John Fricke on the 80th Anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz”

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Historian, author and greatest living Oz expert, John Fricke.

For as long as I’ve loved Victor Fleming’s 1939 Hollywood landmark, “The Wizard of Oz,” John Fricke has been The Man Behind the Curtain, and like the wizard himself, he is well worth our attention. I grew up watching the film on a 50th anniversary VHS tape that my family had inherited from my great-grandma after her passing in 1990. It turns out that leading “Oz” historian Fricke has been working with MGM, Turner, and Warner Bros. on anniversary releases of the picture for the past thirty years, beginning with my cherished tape. He’s written three books about Judy Garland and four about Oz, the most recent of which is The Wonderful World of Oz (Down East Books, 2013). As coproducer of the PBS “American Masters” and A&E “Biography” TV specials about Garland, Fricke is the recipient of two Emmy Awards. He also won a Grammy nomination for the booklet attendant to the Capitol CD, “Judy Garland: 25th Anniversary Retrospective.” Currently, he serves as Historian/Creative Consultant for the new Garland bio-musical, “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz,” a show that has its sights set on Broadway. (Liza Minnelli and the Garland Heirs Trust gave it their seal of approval earlier this month.)

A Wisconsin native and graduate of Northwestern, Fricke has lived near Times Square in New York City for 44 years. His home there is also a happy repository of bookcases and filing cabinets and boxes (oh my!), filled with research archives detailing the history of Garland’s life and the “Oz” production. As Fricke recently told me during a lively phone conversation, “These are not topics for which I have to manufacture the enthusiasm.” With “The Wizard of Oz” arriving back in theaters across the country for three special showings, courtesy of Fathom Events, in honor of its 80th anniversary, Fricke and I spoke at length about the picture’s transcendent power, his mixed emotions about Walter Murch’s 1985 cult classic, “Return to Oz,” and his involvement with (and our mutual regard for) Robert Allan Ackerman’s Emmy-winning 2001 TV movie, “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”

I must begin with Margaret Hamilton, whose interview excerpt on your audio commentary track accompanying the 75th anniversary Blu-ray of “The Wizard of Oz” absolutely nails the film’s ageless appeal. She says that the concept of “home” amounts to much more than a place, and for many people, this movie IS home. For those lucky enough to have grown up with it, the very first notes of the score take us right back to when we first heard them.

Her words absolutely resonate with me as well. I first saw the film while visiting relatives in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, on November 3rd, 1956. That was the first “Oz” telecast, a special episode of the CBS “Ford Star Jubilee.” Ford had launched their monthly television series in September 1955 with Judy Garland’s TV performing debut—basically she did her Palace Theatre act live—because Henry Ford was a big Garland fan. When it came time to end the series fourteen months later, they negotiated to put “The Wizard of Oz” on TV. I was about three weeks short of my sixth birthday; up until then, I’d loved whatever Disney cartoons and musical specials I had seen: Mary Martin as “Peter Pan,” “Kukla, Fran & Ollie” live—all of these shows featuring beautifully arranged and beautifully sung or orchestrated songs. What fascinated me most of all was Walt Disney’s “Three Little Pigs,” until, of course, November 3, 1956.

That night, I watched “Oz” with three cousins, two uncles, and my dad. I was sitting on the floor at my dad’s feet, and I was just transfixed. As was custom in 1956, the three mothers were all in the kitchen: talking, smoking, and drinking coffee. When the winged monkeys flew into the Haunted Forest, I remember climbing into my dad’s lap. That was the only thing in “Oz” that made me kind of edgy! And as I went to bed that night, I couldn’t think or talk of anything other than “Oz,” and it’s a preoccupation that never let up. For my birthday, three weeks later, my folks gave me the movie soundtrack vinyl album, which had just come out concurrent with the TV showing, along with an abridged Wizard of Oz storybook and the 1956 Capitol album “Judy.” The latter showcased her in 11 “great popular songbook” standards, orchestrated by Nelson Riddle. From there, it all just snowballed. Those two albums kept alternating on my little three-speed record player. By 1964, when The Beatles arrived on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” I was like, “I’m sorry, three guitars and a drum ain’t gonna cut it.” Besides, “The Judy Garland Show” was on right after “Ed Sullivan” that fateful evening, and it was her first one-woman TV concert. The curtain opened, and there was Mort Lindsey and a 33-piece orchestra. I mean, c’mon, this is as good as it gets, folks!

I was seven when I found out that there were 40 Oz books. Across the next few years, my parents bought them for me, as did aunts and uncles and grandparents. When there were Judy Garland records to be bought, I received those, too. As a little boy growing up in the ‘50s, I listened to the greatest songs by the greatest songwriters arranged by the greatest people. And when you get interested in Judy, you automatically get interested in everything else, because at one point of the spectrum or another, she worked with all of the very best—at the beginning with Jolson and Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker, at the end with Streisand and Peter Allen, and in between with everybody! Following her career is a great crash course in pop culture of the early-to-mid-twentieth century.

“Oz” was telecast annually for three decades before the price of home video got to be low enough so that anybody with a VCR could either buy the movie or tape it themselves. But up to then, it had been a “once a year day” sensation. When scientific analysts cite the film as the most influential ever made, I think, ‘Well, a lot of us could’ve told you that.’ [laughs] For the last half century, you could start talking about “The Wizard of Oz” to just about anybody over the age of three, and there would be an immediate, shared reference point. People levitate from their chairs when they start discussing the movie. About six or seven years ago, The Weather Channel did a special on the 100 Most Pivotal Moments in Weather History, and at number 53, they listed the tornado in “The Wizard of Oz.” That sequence actually inspired people to become meteorologists.

There’s no question that the film has impacted all ages on a multitude of levels. If you grew up watching it on TV, every time you revisit the film, you think, ‘That was the one night we were able to stay up late, put on our pajamas and have popcorn and orange soda with our family, and we all watched it together.’ I remember one poignant story about a man who grew up in a very troubled house. He said that the “Oz” broadcast was the one very peaceful night of the year, because both of his parents loved that movie. As you say, Margaret Hamilton nailed it, as did Ray Bolger when he was a guest on “The Judy Garland Show.” He spoke of growing up with the Oz books, and the great philosophy that they expressed. His mother had pointed out to him the message of these books: “Everybody has a brain, everybody has a heart, and everybody has courage. These are the gifts that God gives people on earth, and if you use them properly, they lead you home. And home isn’t a place. It’s the people you love and the people who love you. That’s a home.”

I was also struck by the historical context you provided in the DVD commentary track, particularly the story of how Winston Churchill was informed that Australian soldiers would march while singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” during WWII. 

Well, I guess everything happens when all the planets align, but I don’t think it’s ever happened quite as noticeably or as rapturously as with “Oz.” First of all, the film was released at the end of the Great Depression, and even though the storm clouds were already gathering in Europe—WWII broke out there two weeks after “Oz” premiered here—there was still that residual 1930s sense of hope and courage and knowing that you have to work to get over the rainbow yourself. Australians marched into battle singing a parody of that “Oz” song for fortitude. In fact, Judy Garland sang a version of it in a WWII radio broadcast: “We’re Off to See Herr Hitler.” It was also reported that during the Blitzkrieg, when people in London were forced into shelters underground in the middle of the night, they would often sing “God Save the King” followed by “Over the Rainbow.”

I also became fascinated by the film on a technical and behind-the-scenes level. Three-strip Technicolor had only been around for about five years, and Arthur Freed had just done his decade of apprenticeship as a songwriter at MGM. He wanted to produce and build a property around Judy Garland, because he knew that she was up-and-coming but not already so great a star as to be inaccessible to him. He and producer Mervyn LeRoy loved “Oz” and were determined to put it onscreen, despite filming being thwarted right off the bat with the ill Tin Woodman and the lavishly made-up Dorothy. Then the director got fired, George Cukor briefly came in and changed what needed changing. And with Victor Fleming as the new director, suddenly every single piece of the mosaic fit.

The crux of my recent article on Cukor’s “A Star Is Born” is how a key scene in the film reflects the director’s own influence on “The Wizard of Oz,” and on Garland’s entire career. He was responsible for grounding Dorothy in Garland’s natural beauty, encouraging the studio to cast off the blonde wig and movie star makeup. She became a star precisely by being true to herself.

“A Star Is Born” was so much, as you point out, her story. She did come to MGM as someone too old to be Shirley Temple, and too young or too asexual in appearance at that point to be Lana Turner, even though the two of them were basically the same age. The studio tried to glamorize her as Dorothy, but that was neither the character or Judy Garland. Yet “glamour” was the reason they put her in a blonde wig, party dress, and overdone ruby slippers at the beginning of the shoot, even though that’s the antithesis of Dorothy—a simple farm girl from Kansas. When Cukor took off that the wig and encouraged her to embrace her inner identity as Frances Gumm, she sang “Over the Rainbow,” and Mayer kept it in. It was originally going to be cut because he didn’t want one of his stars to be shown singing in a barnyard. But that, overall, is the story of Judy Garland’s career. Yes, she got to be very pretty, and they knew how to do her hair and make her up—and work her into the ground—but you never got the sense that she was anything less than real. There was nothing artificial about her.

“Over the Rainbow” is also the moment that allows us to become deeply invested in Dorothy’s plight, as does the shot that lingers on her distraught face when Miss Gulch takes away Toto. 

Those moments give you a chance to completely fall in love with that little girl. When people ask me why “Oz” is so effective, I answer: “Because from frame one, you have a child worried about losing her pet.” Now there isn’t any child, boy or girl, in the world with a pet who can’t identify with that possible terror. Two minutes later, she’s at home and in trouble because no one will pay attention to her, and she’s feeling shut out. Then somebody comes in and takes away the pet and threatens to kill it. After that, she runs away from home, as every kid thinks of doing at one point or another. Finally, she gets lost—another common fear for children—and then spends 80 minutes trying to get home. Had Shirley Temple been cast as Dorothy, I think the reaction would have been, “Aww . . . sweet!” But since it’s an actress with the capacity to communicate that Judy Garland had to-the-max, the reaction—actively or subliminally—is “Oh, wow . . . we gotta get you home.” She creates a real sense of involvement, in that she is to the film what L. Frank Baum was to the printed page. Baum was not a great stylist or descriptive writer, but he was a great entertainer on the page, as Judy was a great entertainer in any venue. You open up any Oz book, and you feel as if you are going along the journey with the characters. Because of Judy, the movie pulls you in, in just the same way.

Special effects retain their magic when we can’t quite figure out how they were achieved. That’s still true of the nightmare-inducing tornado, as well as the grandeur of the matte paintings, especially the sparkling water of the moat surrounding the witch’s castle. 

That moment always “wonders” me: you see light reflecting in the moat, and you get the sense that it’s real water in motion. Talk about care and patience on the part of those artists and technicians. There’s a great shot of the tornado that was in the rough cut of “Oz,” which can be found in the DVD special features. The muslin and chicken wire “stocking” is just kind of hanging there, and then all of a sudden, those working off-camera rev it up, and turn on the wind and the smoke…and the tornado engulfs Dorothy’s house. This was all planned as the first bit of Judy’s dream, but I guess they figured the shot might be a little bit too scary. In the final edit, they cut from Dorothy falling down on her bed to the house as it’s rising into the air—and go from there. Those man-made, hand-made effects are one of the major reasons that you really haven’t seen “The Wizard of Oz” until you’ve seen it on a big screen. There is so much more to notice that you never picked up on before. That’s why it’s wonderful that Fathom is bringing it back to theaters.

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Bert Lahr in Victor Fleming’s “The Wizard of Oz.”

One of the most memorable screenings of the film I attended was hosted by John Waters, who referred to Bert Lahr’s character as a “gay lion.” Regardless of whether Lahr’s mannerisms were intentionally effeminate, his performance never fails to bring down the house, such as when he quips, “I got a permanent just for the occasion.”

I don’t think it was so much an intention to have “gay” mannerisms, which wouldn’t have been permissible by “all the codes and legions” of the day, to quote Norman Maine in “A Star Is Born.” But it’s certainly in the lyrics. The lion sings about having been “born to be a sissy.” He’s timid, but when he needs to be bravura, he goes for it. Thank goodness that “Oz” exists, because it beautifully captures—like nothing else—Bert Lahr’s genius at burlesque, even loaded down with the wig and the costume and the makeup. That outfit weighed between 50 and 75 pounds, depending on what publicity you read. it’s part of the litany that makes people wonder how the movie got made at all. The crazy wardrobe, the Munchkins, the five directors, the fifteen screenwriters, the three choreographers; the fact that “Oz” went over budget by 65 percent (before the costs for film prints and advertising); the number of times—at least three—when the production nearly shut down for good…

Frank Morgan is also uproarious in his understatement, and though he technically appears as six characters, I like to think that the people he plays in the Emerald City are all, in fact, the Wizard. It makes sense that the Wizard would always be sneaking around in disguise, posing as someone else.

I’ve heard that theory before, and it makes you wonder whether or not they intended it. Basically, we know they cast Frank Morgan in multiple roles so that he would have enough screen time to justify second billing, but whether or not it was deliberate, it all works out for the best. His humor, and the humor throughout the movie, is another major reason for its longevity. I’ve talked to people who see the movie as adults, after having seen it many times as kids. Now, while watching it with their own children, they suddenly realize how funny “Oz” is, as when Dorothy asks Professor Marvel about the crowned heads of Europe—who’ve supposedly acclaimed him—and his response is, “Do you know any?” I had a darling friend in high school who sat behind me in Sociology, and one Monday morning after the film had been on TV, she said, “You know what? The farmhands are the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion!” And I went, “Yes, that’s true!” [laughs]

Now I would never put anyone down for such realizations, but I do take exception to the “hanging Munchkin” story! When kids ask about it, I explain it to them as nicely as I can, but when adults ask, I look at them very fixedly and say, “Now, look. MGM didn’t just take its Technicolor camera, put it on the yellow brick road in Oz, and wait for a girl, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and dog to come singing by—with a 60-piece orchestra off in the distance. This was called ‘making a movie.’ There were directors, assistant directors, lighting people, sound people, wardrobe/makeup/hair people, a mammoth number of assorted technicians, maybe even visitors to the set. Do you really think that with all those people around, nobody is going to notice a Munchkin hanging on a tree in the middle of the set?” There’s even a gentleman who has doctored that clip and inserted an image of someone hanging in the background. He claims that his is the original footage, and the bird flapping its wings was inserted by the studio in the last decade or so, once they discovered or were told about the Munchkin body.

It’s a testament to how incredible the production design is in creating such a vast world that people could be fooled into thinking that a hanging body could somehow go undetected. 

Especially in those days where there was so much matte work to provide “space” to some basically small sets. The gate to the Emerald City had a little bit of the architecture around it, but everything else is a painting. My favorite moment of the film has got to be the moment when Dorothy and all come out of the Lion’s Forest, and they see the Emerald City across the poppy field for the first time. That’s the shot—and it’s mostly a painting—that decimates me the most. As a good Lutheran kid from Wisconsin, that’s what I believe Heaven should look like. [laughs]

I was fortunate enough to catch the limited run of the film in IMAX 3D for its 75th anniversary, which brought newfound depth to these matte paintings. The poppy field, in particular, looked as if it stretched to infinity. 

I agree one thousand percent. There were several people, including top honchos at Warner Home Video, who love this movie the way you and I do, and their initial reaction was, “Do we have to do this to ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ too?” But every single one of us was totally impressed with what they were capable of doing, and ultimately delighted that they did it. The 3D gives it a freshness as well as a new visibility and promotability—and that doesn’t hurt a property that is going into its ninth decade.

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Fairuza Balk and Jean Marsh in Walter Murch’s “Return to Oz.”

One film that continues to build a cult following is Walter Murch’s maligned 1985 follow-up, “Return to Oz.” I saw it for the first time only last year and was galvanized by the imagery, which brings to life various illustrations from Baum’s books while making brilliant use of Claymation by the late Will Vinton.

I was the editor-in-chief of the International Wizard of Oz Club Magazine when “Return to Oz” was being made, pre-promoted, and released. So, I ended up reviewing the movie for the magazine after publishing promotional pieces leading up to it. I had read the script, I had met people from Disney—and the points you’ve made about the Claymation and the realization of the Baum characters were two of its greatest pluses. I was home visiting in Milwaukee when I saw the film on opening day, and the theater was barren. Nobody wanted to see that film, and part of it was the initial bad reviews. Personally, though, I understood it. I had never seen a film that so aggressively tried to downplay joy and—something you said earlier—emotional involvement. In fact, there were things in the script that were more emotionally involving. Five minutes before the end, they think they’ve lost Tik-Tok in the dominions of the Gnome King, and they’re in despair before they realize he’s been transformed into an ornament. That should’ve been the most heart-rending moment. But instead, in the final edit, it was: ‘Where’s Tik-Tok? Oh, he’s been left behind! Oh, look! There’s an ornament!’ And he’s back.

I thought Fairuza Balk was wonderful, and the other actors were excellent as well. I’ve gotten to know Emma Ridley, who played Ozma, over the last few years—she comes to some of the Oz festivals around the country. And I thought the special effects ranged from the really, really classy—Claymation, the Wheelers turning to sand, the flight of the Gump across the moon—to a sort of on-the-cheap “Universal International late ‘50s” approach. There was a real line of demarcation there! So, I titled the review, “The Joy That Got Away.” From what I saw, I knew the film wasn’t going to be a hit, and it wasn’t going to lead to other “Oz” movies. As an Oz book nut since the 1950s, I had so much wanted to have more movies based on the Oz books. But—and this is key—I wanted movies actively/accurately based on the books. I’m sorry, but Baum never sent Dorothy to electroshock therapy. Baum did not scare the heck out of kids on that level in his writing. There were scary moments, as there were terrifying moments in the MGM film, but not to this extent. Also, there was a lack of humor in “Return to Oz” and, as I said, not enough emotion. I’m not trying to put down anyone’s enthusiasm for it, but I think it takes an older or pseudo-sophisticated or “grimmer” youth or adult to gravitate toward it.

I found the film more haunting in its strangeness than emotionally involving, but I liked that it took an approach to the material that differed from the classic musical. However, there were some fun callbacks, such as the homage to the Scarecrow’s great line, “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?” In “Return to Oz,” when Jack Pumpkinhead asks, “If Tik-Tok’s brain’s ran down, how can he talk?”, Dorothy replies, “It happens to people all the time, Jack.”

Oh absolutely, there were beautiful touches. I just saw that kids weren’t really interested in it—or they were horrified. The stuff that was good was really good. But there was a sense of betrayal, as well. So many of the principal creators had heralded the fact that they were intent on recapturing the spirit of Baum’s work. That was a promise only occasionally kept. Coming more up-to-date, I thought the Sam Raimi picture, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” had some really impressive Baum touches to it and was very, very well-done on many levels. I initially came away from it thinking, “Okay, C+,” but as I thought about it over the next twelve hours, I was like, “No, it’s more of a B+, A- in some places.” It certainly opened effectively. The Kansas prologue in sepia, foreshadowing the Oz characters, was beautiful on many levels. Unfortunately, once James Franco got to Oz, so much of the country looked like Disney had borrowed all of Peter Jackson’s exterior shots of New Zealand and dipped them in pink, blue, and various pastel colors.

They kinda lost me across the twenty minutes of exposition that occur after Oz arrives and—pardon my language—beds the two wicked witches, whom he doesn’t know are wicked. When Franco moved in on Mila Kunis, and the camera panned up toward the moon, I remember thinking, “Ha. I’ve known since I was ten what that means!” But everything got Ozzier once he got onto the Yellow Brick Road with his monkey companion and met Glinda and the little china girl. The last twenty minutes were riveting, when they were recapturing the Emerald City by bringing Thomas Edison’s inventions into play—moving pictures, fireworks, explosions—and thus scaring the wicked witches into believing that Franco was a wizard. Those parts of it are Baum to a T. He loved the magic of science.

It’s amazing how that line from Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow (“Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking”) speaks so much to our current cultural moment.

Absolutely. It has always played well to an audience, but I have a feeling it’s is going to bring down the house in theaters this weekend!

Dorothy is a character who persists regardless of the obstacles, and by pulling the curtain away, she reveals the truth of Oz’s blundering emasculated patriarchy. The wizard is defined by his line, “I don’t know how it works.”

The saving grace, of course, is that although he may be a bad wizard, he is a very good man. You can tell that he’s compassionate and funny and as helpful as he can be. And your point about Morgan is just another reason the film is such a magical experience on so many levels. I got to Northwestern University in Autumn ’69, and when the film was scheduled to be broadcast the following winter, I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to commandeer the single TV lounge in the all-male dorm for ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on a Sunday night?’ Well, there were more guys in there watching “The Wizard of Oz” than there were to watch the Super Bowl. And that was almost 50 years ago. More recently, I cared for my mother, who had multiple health problems, during the last few years of her life. This would have been from 2011 to 2013. Among many other medicos, we saw two nurse practitioners every four weeks for about a year and a half. One of them told me about how the men in her family would go hunting “up north” once a year– a sort of “guys’ weekend.” Her daughter and a friend were driving north one day and decided to stop by the cabin to say hello. They got there around dinnertime, walked in, and there were these eight guys ranging in age from 18 to 55, sitting around, eating TV dinners, and watching “The Wizard of Oz.” You can see that punchline coming, but it doesn’t make it any less effective an image.

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Judy Davis in Robert Allan Ackerman’s “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”

I’m immensely grateful to Garland’s younger daughter, Lorna Luft, for sharing her mom’s story in her memoir, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir, and its subsequent TV adaptation. Both made you appreciate on a deeper level the gift that her mother gave to the world, despite a lifetime of struggles.

I know Lorna very well. She did the foreword for one of my books back in 2003, which was the only time she ever did that for anything about her mom. We’ve worked together on a number of projects. She saw to it that I was brought in as a creative consultant on the film, “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” because she knew that she could count on me for the truth and the facts and the perspective of her mom’s story. That’s how we have grown as friends, and I think there’s a solid sense of mutual regard between us.

I hope more people discover Cukor’s “A Star Is Born,” as well as Lorna’s essential new book, A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away.

They showed the film when Lorna was doing book signings here in New York last November, and the place was jammed. It was the three-hour restored version, and unfortunately, they didn’t put in an intermission, which is a huge mistake. You gotta have a breather after “Born in a Trunk.” At least sixty percent of the people in the theater were in their twenties and thirties, however, and judging by the way they were reacting to the film—all positively—you could tell they were seeing Judy and the 1954 “Star Is Born” for the first time. That’s a great plus, and we can thank Bradley Cooper for stirring up interest in the earlier versions.

“Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” is also a film that I count among my favorites, and I’d argue that Judy Davis’ performance as Garland is one of the all-time greatest. 

I am a shameless fan of the film too, and I equally venerate Tammy Blanchard as the young Judy. Going into the project, I felt the same way I did when approached about the new Garland stage musical, “Chasing Rainbows.” I had never wanted to see Judy’s story dramatized, simply because I don’t think you can do it in two hours, three hours, even twelve hours. It’s peak/valley, peak/valley, to the point where you’re exhausted before she gets to age twelve. But on that film, Lorna and the producers brought in all the right people, including David Lawrence, son of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, who served as the music coordinator. When it came time to select some of the musical tracks, we worked together, and he asked for recommendations.

Costume designer Dona Granata borrowed something like 900 photos from the collection here, so as to duplicate or evoke Judy’s film, stage, TV, and at-home wardrobe—to the extent of what she wore to court for her divorce from Sid Luft. The set decorator borrowed photos as well, and as a result they were able to get into accurate detail the at-home furnishings and the look of film sets and concert stages. Five or six drafts of Robert Freedman’s script were sent to me for comment. One of the running gags came with any proposed scene where Judy had to sign a contract or an autograph. I would write in the margin in big letters, “With her left hand!” I was later told that there were moments onset when Tammy or Judy Davis would be about to write something, in character, and the whole crew would chant, “With your left hand!” [laughs] I thought that was charming.

I’ve been having much the same experience with “Chasing Rainbows.” The woman who conceptualized this show, Tina Marie Casamento, thought that something should be done to recount the early years of Judy Garland’s life story as a stage musical. She put together a treatment around seven years ago, and we happened to have the same lawyer at the time. He set up a meeting between us, and I said, “I will meet with her only to tell her that this is a lousy idea!” But the first thing Tina Marie shared when we sat down was that she had already locked up all the music rights to the Sony EMI catalogue, which encompasses so many of the songs used in MGM films in the 1930s. These aren’t just the Garland songs, but other, evocative period pieces: “Always and Always,” “Did I Remember,” “Hollywood Party,” “Broadway Rhythm,” “Beautiful Girl,” and on and on. They’re used to tell the Garland story, and the show is so intelligently assembled on that level. That’s what sold me.

Meanwhile, we went through three book writers until we found Marc Acito five years ago, and the show has since been very successful in the two regional productions thus far. Since then, it’s been polished even more. I’ve watched it forty times in five or six different venues, from the back of the house. Almost constantly, it’s like watching an oil painting of the backs of heads: row after row after row of people of all ages absolutely frozen in place, because they’re so intent and focused on watching what is unfolding on that stage. In the retelling, there is certainly theatrical license—which one has to expect. But the emotional truth of Judy’s story is dead-on all the way through. There’s every effort to do her justice, and I think the fact that her children have come out endorsing the show validates the approach.

Were you ever lucky enough to meet Judy Garland or see her perform live?

My parents saw to it that I got to see Judy in concert—in 1965 at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago, and then again two years later at the Civic Opera House. In 1967, she had just played the Palace on Broadway for the third time. There was an hour of vaudeville preceding her concert, and then she’d perform for about 90 minutes. This was less than two years before she died, and she was really hitting on all cylinders. The voice was unpredictable at random moments, because she had, once again, been working so hard—but she was totally intact as a personality. She was staying at the Ambassador East, which is where all the celebrities stayed in Chicago during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Several of my friends and pen pals from the Judy Garland Fan Club from Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa were staying at the same hotel. They were in their 20s and could afford that, but I was only 16 and staying at the Y downtown.

After the Friday show, my friends and I went back to the Ambassador East, and at two o’clock in the morning, we had the table across from Judy’s in the Pump Room supper club. She was with her manager and her orchestra leader, and when she was finished eating, I got up from my chair. My friends were somewhat taken aback and said, “You’re not going to go over there!” And I replied, “I might not ever get another chance to talk to Judy Garland.” I had been figuratively in love with her for 11 years at that point, and I guess I was just compelled to say so. So, I went over to her table, and she was warm and welcoming: everything I ever expected her to be, and that I had no right to ask of her at 2 a.m., when she wasn’t “on” as Judy Garland. She was unwinding and relaxing after her hard, late night’s work. We only talked one on one for about 90 seconds, but she was so gracious. It was as if she’d been waiting there all her life to meet this Opie of Mayberry lookalike with red hair, in his little Robert Hall suit.

I had finished telling her how great the show was and how much I enjoyed seeing Lorna and Joe, Judy’s son, who were in the act with her at that point. She thanked me and said, “We do have fun together,” and then continued, “This is their last weekend in the show; they have to go back to New York on Sunday to start school on Monday.” I felt like I should be making notes on my shirt cuff, so I’d remember everything she told me. Anyway, I thanked her again and turned to leave—and then I remembered one more thing and whirled back around. She did a mock little “take,” and we both laughed, and I said, “Oh! And I’m coming to see you again tomorrow night!”

And Judy laughed in that wonderful, wonderful laugh of hers that started at the soles of her feet. I knew she wasn’t laughing at me; it was more like her joy met my own, and we laughed together. She teased, “Well, you’ve got a lot of courage to sit through two of them,” and I told her, “No, no, no! It’s my pleasure!” And then I said, “Anyway, thanks—for everything.” And that was the first moment the smile left her face, and with great sincerity and with those huge brown eyes, she looked at me and said very simply, “Thank you.”

Well, what do we say to the people who made “The Wizard of Oz”? What do we say to Frank Baum for his imagination, or to MGM for running the risk of a $3 million Technicolor musical?  Or to Judy, for being the only person — the only actress in recorded time — who could’ve played the part that well?

What do we say to them, but thanks for everything…

“The Wizard of Oz” returns to the big screen on Sunday, January 27th; Tuesday, January 29th; and Wednesday, January 30th, courtesy of Fathom Events. For showtimes and tickets, click here.

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