Most of my childhood, my family didn’t have a television. My father was against it so my two older sisters and I read a lot, listened to records and played. The years I lived in England from about five to 10 years old, we had a television part of the time, but I only remember seeing the weekly installments of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” in which the lives of the Bellamy family meandered along politely upstairs while those of the maids and servants downstairs carried on a bit more raggedy around the edges. I remember Allistair Cooke and the opening music and that the show was made possible from a grant from the Mobil Corporation, all spoken in very hoity-toity, upper-crust English.
Because of my televisionless childhood, my sisters and I were looked upon by our classmates with slight suspicion, at times full-throttle pity. We were like circus freaks who had never heard of “Lost in Space” or not knowing who Johnny Carson was.
What I do remember vividly was my first experience seeing the full-on magic of The Wizard of Oz, which, I am rather shy to admit, did not occur until I was in ninth grade. Sure, I had seen the movie before on the old Zenith that would mysteriously appear on occasion in my parents’ bedroom, a small black-and-white set we called the Pointilism Television. One of us invariably had to stand and hold the rabbit-ear antennae for the duration of a program so the rest of the family could see, to some degree anyway, what all the black-and- white dots were creating on the screen. We had seen the Wizard of Oz on this set a few times, but it was not until my eldest sister and her college friends invited me over to the Cambridge side of the river to a $1 viewing of the old classic at the Brattle Street Theatre that I experienced the real thing. Sitting there amongst her very cool and grown-up friends, my sister and I gasped when Dorothy’s house—spun from the nefarious tornado—plunked down in the middle of Oz. We gasped because suddenly we were undeniably in Technicolor, the ruby red slippers on the flattened witch were sparkling red, Dorothy’s dress was a lovely shade of blue, the munchkins were begarmented in clothes of many hues. It was a revelation, a veritable epiphany for the Tilney sisters. We had been lost, it seemed, my sister and I, and suddenly we were found.
Since its release in 1939, The Wizard of Oz has been a magical and memorable film for many a child and adult alike. Who wasn’t scared to the bone by those hideous flying monkeys? Who didn’t root for Toto as he nudged his way out of the bicycle basket and escaped from the bony-ankled, wizened-hearted Almira Gulch? Who didn’t fall for the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and even the Lion as he rubbed his tail nervously against his face? And Judy Garland? What little girl didn’t wish for at least a moment that she were Dorothy, skipping ruby-slippered into a land of tiny people and smiling flowers? Aside from the childhood charm of the film, The Wizard of Oz has garnered quite a cult following over the years, a fascination at the stories and snafus behind the filming. There were the rumors about the Munchkin actors’ wild drunken orgies, supposedly gross exaggerations. There was gossip about Judy Garland being too old and too plump to pull off the pre-pubescent exuberance of young Dorothy Gale, thus her dresser swaddled her daily into a corset to make her more slight and girlishly figured. There were the horror stories about Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, being burned in one of the castle scenes and having to spend a month recuperating in the hospital.
Knowing all this dilutes the magic. Do we need to know that the colored horses strutting their stuff in Emerald City were not actually those fabulous, other-worldly colors, but merely the result of Jell-O crystals, which they licked off within an hour of being “made up”? Do we really want to know that that terrifying tornado was not the evil snake of Mother Nature, but a trick made from a 35-foot long muslin stocking, photographed with miniatures of a Kansas farm and fields? Or that Toto was paid $125 per week while the Munchkins were only paid $50, or that the original Tin Man left the picture because he was allergic to the aluminum powder makeup, which was later replaced by a less toxic silver paste? Is it necessary to know that author L. Frank Baum didn’t bring Oz to fruition from a rich, playful imagination, but rather from a desire to put forth his political beliefs about the rise of industrialization? I suppose it’s fun to know these weird facts and legends, but knowing too much about a beloved film from childhood is about as disillusioning as visiting Universal Studios.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The magic is still there, it is, you just have to tread lightly. This week, for instance, local children from kindergarten through high school will flock to the Missoula Children’s Theatre for “Spring Break Day Camp,” in which they spend a week auditioning, rehearsing, then performing The Wizard of Oz. One small kid will be stuffed with hay and sing “If I Only Had a Brain.” Another will get to cackle cruelly like the Wicked Witch of the West. A group of “peewees” will get to be extra tiny and bob around Munchkin Land. Another still will get to be Dorothy singing and skipping arm-in-arm down the Yellow Brick Road with her newfound friends, learning all the while that no matter how much greener that grass beyond your own backyard, there really is no place like home.