Feb 27, 2015 ARE YOU A GOOD WITCH? OR THE BEST WITCH! – Part Three
Note: This is the third of a three-part series about occasions – fortunately and blessedly – spent in the company of a great actress and remarkable woman; enough said!
[Above left: Across the first four decades of the twentieth century, the much-acclaimed actor John Barrymore carried the media-imposed sobriquet, “The Great Profile.” This photo of Margaret Hamilton actively challenges Barrymore’s claim to such a title. (She, of course, is shown in her garb as The Wicked You-Know-What of the You-Know-Where.) Above right: A clowning pose with Ray Bolger, probably never intended for publication -- at least not back in 1938-39. It was taken in MGM’s portrait gallery in Culver City, California, during the actors’ work on THE WIZARD OF OZ. An appropriate, if imaginary, caption for such art might come down to the most threatening question ever posed by a holiday icon to someone sitting on a lap: “Tell me, Scarecrow: What would YOU like for…Halloween?”]
For a number of years – and beginning shortly after I moved to the East Coast in October 1974 -- I did freelance writing for Donald Smith Promotions, Inc., an entertainment-related public relations firm here in Manhattan. One of our annual “clients” was The Theatre and Music Collection of The Museum of the City of New York, and we handled press, ticket sales, and seating for their once-every-year-or-so benefits. These productions invariably took place in a classic Times Square-area venue and involved glittering, musical, all-star celebrations of such Broadway luminaries as director George Abbott, composer Richard Rodgers, and the unforgettable Mary Martin.
Most such performances were sell-outs. There was a duo-concert by Martin and imperishable colleague Ethel Merman which earned mythical status in show business history when the theater was completely filled on the basis of the first day of mail-orders. (Those were the pre-Ticketron and Ticketmaster days, kids!) Once in a while, however, there’d be prime-priced box seats or front-mezzanine seats that didn’t sell but needed to be occupied. As I was in charge of such tickets, I periodically was able to offer such locations to friends.
I referenced life-long Oz compatriot Michael Patrick Hearn in last week’s blog. In 1982, Michael introduced me to fellow Ozzies Lynne and Dan Smith, and quite quickly thereafter, the two Smiths, my then-partner Christopher O’Brien, and I became boon companions. Around that time – and through her own rapport with Michael -- Lynne went to work a couple of days each week for Margaret Hamilton, the extraordinary “Wicked Witch of the West” of MGM’s 1939 definitive THE WIZARD OF OZ. (The camaraderie of Hearn and Hamilton dated back nearly a decade, to his early interviews with her for his book, THE ANNOTATED WIZARD OF OZ.).
Twice in the early 1980s, and at my invitation, Lynne and Dan and Michael and Maggie (which she insisted she be called by one and all) made up a theater party and took advantage of the complimentary benefit tickets I had on-hand. One of these events comprised a salute to the outstanding choreographer Agnes de Mille. This especially delighted Maggie, as they had toiled together on the short-lived Broadway musical GOLDILOCKS in 1958, and (with OZ “Scarecrow” Ray Bolger) on the even less-successful COME SUMMER in 1969. Nonetheless, their association had been a cheerful one, and on the night of the commemorative de Mille extravaganza, Miss Hamilton’s appreciative eyes never left the stage. A year or so on either side of that presentation, she manifested the identical glowing response when she and the same members of the “Oz Mafia” occupied a box that overhung the stage-left proscenium of Carnegie Hall; on that occasion, they reveled in Ethel Merman with The American Symphony Orchestra.
That fact that Maggie had a good time is of paramount importance to this retelling. But the truly unforgettable aspect of both evenings was the ongoing, unvarying, and quietly jubilant emotion of the scores of people who sat in her vicinity. While Maggie’s attention was totally, unwaveringly fastened on the performers below, everyone sitting near or around her was looking nowhere but at The Wicked Witch of the West. Their undertow was a tangible thing: “Look! It’s her! Right THERE! It’s HER!”
(Had someone started an impromptu chorus of “Over the Rainbow” – or, better still, a special-material version of “Ding-Dong! the Witch is…Here!” – there would have been happy hysteria.)
On another, non-theatrical night, several of us shared a comfortable dinner party at Lynne and Dan’s apartment, where Maggie continually captivated the guests with casual, perfectly-recollected anecdotes -- all the while apologizing for her lack of memory! Part of her charm, of course, was the total lack of ego involved in her recounting. She was just present and conversing, and never for a moment demanding consideration or stealing focus. We, however, just gave it all up to her, anyway -- in gratitude and sheer pleasure.
As I hope is apparent, every one of these episodes was memorable in its own way; proximity to a legend will do that. But my personal appreciation hit its high on a Sunday in 1983 when Lynne and Dan brought Miss Hamilton to hear me in a one-man cabaret act at The Ballroom in the Chelsea section of New York. It was an excellent little boite, if saddled with on-again, off-again management. In this case, I was to perform at eight o’clock, but due to the club’s laissez faire attitude and a lack of organization on the part of the preceding singer and her musicians, her performance began very late. As a result, I paced backstage, while the audience who’d kindly come in on my account were left to sit in the bar and restaurant areas until past 9:30.
Maggie was then eighty years old. She never stirred; she just waited and chatted with the Smiths and any others of those who approached her. And when I finally was announced to go on at 9:45, she came into the cabaret room itself, perched at her table, beamed encouragement, applauded approval, and laughed out loud at a passing OZ reference in the patter. It was a standard bit of dialogue, but I underscored it that go-round by acknowledging the-broomstick-in-the -room by adding, “I know there’s someone here tonight who knows about THE WIZARD OF OZ.” Her reaction – and (once again) the perceptible glee of the crowd at having her in their midst – was treasurable.
After the show and as late as it was, she postponed her departure to privately take me aside to deliver one of the kindest accolades I’ve ever received. The words may well have been merely professional courtesy on her part – but I’ll never forget her sincerity in expressing them. Of course, I guess the ultimate compliment for the thirty-two year old John Fricke arrived the next day when Lynne Smith called to discuss the evening. She told me that, on the way home, Maggie had talked about the program and turned to her to ask,
“How old IS he, dearie? About eighteen?”
An earlier installment of this Hamilton mini-series spoke of the ceaseless affection she held for her “Dorothy,” Judy Garland. My own initial encounter with Maggie grew out of that – although it was only “on paper.” One of my first major assignments in the Don Smith office came when I was asked to write on his behalf to celebrities who’d known Garland to ask them for brief comments about her. These, in turn, would be shared during a May 1975 black-tie/supper-dance/publication party for Gerold Frank’s biography, JUDY, at The Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center. Don’s original plan was to have Miss Hamilton read them aloud to the seven-hundred-plus attendees. When her own career intervened at the last minute, she sent instead her own beautifully turned note; I don’t know that its text has been much publicly distributed, but it deserves exposure and sharing:
“I am thinking of you and all the exciting guests – of the book and the party honoring dear Judy. It is so fitting to have it a happy, gay occasion, for that is the Judy I knew. Thrilled and excited, bubbling over, as dear a sixteen-year-old as I’ve ever known. We all loved her.”
Nicely, the final four words of that statement can be taken as an echo of the sentiments of those who met, knew, socialized, and/or worked with Margaret Hamilton. Hers may well be an otherwise historically unprecedented achievement: Has anyone else so universally feared also been so overwhelmingly, unconditionally, and joyously loved?
We all loved her.
Article by John Fricke