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Published January 09 2011

The Wizard of Aahs

If You Go:

For several generations of Americans, the annual telecast of “The Wizard of Oz” was a real event.

The 1939 movie classic was shown just once a year on network TV for nearly three decades. It was reserved for special holiday broadcasts and was often introduced by stars like Liza Minnelli and Dick Van Dyke.

And in the days before multiple TVs in every household, whole families gathered in their living rooms to watch Judy Garland sing the plaintive “Over the Rainbow” or to revel in the Technicolor antics of Munchkinland.

“It was a family thing,” recalls Doug Tjon, 63, a film buff who lives in Valley City, N.D. “It was interesting as a child to see my parents reacting to it and laughing at different things.”

Tom Brandau, a filmmaker and associate professor of film studies at Minnesota State University Moorhead, shares similar memories.

“Like so many people of my generation, it was really introduced to me by way of television,” says Brandau, 50. “You really had limited opportunities to see it, so it was special. It was an event.”

Brandau remembers that the movie was shown on Thanksgiving evening for years, and became part of his family’s Turkey Day ritual. First, they would travel to his grandparents’ house in the country. After dinner, they would all sit down to watch it together.

As touring stage production of “Oz” comes to town this week, it’s easy to reflect on the past and realize much of the movie’s rarefied luster has worn off since the Turner entertainment empire acquired rights to “Oz” in the 1980s. The film has now become a basic cable staple, sometimes running continuously in marathons on stations like TNT.

“Oz” has grown so enmeshed in our cultural fabric that most Americans can sing along to the songs, quote its best lines and even repeat its urban legends (the Munchkins were party animals; Shirley Temple almost played the role of Dorothy). In fact, we’ve become downright possessive of our images of Dorothy in a blue-and-white dress, a funny, jowl-y Lion or a cackling, goblin-green witch.

And so local theater-goers will likely be pleased that the latest touring production of “Oz,” which is based on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s celebration of the 1939 movie, will be staged in the Fargodome this Wednesday.

“It’s the American fairy tale,” says Jesse Coleman, who steps into Bert Lahr’s large, furry shoes to portray the Cowardly Lion in the stage version. “It’s influenced and inspired by the movie, although it’s not entirely identical. It does try to evoke the nostalgia and capture the spirit of the movie, while bringing our own vision to it.”

A belated success

Despite the movie’s massive popularity and influence through the years, it was only a moderate success following its original 1939 release.

The elaborate production was fraught with problems, with 13 different writers working on the script. The film did receive several Oscars and critical acclaim, but only made $1 million at the box office – partly due to its then-exorbitant production/distribution costs of $2.8 million.

But through subsequent re-releases and telecasts, the movie’s popularity grew. The Library of Congress has named it the most-watched film in history, and Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” was named the No. 1 song on the American Film Institute’s top 100 songs list.

Many factors converged to give the film its timeless appeal. It offers a top-shelf soundtrack, great performances and a storyline that entrances both young and old. It also showcased the then-revolutionary technology of three-strip Technicolor and visual effects.

Tjon, who has an art degree, recalls being mesmerized by the special effects, even as a young boy growing up in the ’50s. “I’m always tuned into the visuals anyway, but what I remember most was the tornado. It was early in the movie, and it was very symbolic when you think about it. About that time in the 1950s, they had the Fargo tornado. It was scary because they did such a wonderful job with the effects. It was terrifying,” he says.

Brandau agrees. Although today’s fantasy genre is much darker and much more technically complex – think of “Pan’s Labyrinth” – “Oz’s” now primitive effects still work. Even if they don’t look entirely realistic, Brandau says, they add to the surreal, other-worldly quality of the film. And they’re just plain fun to watch.

He points to the scene in which the Wicked Witch of the West decides to skywrite a message to the citizens of Oz.

“You know it’s a miniature and it’s wires and they fly her around this miniature castle, but I love that,” he says. “It works.”

The irony, of course, is that many generations grew up watching the movie on television, which dramatically reduced the viewing spectacle.

Ann Hoefgen, a 40-year-old attorney who lives in Fargo, remembers watching the film on a TV “with the rabbit ears and you had to flip, flip, flip the channels and stand on one leg to get it to come in.”

In fact, it wasn’t until Hoefgen was 18 that the Eau Claire, Wis., native realized Oz was color. She was baby-sitting for a neighbor, who told her their child liked to watch the movie on VHS.

“I’m watching it and, all of a sudden, it turns to color. I was absolutely horrified they’d colorized this old movie,” Hoefgen recalls with a laugh. “It’s embarrassing, but, around that time,they were colorizing a lot of movies.”

And even if younger generations have grown to expect more visual effects, the film’s humor and adventure still entertain.

Steve Stark, a historical re-enactor and theater buff from Fargo, says he recently watched it with his 4-year-old granddaughter, Madelynn. “She loved it,” he says. “She sat on my lap and laughed and laughed and laughed.”

Film works on all levels

Regardless of technical limits, the movie also seems to work on a deeper level. Its themes of longing for home and the importance of life’s journey are timeless and universal, Brandau says.

Early on, Tjon could relate to the theme of being left behind – a common childhood fear. First, Dorothy is left in the open as the twister approaches. Later, she’s left behind when Professor Marvel takes off in the hot air balloon without her.

Tjon also could relate to the personal flaws each character had, coupled with the discovery that they had the strength to overcome those flaws all along.

“Dorothy finds out what she was looking for was there all the time,” he says.

Brandau believes the combination of kid-pleasing action with more philosophical themes helps the film work on many levels.

“The spectacle of it is wonderful when you are a kid,” he says. “But when you get older, you realize it really is an allegory. It’s sort of like the ‘Iliad and Odyssey.’ The whole point is the journey and what you learn from it. If you have to fight to get home, you’re going to appreciate it much more when you get there. It’s not so much where you get to, it’s the experiences you have, and that’s what makes an interesting life.”


Touring ‘Oz’ to feature Fargo Munchkins

Wednesday’s stage production of “The Wizard of Oz,” will include a few “Munchkins” with Fargo pedigrees.

Students from the Inspire Dance and Wellness Studio in Fargo will portray the singing, dancing residents of Munchkinland for the touring production, which celebrates the classic 1939 film.

Co-owners Shar Berns and Carina Schell have been working with a dozen students between the ages of 8 and 12 to perform such iconic numbers as “The Lollipop Guild” in the first half of the show.

The kids will be on stage for about 20 minutes, so there have been many steps and stage directions to learn, Berns says.

They also will portray “The Winkies” – the Wicked Witch of the West’s regimental army – for a few minutes in the latter half of the production.

“We’re very honored to have this chance,” says Berns.


What’s up with those flying monkeys?

Whether people love the “Wizard of Oz” or not, most seem to agree on one thing: Those flying monkeys really creep us out.

Ann Hoefgen of Fargo recalls that, as a girl, the airborne apes scared her almost as much as the lizard-like Sleestaks on the Saturday morning series “Land of the Lost.”

Noreen Thomas of Moorhead says she and her little brother were so young when they first saw the movie that they thought the monkey invasion was part of a real news report.

“We hid under the table,” she says. “It was getting dark, and we didn’t know what this wizard thing was. So I remember we hid under the table even as we continued to watch it.”

Film professor Tom Brandau attributes our fear of the usually not-so-scary primate to its unexpected power of flight. Add to that the monkeys’ blind allegiance to the evil witch and their army-like numbers, and a race of super-scary super-villains is born.

“They represent an almost Grimm’s Fairytales concept of a child’s idea of horror,” Brandau says.

Brandau also believes the monkey costumes contributed much to their fear factor. The actors wore pullover masks, so their faces are eerily impassive and their eye sockets seem hollow.

He likens it to the “The Planet of the Apes” phenomenon, in which the background apes wore masks instead of the elaborate prosthetics. As a result, the supporting players sometime seem scarier than the star players do.

“Their eye sockets are receded back into their masks,” he says. “They’re almost like zombie apes.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525