REMEMBERING, RESPONDING, REJOICING: A “NEW YEAR” MEDLEY OF OZ!

By: John Fricke

[Above: Some of you may feel certain that you know what you’re seeing in this photo – and some of you may be right! 😊 But for those who are and for those who aren’t, please keep reading. There’s a specific reason this picture is on display, as well as further specific reasons for all seven which follow in our inaugural ALL THINGS OZ blog for 2022!]

Frank Sinatra sang it best: “Who knows where the road will lead us? Only a fool would say . . . .”
Well, fool I may be, but I’m not foolish enough to actively predict the unfolding, unraveling, and/or unimaginable delights of 2022 — no matter how much hope we all have for the latter! So instead, we’re going to focus on three approaches for the first blog of the year: remembering, responding, and rejoicing. If you’ll (please) “read on,” you’ll see what I mean.
First, we happily recollect two women who lived extraordinary lives, and in terms of longevity alone, that’s an incontrovertible statement. An even greater hallmark, however, was the demeanor possessed by both. Anyone who knew, watched, or worked with them could easily observe the ability, dedication, and determination they possessed. Furthermore, they used all three to infuse day-to-day (and decade-to-decade) existence with energy, joy, caring, and sharing.
One of these women was Betty White, and her career achievements and personal commitments to animal welfare (among other causes) have been reviewed at length across the recent weeks since she passed at age ninety-nine. However! There’s a key factoid about her developmental years that often gets lost amidst homage to THE GOLDEN GIRLS, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, HOT IN CLEVELAND, et al. Are you aware that one of her two or three (absolutely!) favorite authors was L. Frank Baum? In interviews over the years – and in some of her own autobiographical writings — Ms. White has warmly referenced him and the Oz bookS (a capital “S” there, please, as she was very much aware there was much more to “the land” than just one volume). Meanwhile, here’s illustrative proof: In this ebullient photo from the mid-1960s, Betty poses with new husband Allen Ludden. She’s reading Ruth Plumly Thompson’s KABUMPO IN OZ, and he’s holding Baum’s THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ, while a drawing or poster of the latter character unfurls below them. The entire image is, indeed, a lovely way for Oz partisans to remember one of their own.

Another favorite Oz champion passed on Christmas Eve. She certainly wasn’t as internationally famous as Betty White, but she was equally cherished, treasured, and venerated by the fans who’d embraced her across four decades as a mainstay of Oz festivals in the Midwest United States. Mary Ellen Burbach didn’t appear in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 film, THE WIZARD OF OZ, but her husband-to-be, Pernell St. Aubin, played in that production as both a Munchkin townsman and soldier. (In later years, Mary Ellen would proudly point him out to those viewing the movie: “Behind Dorothy’s carriage! He’s a soldier – in the front row, closest to the screen!”)

They wed in 1948; prior to that, Mary Ellen worked at the Chicago World’s Fair as well as onstage and in nightclubs, performing with one or another of the famous troupes of “little people” then on the circuit. She also traveled to Hollywood, where she was seen onscreen as a leprechaun princess in MGM’s THREE WISE FOOLS (1946). The movie itself “sort of . . . well, it disappeared!” she would later admit, although Mary Ellen took pride in recalling its all-star cast: Margaret O’Brien, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Arnold, Jane Darwell, Cyd Charisse, Harry Davenport, and Ray Collins among them. In the photo below, the older gentlemen are (from left) Thomas Mitchell (with Margaret O’Brien), Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore (seated), and Lewis Stone. Mary Ellen is pretty much dead center in her fairy garb – and note, please, just three leprechauns to her right: Jerry (“Lollipop Guild” of Oz) Maren!

In both preceding and succeeding years, both Mary Ellen and Pernell enjoyed miscellaneous other entertainment-related jobs, but they came into their own as proprietors and bartenders of Chicago’s Midget Club. That comfortable neighborhood establishment (in two locations, first from 1948-1955, and then elsewhere until 1982) was built to their size and, as a result, garnered both curiosity and patronage. Due to such publicity, Jean Nelson of near-by Chesterton, IN, reached out to the St. Aubins in 1982 and invited them to her local WIZARD OF OZ festival. They attended four annual events as a couple; after Pernell’s passing in 1987, Mary Ellen continued to make Oz appearances and became known and adored in Chesterton as the festival’s “first lady.”

The original Chesterton event disbanded after 2012, and a Tinley Park, IL, WIZARD OF OZ FEST was one of several that supplanted it. Mary Ellen continued as their honored guest and “first lady” throughout the festival’s initial five years of operation (2015-2019). The photo here shows her onsite 98th birthday party in September 2018, in which she’s posing with, from left: Carla Sellers (official photographer and attendee of countless Oz festivals), emcee John Fricke (yours truly), and Christine Lascody – Mary Ellen’s best friend.

After a very brief illness, the still-working and vitally-independent Mary Ellen St. Aubin left us at age 101. It might better be said that she left us WITH an amazing legacy of camaraderie, capacity-to-party, and love of life. 😊


Now for a couple of responses! Over the last four years, this blog has discussed many Oz and Frank Baum-related topics; one of the most popular of these has always been MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ film. This is, of course, to be expected, as that motion picture has long been recognized as the best-known, best-loved, and most-familiar of all time.

At one recent point, a question was posed to me as to which sequences in the picture offered opportunities to get a glimpse of the stars’ “doubles,” filling in for them for stunts or tricky scenes. Well, as this actually happens with at least five of the principal cast members at one moment or another – and with appreciation for the query – here’s a quick checklist. For example:

a) Judy Garland’s Dorothy double takes the fall into the Kansas pigpen; opens the sepia door of the Kansas farmhouse so that the Technicolor Judy can step forward into Munchkinland; and is swept up into the air by the Winged Moneys.

b) Bert Lahr’s double does the Cowardly Lion’s athletic leap onto the Yellow Brick Road to scare Dorothy and her friends at their first encounter; he also does the dive through the Emerald City window after their first meeting with the Wizard.

c) Jack Haley’s double is dropped – clinking, clanking, and clattering — to the ground in the Haunted Forest, after the Tin Man is hoisted into the air because HE doesn’t believe in spooks.

d) Margaret Hamilton’s double is elevator-propelled onto the Munchkinland set for the first appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West.

AND

e) in a moment that is now astoundingly recognizable, the doubles for the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion are extraordinarily apparent in a couple (though not all) of the shots of the trio as they climb the mountain to reach the Wicked Witch’s Castle. Please see the photo at the top of this month’s blog; it ain’t Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr, that’s for sure! Meanwhile, when next you see this sequence of the film, please notice the much-more-raggedy Cowardly Lion costume being worn by the Lahr doppelganger!

Just above? This is one of several other MGM motion picture appearances made by THE WIZARD OF OZ tornado, and over the months, several people have inquired as to where they might see it in action. There are at least two films for which to watch out on the Turner Classic Movies channel, as the special effects footage crafted by A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie and his associates was deemed so effective that portions unused in OZ later turned up in both HIGH BARBAREE (1947) and as seen here in a moment from CABIN IN THE SKY (1943). That’s Lena Horne – stunning from any angle – who watches the thirty-five-feet tall muslin and chicken-wire funnel as it approaches to destroy the “wicked place” where she, Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and others have been partying.


My own rejoicing this month comes in the form of professional and personal appreciation. Some of you may remember recently reading here about the new book, THE ART OF OZ, published in December by Rizzoli and launched by Gabriel Gale and me in both virtual and random book-signings since November — including one for Chittenango’s All Things Oz Gift Shop and Museum! Both of us are sincerely, deeply grateful for the enthusiasm shown by those who have purchased and enjoyed THE ART OF OZ, but the New York book launch on November 19th was uniquely memorable. Not only did a jam-packed crowd turn out – more than thirty had to stand in the rear of the room after all seats were taken – but there were two very special guests on hand. One of these was Jane Lahr, daughter of OZ movie Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr. Jane actually served as the book packager of THE ART OF OZ, and it was her passion and delight in Gabe’s artwork that led to Rizzoli’s acquiring the project. The other visitant was Scott Meserve, grandson of the Wickedest Witch of the West of ALL time, Margaret Hamilton. You can imagine the thrill of their presence for the many Oz fans in attendance, as Jane and Scott lent distinction, class, glee, and history to the event.

So . . . here are a couple of photos of their forbearers in appreciation for magic past, present, and future! (That of Maggie was specifically chosen to emphasize her grandmotherly aura – everywhere apparent during her print-ad and TV commercial reign as Cora, spokesperson for Maxwell House coffee during the 1970s.)

The other professional association of the moment – for which gratitude is due — is pictorially summarized just below. Michael Feinstein and I have been friends for more than forty years, and it was (as might be expected) a professional joy to assist behind-the-scenes in the assemblage and presentation of his new show, GET HAPPY. The two-act concert celebrates the 2022 centennial of Judy Garland, honoring in song her vaudeville and motion picture repertoire, as well as her stage, recording, and television careers. GET HAPPY was offered over nine performances here in New York City between December 15 and 26, and audiences were enraptured by the music, lyrics, and anecdotes Michael shared. (Four of his songs are among those written by Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg for THE WIZARD OF OZ score.) My own role came in providing Garland memorabilia — stills, posters, program covers, and some film footage — to serve as visual accompaniment, virtually throughout the evening. So all OZ movie fans and all Garland and Great American Popular Song adherents, advocates, and aficionados, please take note: Watch for Michael as he tours GET HAPPY in honor of HER centennial (June 10 of this year).

There you have it: remembering, responding, and rejoicing! 😊 I hope you’ve enjoyed this means of swinging into 2022. It seemed to be a fitting way to simultaneously look back and look ahead at some of the love and immeasurable pleasure that annually grows out of L. Frank Baum, Oz, and everything they’ve wrought in 121 years. I know I’m thankful for it all – and I know I’m thankful that you continue to align with us here every month to share the prized memories and activities.
Here’s to the health, blessings, and elations ahead!