By John Fricke
In recent months, these All Things Oz blogs have discussed the Ozcot Lodge in Indiana; the Ozcot home of L. Frank Baum in Hollywood; the extraordinary range of virtual guests at last month’s OZStravaganza! in Chittenango, NY; Ms. Margaret Pellegrini — that most beloved of MGMovie Munchkins; the writings of Baum and other “Royal Historians” . . . and on and on.
It’s now no surprise whatsoever that Oz has, in its 121 years-to-date, become ever-more fascinating and explorable.
Across July, we received some kind comments about last month’s reminiscences, which covered the first International Wizard of Oz Club (ozclub.org) conventions in the early 1960s. (I began attending them as a preteen.) The enthusiasm of those who read these memories has spurred, in turn, additional, happy personal reminders for me of even earlier or simultaneous Ozzy delights – along with the believe-it-or-not fact that Oz news was then comparatively infrequent. This may be difficult to fathom these days, when it’s amazingly true that new Oz projects of all types seem to be announced on a weekly basis: books, motion pictures, theater adaptations, games, puppet shows, podcasts, and ad infinitum! So this month, we’re again looking back at the era when Oz news was disseminated by the rare newspaper or magazine mention – and such information then had to be shared between partisans via the United States Postal Service, at whatever the cost of paper, envelope, and stamps. (Long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive!)
I discovered the Oz book series when I was seven and started to receive those volumes as birthday, Christmas (and etc.) gifts when I was eight. This was in the late 1950s, and I very quickly came to realize that the clean, new copies – fresh from the Reilly & Lee publishing company – were one-and-all (if in diverse ways) thrilling. But my next gradual comprehension was less pleasant: my earliest Oz Club adult correspondents told me that the original editions of the first twenty-nine titles in the series (but for one volume) had included color plates or color illustrations. The modern day reprints I was reading, in a cost-effective move, had long since dropped them.
Eventually, I managed to amass a stack of some earlier editions – with the plates – but I never corralled all of them. That means that these days there remain many beauteous John R. Neill color pictures that still come as a surprise to me when someone shares them, or when I’m privy to browse through another’s collection. Such art always provides an emotional flashback to the Oz glee I possessed as a child. This is one of those plates:
The summer I was nine, I read a brief newspaper announcement that Shirley Temple would launch her new monthly series of TV specials with an adaptation of Baum’s second Oz book, to be telecast by NBC on September 18, 1960. For weeks, I rapturously anticipated THE LAND OF OZ and its all-star cast, and although I was in-advance disgruntled (because I knew a lot of the story would have to be omitted to cram the saga into fifty-two minutes plus commercials), it was still Oz! Shirley played Tip/Ozma, Agnes Moorehead was a nifty Mombi, and Sterling Holloway, Ben Blue, Gil Lamb, and Frances Bergen beautifully embodied (respectively) Jack Pumpkinhead, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Glinda. Even Mel Blanc was on hand as the voice of the Sawhorse, with Arthur Treacher as Graves, the (what else?) Butler.
It was just two years later that there was another major Oz announcement in newspaper and movie magazine columns: a forthcoming feature-length animated cartoon musical, RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ. Producer Norman Prescott heralded this coup in autumn 1962: not only would the songs be written by the Academy Award-winning team of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, but Prescott had secured the services of Liza Minnelli as a singing Dorothy Gale. This marked the first professional assignment for the then-sixteen-year-old daughter of MGM’s WIZARD OF OZ Dorothy, Judy Garland. Minnelli was to be featured in four of the thirteen RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ musical numbers; others would be sung by Ethel Merman, Danny Thomas, Peter Lawford, Milton Berle, Rise Stevens, Herschel Bernardi, and Jack E. Leonard. (Mel Blanc, Paul Lynde, and Paul Ford had non-singing parts, as did Margaret Hamilton, who made a quantum leap from her MGM OZ roles as Almira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West by assaying the tender-hearted voicing of Aunt Em for the cartoon.)
Such a mix of talent created a genuine stir in the Oz community in 1962 — and I was among the most feverish of all! My Oz passions by then had been augmented by a fledgling fascination with musical comedy. Yet pretty much everyone’s curiosity about the project lessened as year after year passed, and there was no sign of the production coming to fruition. It was gradually learned that Prescott completed soundtrack recording for the film in short order but then ran into financial problems; it took him and his associates nearly a decade to finish the cartoon’s animation. (During that time, Mickey Rooney replaced Lawford on the track and rerecorded the Scarecrow’s voice.) When the picture finally made its debut in England and Australia in 1972, most interest and anticipation for it had faded, while the title itself had evolved from RETURN TO OZ to THE RETURN TO OZ to JOURNEY BACK TO OZ. A 1974 USA theatrical release was a washout, although the production later found a somewhat responsive audience during teleshowings and on home video.
Last month’s blog discussed the 1960s’ Oz convention showings of some of the early silent Oz movies – especially those made by L. Frank Baum himself in 1914. (They were abetted by the long. dull, minimally Ozzy, and very weird feature done in 1925.) As I wrote here in June, I couldn’t believe I was seeing those motion pictures during my first formal Oz gatherings, and the 1914 productions, at least, were fascinating and often delightful. These Baum fantasias (THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ, THE MAGIC CLOAK OF OZ, and HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ) contained his own story elements and treasured characters — including some new astonishments like my personal favorite, “the awful lonesome Zoop.” Each reel of film opened and closed with an EXTREME close-up of The Oz Film Company’s “living logo,” actress Vivian Reed as Princess Ozma:
We’ve long since passed into an era when all of those silent films (and countless other Oz motion pictures and television shows) are readily at hand. A 16mm projector, screen, and personal film prints have been supplanted by VHS, DVD, and YouTube. Yet the early cinematic thrills that came along for Oz fans in the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s were extraordinary, simply BECAUSE the material was only minimally available – and certainly never at just the touch of a “play” button.
As you’ve read above, announcements about Oz events often appeared out of the blue – and as surprises that galvanized the small Oz Club community into communication. It was a lovely, warming time to be a fan: all thirty-nine of the Oz books were back in print for several years beginning in 1960; there was the new addition to the series (number forty!), MERRY GO ROUND IN OZ, in 1963; MGM’s WIZARD OF OZ was a cross-country, heavily-anticipated annual TV event; articles began to appear in national publications about Baum, Oz, and the Oz Club . . . and the random expansions of the Oz franchise continued to mount.
Did we think it would ever come to its present day omnipresence? I know I didn’t even contemplate such a thing “back in the day”; I was too busy enjoying all we had! But given today’s internet, the rabid fan groups of all ages, and the immediate (if not faster!) exchange of news, gOZzip, activities, and all, it’s now entirely possible to get swept up in a daily cyclone (you didn’t think I’d say, “go down a rabbit hole,” did you?), and to become enmeshed and immersed in — and to otherwise hobnob with — the latest Ozian escapades and “escapaders.”
What’s this? You need, want, and demand proof of such omnipresence, commonality, and familiarity of Oz in present-day pop culture? Okay, here are two examples: 1) Please review the photo at the very top of this blog and note that an entire, month-long county fair was built around Baum’s imagination and its varied franchises just two years ago last month. It attracted 1,531,199 people.
And 2) For those who require an even more recent example, here’s an editorial cartoon born of the early July heatwave:
NO explanation required. 😊
And, as ever, thank you for reading!