely ecstatic. The Hollywood “premiere” was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on August 15, and the New York City “premiere” at the Capitol Theatre on August 17. At the Capitol, audiences also saw Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney “live” onstage, performing for thirty minutes with an eighteen-piece orchestra and four back-up singers. This entertainment by the first team of teen screen superstars (seventeen and nineteen, respectively) was offered five times a day — six times on Saturdays and Sundays — in between showings of THE WIZARD OF OZ and the traditional short subjects, preview trailers, and newsreel.

[Above: Judy and Mickey “played” along with OZ in NYC for the first two weeks of its initial engagement. Then Rooney’s place in the act was taken over by a couple of other actors, whose work may be familiar to those who read here.]

Beyond all of the above, a lot of motion picture reference books and calendars give August 25, 1939, as the official release date of the film. This was, for some reason, MGM’s declaration-of-fact back in the day – even though by that point OZ already had been playing for a week or more in a dozen major United States cities.

As noted above, Oconomowoc continues to overplay its association with the film to this day (who wouldn’t!), even though they have long since been made aware of the fact that the “World Premiere Showing!” did not occur there. I guess the basic fact is that one can pay anniversary homage to OZ on several general or specific days across the months of June and August — and honestly celebrate on:

the “sneak preview” dates in June; thus far, these are thought to be San Bernardino (June 4), Pomona (June 16; this has been confirmed), and San Luis Obispo (June 27);

August 9 – the official press screening date in Los Angeles and New York;

August 10 through 14: August 10 (Green Bay, Wisconsin), August 11 (Kenosha, Appleton, and Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Cape Cod, Massachusetts), August 12 (Oconomowoc, Wisconsin). On August 13, the film popped up in at least three more Wisconsin communities — Racine, Rhinelander, and Sheboygan — as well as Escanaba, Michigan. On August 14, it opened in Augusta, Maine. There are also reports of screenings prior to August 15 in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and South Carolina;

August 15th – the Hollywood premiere;

August 17th – the Broadway/New York City premiere;

and/or

August 25th – the “official” national release day.

Or . . . ! You might research the date the film opened in your own home town and annually, Ozzily carouse on that occasion. Or honor the date that OZ premiered in London. Or the date(s) that it debuted “south of the border.” The possibilities are endless! 😊

A gentle word of warning: just be careful not to conflate whatever information you discover. One of the most unintentionally haphazard Facebook entries I came across this year on August 11 gave that date as the first sneak preview of OZ – at a two-hour length. The writer then made the astonishing claim that the extra twenty minutes was cut from the film (apparently overnight!), so that OZ could be released nationwide a couple of days later at its finished running time of 101 minutes.

Oh, well!  In the long run, all that matters is that we continue to view and enjoy and herald the classic musical based on the first Oz Book – and offer our ceaseless appreciation to L. Frank Baum, W. W. Denslow, Judy, Frank, Ray, Bert, Jack, Billie, Maggie, Charley, Clara, Pat, Terry, the Munchkins, the Winkies, the Emerald “Citizians,” the Winged Monkeys, the horse(s) of a different color, Jim the Raven, the Big Duroc, the toucan, the peacock, the sarus crane, et al  — not to mention the creative staff, technical crew, scenarists, songwriters, arrangers, orchestrators, directors, producers, publicists . . .

And etc.!

Thanks for reading. 😊

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!))

——————————-

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!

————————————

[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!