POSTERS & HERALDS & ADS . . . OH, OZ! (PART ONE)

By John Fricke

Above:  In Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s explosive exploitation and press book for THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), a full page was devoted to a dazzling conglomeration of the posters created to herald the film’s release.

A picture, we hear, is worth a thousand words.

Well, if that be true, the purpose of this blog is to spare you (most!) of ten thousand words . . . and simply provide some Ozzy art that it’s hoped will spur joy, nostalgia, curiosity, and memories. Most of all, may it inspire affection, admiration, and awe for what Chittenango native L. Frank Baum launched 121 years ago when he first shared news of a visit to a marvelous land.

THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, published in 1900, is the book that started it all. Since then, it and the various offshoots of Baum’s subsequent nineteen years of magic and imagination have been franchised, expanded upon, brand-ed, exploited — but mostly revered and held in heart, joy, and delight by countless billions of people of all ages.

This month and next, the All Things Oz Blog will look at artwork attendant to some of the Oz projects of the past 119 years, demonstrating how the public was notified about the happiness ahead — or at-hand. The illustrations will be accompanied by anecdotes or factoids . . . or whatever other random Ozziness comes to mind!

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Back in the early-to-mid-1960s, premier Oz collector and illustrator Dick Martin received a phone call from a local Chicago book dealer who knew of Dick’s virtually lifelong enthusiasm and wanted to alert him to some vintage Oz posters he’d just acquired.  Dick appreciated the information and told the dealer he’d be in to see them. He also assumed, however, that the store owner was generically referencing some of the various-sized placards for the 1939 MGM film version of THE WIZARD OF OZ — or its 1949 or 1955 theatrical reissues. At that time, and believe it or not, such movie memorabilia was barely collected or considered collectible (times have changed, hey?!), so Dick didn’t rush over to the man’s shop.  A week or so passed; the man phoned again to inquire as to Dick’s interest. Dick assured him that he’d be in very soon, but he still and privately didn’t feel very motivated.

More time went by, and the dealer made one last call to say he’d seek another buyer if Dick, for some reason, was absolutely indifferent. At that point — and given the fact that the two were friends — Dick decided he owed the man an immediate visit; imagine, please, Dick’s quiet ecstasy when he then and finally made the trek:

The large and extraordinary posters the man had obtained (I think there were four) dated back not to MGM but to the very first stage dramatization of THE WIZARD OF OZ, which opened in Chicago in 1902. It captivated the town, did a brief and jubilantly received tour, and opened in popular triumph in New York in January 1903. The production (sometimes with two companies playing the circuits at the same time) was “on the boards” for seven seasons; this was an unheard of theatrical success back in the day. Needless to say, the beautifully lithographed color posters – then already more than sixty years old — were an amazing (I’ll say it again: AMAZING) addition to the Dick Martin collection.

Baum himself had been very active in that OZ production, contributing (of course) the basic story and some of the song lyrics. Though it was enormously different in many ways from the Oz book, the show nonetheless enjoyed such popularity that it provided Baum with an enormous income. In turn, he invested some of that money in another theatrical offering: the imaginative, multi-media FAIRYLOGUE & RADIO-PLAYS, with which he toured for four months at the end of 1908. The program consisted of hand-colored silent films, color slides, and a live orchestra; the author/producer himself appeared as the in-person host and narrator. Such an undertaking was majorly expensive, however, and although well-received, the RADIO PLAYS had to be abandoned before further debt was incurred.

Above: This all-encompassing herald touts the Baum characters and adventures included in his lavish RADIO-PLAYS venture. Adapted primarily from the second and third Oz books (THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ and OZMA OF OZ), the performance concluded with a picturization of Baum’s 1906 fantasy novel, JOHN DOUGH AND THE CHERUB.

In 1913, Baum brought THE TIK-TOK MAN OF OZ to the stage, rewritten from a musical script he’d originally fashioned several years earlier. Although the show never made it to Broadway or to the major Eastern cities, it was thoroughly enjoyed by audiences on the West Coast and throughout the Midwest, touring in all for ten months:

As must by now be apparent, Baum was indefatigably ingenious. Within weeks of the closing of THE TIK-TOK MAN OF OZ, he and several Los Angeles businessmen teamed to form The Oz Film Manufacturing Co. It was designed to make feature-length motion pictures of Baum’s fantasies — Oz and otherwise — and Oz Films were speedily established and ensconced in their own studio in Hollywood. However, there were distribution challenges for both this new organization and its fare; this was a couple of decades before Walt Disney created a genuine market for “family” films and fairy tale retellings. Thus, after three Oz films, two productions intended for a less juvenile market, and several short subjects, the Oz Film Co. was disbanded. Its first effort, THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ (1914), was a fairly faithful adaptation of Baum’s children’s book of the preceding year, although the author also added a love interest to the plot in an effort to engage the attentions of a grown-up audience. This double-page advertisement announced the intended splendor of the five-reel movie:

Jumping ahead a number of decades, 1961 televiewers were at least initially intrigued by a series of four-or-five minute cartoons that began appearing in syndication that autumn. TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ was an early effort by what soon became the celebrated Rankin/Bass production team and firm. In this instance, though, the animations were hurried (no pun intended), and the characters were more buffoon than classic: Socrates Strawman, Rusty Tin Man, Dandy Lion, and a group of incomprehensibly chattering Munchkins who looked like tiny gumdrops. There was, however, a muted-if-brief appeal to it all – it WAS Oz, even if only after a fashion — and the cartoons additionally inspired a series of promotional toys (as indicated by this trade paper ad from the era):

Everyone in the United States who is now of “certain ages” (say, mid-thirties to eighty) grew up across the five decades that MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ was an exclusive and virtually annual national telecast. Between 1956 and 1998, the movie appeared on network TV no less than thirty-nine times; since then, there have generally been multiple cablecasts across any twelve-month period. During the pre-home video era, however — from 1956 to the early 1980s — it’s impossible to overstate the excitement created by OZ “once-a-year only!” Pretty much the entire general public was its audience, and advertisements like this (a full-page in TV GUIDE) emphasize the importance of the film for viewers, its TV network (either CBS or NBC, pending contracts with MGM), and its sponsors:

Film rights to Baum’s thirteen other Oz novels were held by Walt Disney for a number of years before that studio finally committed to production of a full-length, live action RETURN TO OZ for release in 1985. Though stunning in virtually all of its performances, creature creations, and many of its visual moments, the finished product was oddly scripted and, as a result, either alienated or displeased its initial audiences. Word-of-mouth and critical comment were highly mixed, and RETURN TO OZ was thus a commercial failure. Yet in recent years, its merits have been widely and wildly expounded and expanded upon, and there’s no question the picture has a devout (if still limited) following.

Initially, the Disney project was simply called OZ. This advance promotional poster indicates that title; the horrific or horrified (take your pick!) eyes are those of actress Jean (UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS) Marsh, who costarred in RETURN TO OZ in the dual role of Mombi the Witch and Nurse Wilson:

Finally, we’ll close this month as we began – with artist Dick Martin and a classic example of his own work. Dick began a lustrous association with Oz book publishers, The Reilly & Lee Company of Chicago, circa 1959. Over the next decade or so, he illustrated THE VISITORS FROM OZ and MERRY GO ROUND IN OZ, contributed new art for ten Oz dust jackets, recreated John R. Neill cover artwork for lovely new editions of Baum’s Oz titles, wrote Oz newspapers, did promotional “chalk-talks,” and (circa 1965) designed and drew this captivating poster:

It was conceived to market the basic Oz characters and series, while simultaneously promoting two of the more recent Ozians. For those who’d welcome a quick guide, please view the characters clockwise from the Cowardly Lion (top center): He is followed by the Scarecrow, the Wizard, Princess Ozma, Tik-Tok the Clockwork Man, and the banner-bearing Flittermouse. Around and up on the opposite side, you’ll see Merry Go Round, Dorothy Gale, the Nome King, the Tin Woodman, and Scraps the Patchwork Girl. All are Baum book characters, except for Flitter and Merry, both of whom took principal roles in the then-new fortieth Oz title, MERRY GO ROUND IN OZ (1963) by Eloise Jarvis McGraw and her daughter Lauren Lynn McGraw.

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Over the years, a number of you have written to (or spoken with) me to say how much pleasure you’ve found in the odd combinations of illustrations included in these blogs. In case it isn’t by now obvious, this month’s composite “gathering” is especially meant for all of you, and part two of “Posters & Heralds & Ads . . . Oh, Oz!” will appear next month, right here!

I hope you’ve found it fun – because if it isn’t fun, we’re doing it wrong. 😊

Thanks for reading!