The Wizard of Oz

We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.

When Failure magazine’s editors first conceived this article, it was slated to be a small feature focusing on the life of L. Frank Baum. However, we soon discovered that it was hard to write about Baum without analyzing the Wizard of Oz and its movie legacy. As we immersed ourselves in all things Oz, we were surprised and delighted at the cooperation we received from everyone we interviewed. During our research, we were serenaded by Munchkins, confided in by fans, and encouraged by the experts to clarify the revisionist history that has come to be accepted as fact. It wasn’t long before our small Baum piece took us on a full-fledged journey to Oz. 

While this year is the 100th anniversary of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” we opted to focus our attention on the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer movie. After all, for most people, the classic 1939 film is the Wizard of Oz. Phrases such as “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” and “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!,” have become almost universally recognizable—permanent fixtures in our vernacular. But we didn’t neglect Baum and the rest of Oz’s long and complex history. Filled with successes and failures both large and small, when you add them all together you have perhaps the single greatest movie of the 20th century, and a phenomenon that continues to grow even today.

There’s No Place Like Oz
The first thing that distinguishes Oz from other popular entertainment is that nothing else has the same enduring, across-the-board appeal. It’s almost impossible to define a demographic for Oz fans, because “the age range is from fetal to fatal,” says John Fricke, 50, pre-eminent Oz historian, self-proclaimed fan and author of “100 Years of Oz,” published last year to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the movie. Fricke notes that the story has appeal on three different levels: “As a child you relate to Dorothy,” says Fricke. “There isn’t a child who can’t identify with the fear of being lost and having to get home, the fear of losing a pet or the feeling of wanting to run away.”

Young adults identify with the characters’ perceived inadequacies. “As a teenager, three of the main emotions you struggle with are, ‘Am I brave?,’ ‘Am I smart?’ and ‘Am I loving?’ So there you have Dorothy’s companions sewn up for you,” he continues. “As an adult—and I think Ray Bolger [the scarecrow] said it best—‘if you’re lucky, you come to the realization that yes, of course, you are smart and brave and have a heart.’”

Peter Hanff, president of the International Wizard of Oz Club, relates similar sentiments, saying, “I think the Oz story works because all the characters are novel in their uniqueness. And like most of us, they have the archetypal qualities they are seeking, even though they don’t quite recognize they have those qualities.” 

Other Oz principals highlight the film’s wholesome content. Jean Nelson, owner of the Yellow Brick Road store in Chesterton, Indiana, and founder of the town’s annual Oz festival opines that the public embraces its old-fashioned virtues. “It’s a movie that you can let your children watch and don’t have to be afraid of what they are going to see or hear,” says Nelson. Meinhardt Raabe, 85, who played the coroner of Munchkinland (“She’s really most sincerely dead!”) agrees: “There’s nothing in it that can be offensive to anyone of any age, as opposed to the pictures today.”

Fricke notes that the passion for Oz is particularly intense for people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s because the movie was such a part of everyone’s yearly existence. “It got to the point where the three most important days of the year were Christmas, your birthday, and the day The Wizard of Oz was on TV, because it was something everybody did together and [in the pre-VCR era] you could only see it once per year,” he says. But there’s 40 years of history before the MGM movie was even conceived, which leads us back to a storyteller named Baum.

The Baum Site
By the time L. Frank Baum wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” he was in his mid-forties and had led an undistinguished professional life, having worked as an actor, reporter, salesman, playwright and store owner. But he clearly had a knack for telling children’s stories, and when he began to write them down in the mid-1890s commercial success soon followed. His second work, “Father Goose, His Book,” became the country’s best-selling children’s title, and in 1898 he began to conceive the Oz story. (Legend has it the name Oz came from a filing cabinet labeled O-Z). From that moment on—for better and sometimes for worse—Oz would be a fixture of Baum’s life, with “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” going on to become one of the most popular children’s books of all time. 

What would L. Frank Baum think about the ongoing Wizard of Oz phenomenon? Robert Baum, one of L. Frank’s great-grandsons, says, “I think he’d be a bit surprised that something he tried to do for children had become an everyday part of life throughout the world. I also believe he would be very pleased, humbled and maybe a little bit scared.”

During his last 20 years, Frank Baum wrote more than 70 books, many of which have been almost totally forgotten. He penned a total of 14 Oz titles, and after his death seven other authors combined to add 26 titles to the series, with a new story every Christmas between 1913 and 1942. Today, great-grandson, Roger, continues to produce Oz titles such as the recent “Green Star of Oz,” although his books are geared towards children, as opposed to being full-fledged fantasy novels.

But Baum found his first few Oz books a hard act to follow—and to escape from. Audiences clamored for Oz to the point where it quickly reached into other mediums (at a time before extending your product line was a given). In 1902 a musical version of The Wizard of Oz was produced; it was successful enough to tour the country for nine years, spending a year-and-a-half on Broadway. 

But longing to get away from fairy tales, Baum attempted to write novels and children’s stories under various pen names. He scripted a play called “The Woggle Boy” which critics despised, and his multimedia show Fairylogue and Radio Plays was a commercial fiasco, such that in 1911 Baum was forced to declare bankruptcy. He attempted to re-emerge with the Oz Film Manufacturing Company—but its full-length fantasy films, largely based on the Oz books—did not become successful either.

At the end of “The Emerald City of Oz” (1909), Baum announced—using Dorothy as his voice—that there would be no more Oz books. Yet in 1913, the joy of writing about Oz returned, and he re-started the series, producing a new title every year for the next six years despite declining health. He suffered from angina attacks, a facial palsy and a diseased gallbladder, finally passing away from a stroke in 1919.

The 1925 and 1939 Wizard of Oz Films
The Oz movie legacy began unceremoniously in 1925 with a silent screen version starring Oliver Hardy, which was called The Wizard of Oz but made dramatic departures from Baum’s plot lines. “They did everything wrong on that movie,” notes Fricke. “The people who were looking for the Oz story were totally baffled and the people who were looking for a good silent screen comedy didn’t get one of those either. It’s a pretty dull picture, and duller still by today’s standards. Maybe if you showed it to somebody and didn’t call it The Wizard of Oz it would be less boring—but it couldn’t possibly be less offensive.” 

By contrast, MGM seemed to do everything right with the 1939 version, despite being up against significant technical and physical hurdles, particularly concerning Technicolor. “Color in those days was a very difficult process,” says Fricke. “Three strips of film ran through the camera, one to produce yellow, one to produce blue and one to produce red, and when printed on top of one another they would give the full spectrum of colors. There were only nine Technicolor cameras in existence at the time and because Gone With the Wind was filming and there were other demands on the cameras they had to film scenes at night. Plus, it took an enormous amount of light to get the sets bright enough to be filmed in Technicolor. They could only turn those lights on for so long before they had to turn them off and let everything cool down.”

The stars had their own challenges. As a teenager, Judy Garland could only work four hours a day on the set with three hours set aside for schooling and an hour for recreation. “They’d get around that by sending the makeup people to her house at 5 am so that wouldn’t constitute work time," says Fricke. “They’d get her to the studio at 8 and then she’d go to school and make the movie and get home at 7 or 8 at night. That’s rough on any human being, let alone a teenager, and she was working six days a week.” 

The costumes presented issues for the other actors. Barry Bregman, 48, grandson of the Tin Woodman, Jack Haley, says his grandfather’s cumbersome get-up prevented him from ever sitting down on the set. “He had to be on a slant board,” notes Bergmen. Haley couldn’t complain, though, as he replaced the original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, just days after production got underway when Ebsen nearly died after his lungs became coated with the aluminum dust used for the Tin Man’s makeup. 

The Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, also spent an extended period of time in the hospital, after her face and hand was seriously burned during a take of her fiery departure from Munchkinland.

Wizard of Oz Myths
Considering its stature it’s not surprising that a series of myths about the movie emerged. Fricke attributes the biggest untruth to Aljean Harmetz, author of “The Making of the Wizard of Oz.” 

“Her whole treatise is that the picture was not well liked when it came out and that it was an enormous failure,” says Fricke. “She makes a big point of quoting from four negative reviews, but those four are the only negative reviews it got. The only part of her thesis that is correct is that the film didn’t make a profit in 1939.”

The film’s unfavorable balance sheet was undoubtedly due to the outbreak of World War II (which cut off most of the European market for the film), the fact that the child-dominated audience paid lower admission fees, and because 1939 was a great year for motion pictures. (Other movies in 1939 included Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach and Babes in Arms.) Even a big hit couldn’t be held over when many other major releases were due to follow. The film finally became profitable upon its re-release in 1949, and really began to earn money when CBS began its annual television broadcasts in 1956.

Another myth that has evolved is that Judy Garland almost didn’t get the part of Dorothy because MGM preferred Shirley Temple. “That’s patently ridiculous,” says Fricke. “One reason MGM wanted to buy The Wizard of Oz was as a showcase for Garland.”

According to Fricke, none of the casting changes were as dramatic as they’ve been portrayed. “There were a lot of casting evolvements that went on, but they were very low key and day-to-day,” he says. “Gayle Sondergaard went by the wayside after they saw tests of her made up all beautiful and slinky and decided this just wasn’t right for the Wicked Witch. When they made her ugly, she decided she wanted out. For the role of the Wizard, MGM wanted W.C. Fields or Ed Wynn, but Wynn and Fields both turned it down, because in an early copy of the script the part of the Wizard was pretty minor.” 

Even the Munchkins have been plagued by tall tales of drunken misbehavior on the set and a particularly persistent myth about one Munchkin who supposedly committed suicide on film—seen hanging from a tree in the background of one scene. This isn’t to say that the Munchkins were saints when off-camera. Donna Steward-Hardway, who was a child Munchkin but not a midget (she now stands 5’6"), was surprised to see little people on the set with ‘big people’ habits. “What I thought were children were not children,” she says. “They smoked cigars and used questionable language.”

The Wizard of Oz Today
When Nelson opened her store 23 years ago, she chose the name Yellow Brick Road simply because she thought it was catchy. "The first year we were open we didn’t even have Wizard of Oz stuff, but people started calling us from all over the U.S. asking what we had so we went out and started to search,” she says. “By ’79 we had one little cupboard full of items—but now it’s hard keeping up with all the products. Once I named that store Yellow Brick Road it took on a life of its own.” 

But Nelson didn’t stop with a storefront. In 1982, she started an annual Oz festival in an attempt to revive Chesterton’s sagging financial fortunes. “The economy around here was extremely depressed and that’s when I came up with the idea,” she says. This past September’s two-day and three-night festival attracted well over 75,000 people (the town has a population of 9,000).

Other towns have started Oz festivals too, including Chittenango, New York (L. Frank Baum’s birthplace), whose annual celebration includes a golf tournament called The Lollipop Kid Open. Jerry Maren, 80, who played one of the lollipop kids (he handed the lollipop to Dorothy) and more recently appeared on Seinfeld, says he attends seven or eight festivals every year, and is grateful for the appearance fees. Munchkin soldier Clarence Swenson—who was paid $50 a week for his part—concurs, saying, “The best thing that ever happened to me from being in The Wizard of Oz is the ability for us to now go to the different events.”

Margaret Pellegrini, 77, who played a flower pot girl Munchkin and was also up in the nest (“Wake up you sleepyheads, rub your eyes, get out of bed”) enjoys that the festivals make it easier for her to keep in touch with her fellow Munchkins. But she says that none of her comrades had any inkling of how good the movie was going to be. “We didn’t know it was going to be a classic,” says Pellegrini. “It turned out to be a wonderful movie and there will never be another one like it.” In fact, the Munchkins had no idea what the rest of the movie was about because they only were on the set for the Munchkinland section of the picture. Pellegrini attended the premiere at the Fox Theatre in San Francisco and she remembers being delighted with the results; “I got so excited that I started screaming in the theater and everybody got scared and looked back at me.” 

All the Munchkins seem to agree that their most cherished moment was when Judy Garland invited each and each every Munchkin on the set—124 in all—to her private dressing room and gave them an autographed 8’ x 10’ black-and-white picture of herself. “She personalized each one,” says Pellegrini. “Mine says: ‘To Margaret: From your pal Judy.’ I still have it.” 

The Wizard of Oz Tomorrow 
All indications are that the Oz phenomenon is growing, with soundtrack sales strong and new Oz merchandise and collectables being churned out on a regular basis. Nelson believes that certain Oz properties haven’t yet been fully exploited, with the movie Dreamer of Oz starring John Ritter being one example. “It was supposed to start appearing on television once a year but it never did,” notes Nelson, “and whoever produced that movie has no idea how much the children loved it, because if they did, they’d get it on television, or at least on video where people could buy it.”

But while the merchandise and collectables generate a tremendous amount of money for the companies that produce it, not everyone is happy with the revenue distribution. Barry Bregman, Jack Haley’s grandson, says, “My grandfather only agreed to license one doll of his image for the promotion and advertising of the original release.” Bregman, who has worked in Hollywood as a record producer and as a staff writer for BMG [believe it or not he’s written with rock artist Toto], has an understanding of how royalties are normally paid and would like to see the actors’ estates compensated. “My grandfather’s contract was not in perpetuity and I’m getting very close to challenging this whole thing,” he says. “We do get paid on the soundtrack but it’s a sin that we don’t get any home video residuals.” Meanwhile, Bregman has just published his grandfather’s autobiography (“Heart of the Tin Man”) and is selling limited edition copies as well as re-touched images of his grandfather on a new Web site. 

For most of the descendants of the creators of Oz, the impact is a lot simpler. “I’ve been a teacher for 33 years,” says Robert Baum, “and when kids recognize my name and say, ‘Oh, that’s the same name,’ I say, yes, that’s my great-grandfather. It’s a very handy way of catching the attention of the kids. They are far more willing to listen and learn.” 

Today, with the Harry Potter series the hottest book series around, there is a similar effect on children (and adults) as the Oz series had 100 years ago. “I think the Harry Potter phenomenon is wonderful and those books have a great deal of the same kind of appeal and clout that the Oz books book did,” says Fricke. For Fricke, the bottom line is that both Potter and Oz are simply great entertainment, and he is perturbed when people try to inject hidden meaning. “All the stupid people who do the harping on, ‘Oh, the Wizard of Oz is a parable on the populist movement, or we should look at it from a feminist point of view or a Marxist or sexual or religious point of view’—get over it. I’m sorry, this is just supposed to be for fun folks.”

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