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The Wonderful Tradition of Oz

July 16, 2012


With the release of the Oz: The Great and Powerful preview, (a movie I have high hopes for despite the flying CGI critters and a poor actor in the lead role), I’m harkened back to a family tradition and the loss of “restriction” being an impetus of family fun.

Long before VCRs, the only way you could see a TV broadcast was to rearrange your schedule and be planted in front of the tube.  No popping a cassette or a disc into a machine; it was be there or be square.  The networks took advantage of this by playing up certain annual events.

Ben Hur and Gone with the Wind were snooze-worthy events that my parents and older sisters enjoyed.  Sound of Music was always a big deal, but NOTHING compared with The Wizard of Oz.

To this day, TWoO is my favorite movie.  When I teach screenwriting, it’s my first and best example of plot structure and world-building.  But back then….

I remember getting our first color TV.  The Wonderful World of Disney was a weekly joy because it was broadcast in color while most of the shows I watched weren’t yet (though Gilligan’s Island, F-Troop and Star Trek jumped on quickly).  I vaguely remember being unimpressed with TWoO’s first showing with the old set.  It was fun, but that was all.  My older set of siblings had seen the movie in the theaters and had built it up so high in my imagination that I was let down by the black and white version.

Then we had the new set and the annual broadcast came around.  Everyone was excited but me.  Except, sort of, I was.

We hadn’t yet given up eating as a family at the table (that would be a few years later when I was seven or eight), so the plan of eating in front of the tube was kind of cool.  We turned it into a picnic, spreading a spill-proof tablecloth on the living room floor—I was only four, after all—and got ready for the show.  Mom was still cooking when it started, so no food yet.

The the MGM logo came up and we were off.  And I was HORRIFIED.  It was still black and white!  I felt gypped.  I must have been squirrely, because Dad put his hand on the back of my neck and like a good boy, I watched.  Grumpily.  Then the tornado showed up and I perked up a bit.  I remembered Grandpa talking about those.

When Dorothy opened her door in Oz, I suddenly knew what magic was.  Totally transfixed by the splendor of Oz, I didn’t even notice when Mom put food in front of me and no else noticed I wasn’t eating, so during the intermission (can you imagine? Intermission on TV?  It was a dozen commercials for a 15 minute intermission allowing the move to run commercial-free otherwise) I had to wolf down my dinner, because then Mom was bringing this giant tub of Root Beer Ice Cream.  No bowls, we just all dug in with big spoons.  Fortunately I got in several bites before it started again, because I was too engaged to fight for ice cream while Dorothy battled for her life!

Thereafter I devoured all the Oz books and was a bit disappointed the next year when it was the same movie, not a continuation of the story.  Didn’t matter, though.  Tablecloth on the floor, food in front of the TV.  I didn’t get better than that.

The following year, Judy Garland died.  I cried all through that year’s broadcast because Dorothy was always supposed to beat the witch, and even though the TV Dorothy did, I knew the real Dorothy hadn’t.  Sobering thoughts for a six year old.

That tradition held fast for probably six more years, and I still watched each year, just without the hoopla.  It was one of the first videos I owned, and my family got me the DVD one year for Christmas.  It’s still a great movie, but it was the only time I didn’t resent the TV schedule holding my hostage (to prove that resentment, the last time I watched broadcast TV was in 1982).

Over 70 years old, The Wizard of Oz is truly a classic, which is amazing considering over a dozen writers had input on the script, all sorts of casting problems and tons of technical disasters.   There are a handful of Munchkins still living, but none of the principle actors made it into the new century, and few even saw our country’s bicentennial.

Yet in another way, they’ll all live forever.


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