Feb 13, 2015 ARE YOU A GOOD WITCH? OR THE BEST WITCH! – Part One
[Above left: The first of several meetings with the incomparable Margaret Hamilton -- aka "WWW." (That's how she signed her photos!) This was taken at The International Wizard of Oz Club Convention at Castle Park, Michigan, in June 1979. Above right: The World’s Greatest Entertainer meets The World’s Most Wonderful Witch – “from the Little Theatre off Times Square” during a tele-taping of THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW, December 1968.]
When I was very, very young, my pop culture world principally revolved around Walt Disney’s THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. I originally saw that short-subject cartoon on a black-and-white television set, some twenty years after its 1933 debut; it enraptured me beyond measure -- and certainly beyond reason.
But that’s another story….
All of this completely and irrevocably changed when I was five. On November 3, 1956, CBS presented the premiere network telecast of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 motion picture classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ. It was my initial exposure to L. Frank Baum’s enchanted land -- to its unique citizens, to “Over the Rainbow, to tornadoes, to Judy Garland.
I’ve been an unredeemable Oz fan[atic] ever since.
Yet unlike many other devotees of that era, I never reached out in any manner to the stars of the film. They seemed both literally and figuratively too far away from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to be “contactable” when I was a child, even though I knew all their real names because of the liner notes on the OZ soundtrack album I received for my sixth birthday. (Ah, twelve-inch vinyl!) In truth, even had I tried, I couldn’t have found “The Wizard” himself; Frank Morgan left us in 1949, before I was born. But “Cowardly Lion” Bert Lahr was here until 1967, when I was in high school. “Good Witch Glinda,” Billie Burke, passed away in 1970, and by then, I was out of the house and independently off at college.
As the 1970s wore on, I both came of age and maintained my total lack of fortitude when it came to the pursuit of Jack Haley or Ray Bolger -- and they, respectively, were with us until 1979 and 1987! Yet instead of seeking out “The Tin Woodman” and “The Scarecrow” for autographs or photos (as had so many before me), I remained behind an intangible barrier, all through all my years as a young adult.
To me, those principal citizens of OZ were something splendid and sacrosanct and almost supernatural.
Eventually, however, there came some lovely compensation for the missed opportunities of my youth. In eight earlier installments of this blog, it was made overwhelmingly apparent that I was among the fortunate, blessed, tens-of-thousands of people who DID get to meet a number of the OZ movie Munchkins. I shared a working association with more than a dozen of the “little people” of the film cast, starting in the mid-1980s and continuing through 2013. Our festivals, galas, and screenings together quickly led to cherished friendships across those twenty-five or more years of encounters.
Despite this long preamble, I DID (through fate or good fortune) also, actually, and actively meet two of the stars of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ. The saga of “Judy & John, 1967” -- brief as was our conversation -- will be recalled here in a future entry, along with appreciative recollections of the unparalleled theatrical experience of the three Garland concerts I attended while in my teens. This week, though, I’d like to recount the first of perhaps six occasions spent in company with “Maggie”…the timeless harridan who has defined terror, panic, and fright for -- and brought unbridled nightmares to -- virtually every child in every generation throughout the last seventy-six years.
By the 1970s, Margaret Hamilton and I had several mutual friends and acquaintances, but there was no opportunity to know her until June 1979, when she was invited to The International Wizard of Oz Club “Ozmopolitan Convention” as a special guest. Executive secretary Fred M. Meyer – who underwrote decades of memberships, presentations, and activities for the good of the Club – “flew” her (by plane…) to Michigan from her home in New York City as a surprise feature of the conference programming. His gleefully secret plan coincided with celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the MGM picture, already on the roster of entertainments for the affair.
Meanwhile, a handful of us knew Miss Hamilton was “scheduled,” but there’d been no prior or come-on public announcement, for fear her health issues might intervene and prevent her presence. At that time, she was seventy-six -- the equivalent of perhaps eighty-six by today’s standards.
Yet she easily made the trip and, on arrival, walked quietly past the dining hall of Castle Park Lodge, where roughly one hundred conventioneers were beginning their Friday evening meal. Miss Hamilton’s unannounced entrance was as silent and unobtrusive as it could be, but – somehow, as if on cue – everyone suddenly looked up and simultaneously recognized the diminutive, grandmotherly woman wearing a travel dress, cardigan sweater, and sensible shoes. As if (once again) on cue, the entire assemblage spontaneously stood to cheer.
THAT convention was a success before it ever got underway.
Over the next three days, Maggie -- as she always asked to be called -- was beset not only by card-carrying Ozians but by multiple representatives of local media, one and all agog at a “living legend” at close proximity. There’s reason to be grateful for the persistence of the outsiders, however, as a delightful (if amateur quality) forty-minute video interview was conducted with Miss Hamilton on Saturday afternoon by a delegate from some near-by charitable concern. Therein, Maggie discussed THE WIZARD OF OZ, her work with W. C. Fields and Mae West in the motion picture MY LITTLE CHICKADEE, Judy Garland’s performance in A STAR IS BORN, and so much more. Such entrepreneurial thinking on the part of that local videographer ultimately resulted in the only “time capsule” conversation that was captured with Margaret during her visit to Castle Park; in those days, the Oz Club itself had no onsite members who were technologically savvy enough to have brought a taping camera to the weekend. Thus, the speech and question-and-answer performance Maggie specifically offered for us later on Saturday night remains “just” a treasured memory.
My own flash of nerve-wracked pride was part of that evening, however, as I’d been chosen to formally present Miss Hamilton with an award for her decades of “wicked witchery.” I’ve seldom in my life been so shaky, but I’d prepared what I hoped would be an unusual approach by assembling for her introduction a series of phrases that Maggie had inspired over the years from Judy Garland. This was, indeed, a case of “turning the tables,” as there’d been countless earlier occasions in which OZ aficionados heard Miss Hamilton rhapsodically speak about her very own “Dorothy Gale.” But I was pretty sure that few of those on hand – least of all Margaret herself – were aware of the numerous kind and resonant things Judy had offered to reporters and at press conferences about “Almira Gulch” and her alter-ego.
So I told that back-story to the attendees and then shared such Garland quotes as, “Margaret Hamilton -- what a wonderful woman..,” “My children adore the Witch!,” and “What a performance she gave!” For a conclusion, I built up to the phrase utilized by Judy at their last encounter in December 1968, when Maggie turned up for a brief minute or two as a surprise guest on THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW. Garland was serving that night as a substitute host for the vacationing Merv, and when Miss Hamilton was “sprung” on her, the startled but clearly jubilant JG exclaimed, “You’re my favorite witch!” Maggie laughingly riposted, “I’d better be!”
Then Judy capped the moment – as I capped my Castle Park introduction – by offering, “I think you’re everybody’s favorite lady.”
That night launched a brief few years of memorable get-togethers with a grand talent and an immeasurably compassionate, gentle, and A#1 human being. So, in the weeks ahead, I hope to share a few additional anecdotes about Margaret Hamilton back home in New York City -- at the theater, in a cabaret audience, and relaxing at the apartment of her friends. Please stay tuned!
Article by John Fricke