Back in June, a friend sent me a card of the 1939 fab four: Ray Bolger, Judy Garland, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr (which is to say, the scarecrow, Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion) skipping arm in arm down the yellow brick road on their way to Oz. Why do I still want somebody — anybody from the movie I saw so many times growing up — to still be around? Now it all really does seem like a dream.
Kansas is in stormy black-and-white (actually dyed sepia), and Oz in vibrant Technicolor, a process invented back in 1917, though seldom used till The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind came out. By then, the Depression not quite over but waning, and the scent of war in the air, it was time for those ruby slippers. The slippers are, as a matter of fact, silver in the book, but Samuel Goldwyn was paying for all the Technicolor, and he wanted those shoes to dazzle. All these years later, after the last munchkin, Jerry Maren, died at 98, the whole speaking cast of that great movie is completely over the rainbow, with no more lollipops for the guild to present.
It’s been eighty-three years since 16-year-old Judy Garland stepped into the role of Dorothy, a little girl in gingham wearing red sparkly shoes, and belted out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” for wide release. That wide release probably included the St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat movie palace in Staten Island, which many years later I was to have a hand in running — but I digress — The Wizard has the show today.
Early releases of Wizard are interesting to muse over. On June 5, 1939, sneak previews in Santa Barbara, Pomona and San Luis Obispo, California, helped director Victor Fleming figure out what to cut (the movie ran two hours, though 90 minutes was the max in those days). Amazing note: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” almost got the hatchet, which, beyond robbing the world of a great song sung by a great young voice, would also have stolen away an Academy Award for the production.
Three August “test screenings” (August 11, in Kenosha, Wisconsin and Cape Cod Massachusetts, and August 12 at the Strand Theatre in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin) gauged audience response to the now 101-minute movie. Of these three unofficial premier sites, only Oconomowoc (Strand demolished in 1960) celebrates with frequency the 1939 screenings. There’s a plaque on the site where the Strand Theatre once stood, “This commemorates the World Premier of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, shown here in downtown Oconomowoc, at the Strand Theatre on August 12, 1939.” Well not exactly the world premier, even if you count trial screenings, since Cape Cod and Kenosha beat the Strand by a day. Meanwhile, that hasn’t deterred Oconomowocs, from erecting colorful statuary of Dorothy, Toto, and her three companions, to which this summer a father/daughter team added a mural, the first of several improvements planned by city officials.
Admission to the original 1939 evening showing, BTW, at the Strand was 40 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. Each anniversary of the movie’s release, despite the Strand’s untimely death, citizens of Oconomowoc have gathered to watch the movie on a temporary outdoor screen. How America does love to remember. And to capitalize.
On August 15, 1939, at the then 12-year-old Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in L.A., The Wizard of Oz was officially born to its viewing public. Munchkins and other cast members in formal dress were in attendance. Already on a train bound for New York City, Judy Garland and her side-kick-of-the-era, Mickey Rooney, planned live entertainment for the stage of NYC’s Capitol Theatre, where Oz would open to the East Coast, on August 17th.
Alas, there is little that remains, even of descriptions of the Capitol. According to Cinema Treasures, the theater had better than four thousand seats, and, at one time, was managed by none other than S.L. (Roxy) Rothafel himself. It was a Thomas Lamb theater.
With Hitler fifteen days shy of invading Poland, and the Depression not really over yet, people waited in line at the Capitol, and at Grauman’s too – and under a lot of other marquees – to forget a world that must have seemed to be falling apart.
Perhaps we need a little Oz these days too?
1. The wicked witch “melts” because witches and water don’t mix. Dorothy has doused the witch with water to keep her from setting fire to the scarecrow. According to one source, Hamilton “...was standing on a trap door and was supposed to disappear down into it quickly when the smoke (followed by fire) puffed up, but during the second take of that scene, the fire came too early and her costume started burning. She suffered second and third degree burns and was unable to work for a month. When she came back, she refused to do any more work with fire.” Can’t say as I blame her.
2. As of May 24, 2018, with the passing of the last living Munchkin, Jerry Maren, at 98, (who portrayed one of the three representatives of the Lollipop Guild), it can now be said that every actor who received an on-screen credit or spoke dialogue in The Wizard of Oz is dead.
3. I’d like to imagine that The St. George Theatre, which I ran for a year in 1976, premiered The Wizard of Oz after it left the Capitol; seems logical, as, 37 years before we showed up, the St. George was a first-run house, the biggest and most ornate theater on the island.
4. From a New Yorker cartoon: little girl sits with her mother watching The Wizard of Oz on television. Caption: “But why does she want to go back to Kansas, where everything is black-and-white?” Interestingly, a decision was almost made not to feature Kansas as black-and-white — too austere for children! Imagine that...
5. The Wizard of Oz has been officially tapped as the most influential film ever made, by a group of Italian researchers who analyzed 47,000 films across 26 genres. Runners up in that contest include: Star Wars, Psycho, King Kong (1933), and 2001: A Space Odyssey. A list of the top twenty is contained in the link above. Their definition of “influential” has a lot to do with outstripping other movies in how much a film has inspired and been referenced in the film industry.