Aug 29, 2014
JUDY & MICKEY & OZ…OH, MY! – Part Two
In the halcyon heyday of “Hollywood Royalty,” 1920s and 1930s movie stars were frequently besieged on arrival in New York by the (studio-primed) media and public. But the ten thousand citizens who crammed into an un-air-conditioned Grand Central Station on the hot, humid Monday of August 14, 1939, were pretty much an unprecedented – and very much an unexpected -- aggregation.
Or, in the words of The New York DAILY MIRROR, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney drew a “screaming, delirious, perspiring mob…bigger than the mob that met Mae West two years ago or the hooligan crowd that gathered last winter to tear the sarong off Miss Dorothy Lamour.” Two-hundred-and-fifty patrolmen and twenty-five detectives were hastily summoned to maintain order, as Judy and The Mick were filmed and photographed with six specifically-selected members drawn from the one-hundred-fifty teenagers of their “official welcoming committee.” (In an unusual but admirable public relations move for that era, studio publicists saw to it that those half-dozen teens included Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic representatives.) The two stars then were whisked off to the Waldorf Hotel with their mothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s musical mainstay Roger Edens, and the M-G-M and Loew’s, Inc., press corps.
[For the first article and backstory about THE WIZARD OF OZ premiere and concurrent Garland/Rooney appearance in Manhattan – seventy-five years ago this month! – please see last week’s blog.]
The New York newspapers front-paged the kids’ public reception and continued to follow their every move. On Wednesday, the JG/MR contest winners were feted at a special luncheon with the teens at the Waldorf – or, as the event was defined by MGM, “the first cocktail-less cocktail party for movie stars.” WIZARD OF OZ “Tin Woodman” Jack Haley was on hand to emcee, but the deluxe lamb chops-and-milk repast was left (at least temporarily) untouched when the full Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians Orchestra and drummer Louis Prima launched into their live music. Rooney pulled Garland up to dance; another boy quickly cut in on him, and soon the floor was packed with happily jiving jitterbugs, alternately paired with each other or the superstars from California.
Thursday, August 17th, was another hot and humid summer day in New York. But the lines outside the Capitol Theatre – where THE WIZARD OF OZ would premiere and Judy and Mickey would entertain between screenings -- began to form at 5:30 a.m. By the time the box office opened at 8 a.m., an estimated fifteen thousand people had created a human “moat” in midtown Manhattan. It extended from the theater box office at 51st and Broadway, “flowed” due west on 51st to Eighth Avenue, turned south to 50th Street, and doubled back east and around the corner onto Broadway once again. All five thousand theater seats were filled by 9:10, yet there were by that time even more people in line, some twenty thousand in all. Sixty policemen were summoned for crowd control, yet there were no incidents, even though sixty per cent of the waiting crowd was under eighteen years of age. The overflow eventually “filled almost all the other Broadway houses [and] jammed the restaurants, soft drink parlors, and candy stores” (The Hollywood REPORTER).
Perhaps the best summary of the situation was supplied decades later by singer/vocal arranger Hugh Martin, whose group “The Martins” backed up the stars in their stage show: "We didn't realize that engagement was going to be a legend, until we looked out of our dressing room window and saw -- all the way around the huge New York block, four abreast -- people waiting to get in. The audience reaction [to Judy and Mickey] was staggering! I never saw anything like it."
Last week’s blog included critical reaction to the stars’ twenty-five minute stage performance, but even those raves couldn’t adequately convey the jam-packed, in-house reaction to the kids and their talents. Judy sang two solos to ovations; Mickey did impersonations of two fellow Metro stars, Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore, and offered a drum solo. The girl and boy duetted “God’s Country” and “Good Morning” from their forthcoming BABES IN ARMS (which, when released in October, would prove to be an even bigger contemporary box office hit than OZ) Their encore was “Oceans Apart,” a song written by Mickey and Sidney Miller, which Judy would record for Decca eight weeks later.
They had to beg offstage at every performance.
Yet the two teens weren’t limited to a world of work at The Capitol, as M-G-M made the most of their celebrity and NYC-accessibility. Between shows (five per day on weekdays, seven per day on weekends), the duo was quite literally hauled around town to fulfill other obligations. They posed for a color rotogravure cover for the New York DAILY NEWS. They headlined -- and stole – an all-star show before a Madison Square Garden audience of twenty thousand people at the annual Harvest Moon Ball. They traveled out to Queens to film a promotional World's Fair newsreel with New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and Judy did a special guest stint on Fred Waring's popular radio program.
On August 30th, Rooney completed a second week with her in the Capitol show and then returned to Metro in Culver City, California, to begin work on the film, JUDGE HARDY AND SON. But enthusiasm and business for OZ had barely abated, so Judy remained at the theater for a third week, joined by Ray "Scarecrow" Bolger and Bert "Cowardly Lion" Lahr. Delightedly reviewing the fact that three of the film's stars were now on display "live" with the first-run feature, the legendary industry trade paper VARIETY chortled, "It's a socko combo for big b[ox] o[ffice], latter showing renewed vitality opening day." Judy now did three solos, Lahr reprised the famous "Song of the Woodman" (written for him two seasons earlier by OZ composer and lyricist Harold Arlen and "Yip" Harburg for Broadway's THE SHOW IS ON), and Bolger offered a versatile exhibition of eccentric dancing, a satirical political speech, and a terpsichorean recreation of a recent prize fight in which he pantomimed all participants. Wrapping up the show, the three performers joined forces to sing "The Jitterbug," a production number cut from OZ prior to release. On hearing the routine at the Capitol, VARIETY felt the deletion was probably a wise idea: "It's good, but not up to other portions of the film." At least at the show caught, Judy must have been feeling the wear-and-tear, as the critic also indicated, "Edge seems to have worn off the p[ersonal] a[ppearance] for her somewhat, and she's not quite so strong as in the initial weeks. Tendency is to take it a little too matter-of-factly." (To add perspective, it should be pointed out that Garland had by then performed roughly eighty live performances in the preceding two weeks without a day off.)
Audiences, however, noted no lassitude or flaws, and all ages loved the film. Box office receipts across the three weeks of the premiere Broadway engagement of OZ tallied, respectively, $68,000, near $51,000, and $40,000 -- this at a time when the Capitol Theatre's average weekly gross was $22,000. (In a bit of financial irony, it's interesting to note that Judy's total salary for her three weeks at The Capitol -- $10,500.00 -- topped that for the cumulative amount she was paid for approximately twenty weeks of work on the OZ film: $9,649.98.)
At the same time OZ was conquering Broadway, major cities all over the country were also posting new attendance records and excellent notices and box office receipts for the picture -- even without the “live” Garland/Rooney draw. Looking back on 1939, the FILM DAILY Critics Poll of four-hundred-and-fifty American motion picture reviewers cited OZ as one of the top-ten pictures of the year. It placed at number eight on the SHOWMAN'S TRADE REVIEW annual summation of the top-ten grossing features. And in addition to four other nominations, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences slotted OZ as one of their choices for "Best Picture." It lost that accolade to GONE WITH THE WIND, but OZ took home Academy Awards for "Best Song" ("Over the Rainbow") and Best Original Score on February 29, 1940.
In a third Academy recognition for OZ that evening, Mickey Rooney presented Judy with a special Oscar for “Best Juvenile Performance”; the ever-quick-with-a-quip Garland later affectionately dubbed her miniature statuette "The Munchkin Award."
Today’s blog – and the immediately-preceding three entries in this series – have joyously celebrated M-G-M's THE WIZARD OF OZ in the actual month of its press preview and Hollywood and New York premieres seventy-five years ago. In the process, it’s hoped that we’ve brought to present-day Oz aficionados some measure of the genuine excitement generated at that time by the film and its “Dorothy.”
Whatever the impact of these writings, however, there’s one major enthusiasm that I, personally, want to express: God bless ALL those involved in OZ all those long years ago! In the process of their contributions, they have immeasurably, meaningfully, entertainingly, and upliftingly blessed all of us in return: billions and billions of viewers across seven-and-a-half decades of excitement, joy, tears, laughter, and love.
Article by John Fricke