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“I think I’ll miss you most of all.”

by larrydachslager on August 28th, 2013

I became a teacher in 1987.  Last year, I temporarily stopped teaching to become a film student.  One thing that all of my Houston students and my current classmates at Columbia College Chicago have in common is that they never knew a day without a home video system.  If asked, each of them can easily cite one or two favorite videocassettes or DVDs that they watched repeatedly as a kid.   I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I love having my favorite movies or TV episodes at my fingertips and being able to watch them whenever I like.   To a degree, I envy my young film-loving colleagues for having had access to this technology their entire lives.

That said, the movie lover in me is also grateful that I grew up when I did, with no VCR in the house until I was 19.   Those of us who are older can appreciate and identify with the feeling of enjoying a film with the full knowledge that it would be a long time before you’d get to see it again – and you usually didn’t know when that would be.   It gave the experience of watching a favorite film a quality of preciousness that doesn’t exist today.   Each cinematic moment was fleeting and therefore, to be savored.

The most obvious and famous example of this experience is the annual television broadcast of The Wizard of Oz.    It’s well known that the movie didn’t truly attain its iconic status until its received its once-yearly showings on TV, the first of which was in 1956 at…starting at 9 p.m.????

1956 - Wizard of Oz showing CBS November 3 Ford Jubilee

I suppose that it required the distance from 1939 for people to realize how truly timeless the film is.  Since it’s in color and isn’t typically “1930s” in its dialogue, costuming, and musical arrangements, even today’s children don’t tend to think of it as an “old movie.”  During the 60s and 70s, other old films were shown on TV with a fair amount of regularity, but with “Wizard,” we only got one shot at seeing it per year.  The networks (either CBS or NBC, depending on the year) gave it star treatment, giving each subsequent airing a big build up and presentation.

TV Guide MAR 1-7, 1980-The Wizard of Oz Dukes of Hazzard on CBS

For many years, the film was presented with a celebrity host.  The hosts for the 1956 broadcast were Bert Lahr and ten-year-old Liza Minnelli.  After that, hosts included Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Richard Boone, and Dick Van Dyke.  The movie was usually featured on the cover of the TV listings announcing, “Get ready!  This is the week!!!”  Many of the commercials shown during the movie had special Wizard of Oz themes and tie-ins even if the product being sold had no direct connection to the film.  Note that the advertisement below says absolutely nothing about sewing machines.  (There’s another “Singer” associated with The Wizard of Oz, but it’s not politically correct, so I won’t go there.)

tvg

For over two decades, watching “Wizard” on TV every year became, for many, a family tradition.  For those who experienced it, the memories are vivid and detailed – and various people’s memories contain a surprising number of common elements.  For example, I know I’m not the only person who equates The Wizard of Oz with this piece of furniture.

tv_tray_img_lg

That’s right.  This was one night when the entire family ate dinner in front of the TV – and for some reason, dinner on that night in our house always included corn on the cob.  Like I said – a special occasion.

From what I can figure, my first viewing of The Wizard of Oz was in 1969 when I was seven.  Depending on whom you talk to and when they watched it, the movie was associated with different times of year.  For most of my “Wizard” watching years, it was shown in March or April.   Under normal circumstances, I wasn’t really known for obsessive behavior, but on Wizard of Oz day, I appointed myself to make sure the TV was set for the correct channel well in advance, and that the set was turned on at least a half hour before the movie started.  As some of you will recall, a TV had to “warm up” for a few minutes after being turned on before an image could be seen.  I didn’t want to miss a precious moment of my yearly viewing of this beloved film.

I was too late for the years when the film was presented with a host, but with my family present, I didn’t need one.  I heard the same running commentary and reactions from my parents and sister and at the same exact moments year after year.  For example

When this image appeared…

flying monkeys

…my father would always comment that, when he first saw that scene in 1939 (he would have been seven) he was “scared shitless.”

This one…

wicked witch in crystal ball

…always caused my younger sister to dive underneath the coffee table. Shielding her eyes, she would repeat, “Is she gone, yet?  Is she gone, yet?  Is she gone, yet?”   That was the moment when I would typically, and with great bravado, look down at my sister and razz her for being a “scaredy cat.” But let’s face it.  I was probably doing that to avert my eyes from the witch, too.   How very “cowardly lion” of me.

My mother, ever the educator and responsible parent, commented on more than one occasion that she didn’t like “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead.”  “I don’t think it’s very nice that they’re ‘celebrating’ someone’s death, no matter who it is.”

To this day, I can’t watch the movie without those predictable familial routines and lines coming to mind, and I remember them fondly.  That yearly TV routine is so much a part of me, even if I’m watching “Wizard” on DVD or on the big screen, as soon as the lion jumps through the glass window, I still expect there to be a commercial.

Back then, my annual routine, albeit a quiet, internal one, was to get a very emotional lump in my throat during the “goodbye” scene.   As Dorothy said goodbye to her treasured friends, I knew I was saying farewell to this special movie for another whole year.   I can recall feeling what can only be described as a void as the film ended each time.  It usually aired on a Sunday, which meant that the following day it was back to school and the drudgery of normal life.

In my next entry, I’ll be writing extensively about the movie “souvenirs” that were manufactured in the pre-VCR days to keep a movie’s memory alive between viewings.  The Wizard of Oz offered several such items to mollify the kid going through Oz-withdrawal while waiting for March to arrive again.  There were toys, games, books, etc.  My favorite was the original soundtrack album, first released in 1956, the same year as the initial Oz broadcast.  Thankfully, in addition to the songs, it included a generous amount of dialogue to keep the story intact.   In case you’re wondering, the lion was pictured on the back side of the album, all by himself.   (A subtle plug for MGM, perhaps?)

WOZ soundtrack

In 1975, the Mego set of action figures and elaborate play set were released.  By then, I was 13 and knew I was too old for such things, but was impressed by the attention to detail and the likenesses to the film’s actors.

action figures

One thing I did buy was the enormous comic book version which also came out in 1975.   I was never really into comic books, but I loved how closely it adhered to the film, including having the first part of the story printed in muted “sepia” tones.   I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t take good care of the comic book, allowing it to yellow and its pages to rip.  I didn’t realize at the time that I had something of great significance in the comic book world.  It was the very first collaboration between Marvel and DC comics.  If you know how much it’s worth today in good condition, please don’t tell me.

comic

I continued to watch The Wizard of Oz every year until I was well into my teens.  As I grew older, I got more and more of the jokes and started enjoying it more on an artistic level than a purely emotional one.   As a child, I didn’t really get the “King of the Forest” number because it stopped the story.  Eventually, I caught onto the brilliance of lyricist Yip Harburg’s incredible wordplay and, after reading John Lahr’s biography of his father, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, I learned that the number was the perfect vehicle for Lahr’s shtick.  Now I find the number hilarious.

The way I watched the scene where the scarecrow, tin man, and lion finally get their “rewards” altered drastically with repeated and matured viewings.  As a child, I was just happy that they were happy with their prizes.  As I later struggled with my own issues of brain, heart, and courage, I gleefully discovered the subtle and powerful self-esteem message as well as the clever satire about materialism and hollow tokens and awards lying just beneath the scene’s surface.

I also learned to appreciate the technical aspect of the movie and remember the first time I watched it after having read that the whole film was shot indoors, how the cyclone was achieved, and how much of the scenery was done with matte paintings.  This knowledge added a whole new dimension of wonder to the experience.

In 1979, MGM Home Entertainment released The Wizard of Oz on VHS and Betamax, making the film much more readily accessible, but effectively ending a revered tradition that can never be replicated.    Interestingly, the ever-available presence of the movie on home video has had a surprising effect.   In the 60s and 70s, there was no child in America over the age of ten who hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz.  Yet, during the 80s and 90s, when I referred to the film in my classroom, I was shocked to discover how many of my middle and high school students had not seen it.  They knew some of the songs and the characters, but had never seen the film all the way through.  Its very availability has made today’s kids think of it as, to quote the wizard, “a very mediocre commodity” and no longer essential viewing for the average child or movie fan.

Even so, the current distributers of The Wizard of Oz continue to try to give the film that special quality it had when it could only be seen once a year by constantly striving to “improve” it.  “NOW!  For a limited time, on the big screen!  NOW with stereophonic sound!  NOW in wide screen!  NOW Sing-along with The Wizard of Oz!  Now in high definition!  And in a few weeks, for the 75th anniversary…NOW in Imax and 3D!!!!”   No doubt, for its 80th anniversary, they’ll offer up one of those “4D” things like they do in theme parks including setting the audience on fire and then dousing them with water.

Well, I’ve seen it in all the other incarnations and  yes, I’ll go see it in Imax 3D.  As the old joke says, “It couldn’t hoit.”  I truly consider The Wizard of Oz to be indestructible.  Regardless of screen size, with or without commercials, it still works.  None of the technical or digital “improvements” have improved it.  High definition just allows you to see the wire holding up the lion’s tail a bit better.   Seeing it in 3D may be cool, but it will never equal the joyous anticipatory thrill I used to feel opening the Sunday paper in March and seeing Dorothy and Toto on the cover of the “This Week On TV” section.

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4 Comments
  1. Elaine permalink

    Larry, As usual, your posts bring tears to my eyes (happy ones because I’m reminded of very happy times) and leave me laughing hysterically. Do you remember the TV dinners we would choose for that very special night? As I remember, both TV dinners and watching TV while eating dinner were once-a-year occasions. Thanks for the memories!

  2. Rozie Curtis permalink

    Larry,
    What a great blog! I remember waiting in anticipation of the Wizard of Oz coming on too! Like you said we arranged our entire day for the event. What’s funny now is I have the DVD at home and do rarely watch it. So sad. A very cool thing happened for Wizard of Oz and me. I was teaching at MD Anderson hospital in the pediatric wing. Most of the children were from other countries. We would come and work with the kids and put on shows for their family in between chemo treatments. Well, I decided to do The Wizard of Oz. I figured we could learn it quickly. Everyone knows the story. When I shared with the children what our next play would be, they never even heard of The Wizard of Oz! I thought, How can you not know this musical? Then I realized, they were from Abu Dhabi and Turkey and Pakistan and Nigeria. They spent most of their young lives just trying to continue living. So we put on a 30 minute of The Wizard of Oz! The doctors and parents came to watch it. The children loved it! I got to introduce The Wizard of Oz to an brand new group of people! It was a fantastic experience! Of course The Wizard of Oz still makes me think of you and Miss Carole! What a fun show that was! Thanks for a great trip down memory lane.

    • larrydachslager permalink

      Many thanks, Rozie. It’s great that you had the rare opportunity to watch kids experience the story for the first time!

  3. mike johnson permalink

    I watched “The Wizard of Oz” on TV every year from the time I was three
    or four years old (born 1966) when it was shown on NBC; I will never forget the voice of NBC staff announcer Vic Roby as he introduced the film, listed the pre-empted programs and the film’s sponsor (usually Sears or sometimes Procter and Gamble). I think I was the only kid in America (or even the world) who was NOT scared of either the Wicked Witch or the Winged Monkeys; seems like everyone else was ! It is sad that kids today don’t get to experience the anxiety of the annual “Oz” telecast the way we got to, and whenever I watch this film today, my mind goes back to a basket of Easter candy on the floor….Thanks for the memories!

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