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;
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 . . .
Thanks for reading. 😊