Wamego # 20
Oct 31, 2014 “Is this the road to Iconic?”
As a date on the calendar, November 3rd doesn’t ring any universally-acknowledged historical bells. No holiday is declared; there is no annual parade.
Perhaps, however, there should be…at least for anyone of the generations who achieved a certain child-age and level of perception – anticipation, enchantment, jubilation, terror, etc. -- between the late 1950s and the early 1980s.
This is a circuitous and ultimately underplayed means of noting that November 3rd, 1956, marked the first network telecast of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s safe to say that no one -- on any level of corporate, media, or at-home comprehension -- realized the tradition and love affair that was launched on that occasion. Yet the date historically marks the first, wholly-unplanned step in establishing OZ as a unique entertainment phenomenon in which it ultimately achieved an Everest-like peak of renown that continues to this day.
Even sans any wide-ranging foresight, however, the OZ premiere was a much-heralded, much anticipated “coast-to-coast” spectacular event, and the finale of a series of more-or-less monthly, ninety-minute shows sponsored by the Ford Motor Company. Their entry, FORD STAR JUBILEE, began its CBS run on September 24, 1955, with the TV debut of Judy Garland. That initial broadcast had won the greatest audience in the medium’s history for a “special” performance, and – fourteen months later -- Ford was delighted to have Judy’s most fondly-remembered film as a matching bookend to its presentations.
As a result, both sponsor and network went all-out to showcase THE WIZARD OF OZ. They did this in a manner that actually benefitted the home viewer, and their approach stands as proof-positive that there was a different attitude about programming during the first decade or so that television reigned as the central aspect of our day-to-day diversion. First of all, THE WIZARD OF OZ -- at a length of one-hundred-and-one-minutes -- wasn’t edited for television to fit the traditional FORD STAR JUBILEE ninety-minute time-span; it was, instead, provided a two-hour slot, to run uncut, from nine to eleven p.m., EST. In an even more astounding decision, it then was felt that filling out the balance of time with approximately seventeen or eighteen minutes of commercials was too much a burden and imposition of advertising on the home viewer. So Ford and CBS decided instead to devote several of those moments to a guest host.
They went out and found someone ideal.
In proud homage to November 3rd, let’s go back fifty-eight years. Here’s the word-for-word text of the scripted introduction enjoyed by people at home when they tuned into CBS-TV at nine o’clock that night:
CBS Narrator: From New York – in color and black-and-white! FORD STAR JUBLIEE presents a motion picture classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ, starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, and The Munchkins.
Now we’ve told you that tonight on FORD STAR JUBILEE, we’re presenting a classic, and we mean that only in the most popular sense of the word. For not only as a main feature film, but as a masterpiece of literature which has fascinated children and adults for years, THE WIZARD OF OZ ranks with the great works of all times.
We believe most of you sitting with your families tonight will find a special pleasure in being acquainted with a story, characters, and familiar music which has timeless appeal.
Now, as a special treat, we want you to meet one of the stars of THE WIZARD OF OZ, Mr. Bert Lahr…with “friend.”
Bert: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m indeed happy to be with you, and I’d like you to meet Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza.
Liza: How do you do?
Bert: I’m sure Judy would have loved being with us tonight, but as you all know, she’s appearing at The Palace Theatre in New York in her wonderful, wonderful show. One of her big hits is “Over the Rainbow.” Uh…uh, Liza, you know that’s the song your mother made very, very famous in the picture.
Liza: You’re in the picture, too, aren’t you, Mr. Lahr?
Bert: Am I in the picture? I certainly am! And it was certainly wonderful working with your Mother and all those wonderful people.
Liza: What part did you play?
Bert: Well, at one part in the picture, I was going to eat your Mommy up. But I couldn’t, you see. I was the Cowardly Lion.
Liza: What was Mommy like then?
Bert: Well, in those days, she was just a little older than you are now – but just as pretty. [Note: Minnelli was then ten; Garland had played Dorothy at age sixteen.] And, you know, Liza, while we were making the picture, every one of us felt as though we were living in the wonderful Land of Oz. And I don’t think your Mommy was very happy when she had to leave us and go to school. And we had a little doggie, Toto. Oh, he was very cute. You know, my little children loved him, too. You know, John and Jane saw the picture eight times, but I’m very sorry to say I only saw it once, and that was at the premiere – seventeen years ago.
Liza: I sure am looking forward to seeing it tonight, aren’t you?
Bert: Well, I’m very happy to see it. Now, when you see – when you look at the picture, Liza – you will notice that when your Mommy (who plays Dorothy in the picture) is in Kansas, all the scenes are in black and white. But when she opens her eyes in the wonderful Land of Oz, everything is in beautiful color – just like a fairyland should be.
Liza: I can hardly wait!
Bert: Either can I!
Liza: [ giggles].
Unfortunately, this brief segment with Lahr and Minnelli was offered “live” on-camera, so no film exists of their historic coupling; there aren’t even any CBS file photographs of them, taken together or separately, on November 3, 1956. That loss precludes as well any appreciation of their silent, on-camera partner: a thirteen-year-old book collector from Brooklyn named Justin G. Schiller, imported to the studio to display his personal copy of a first edition of L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. [For more about the Ozzily ubiquitous Mr. Schiller, please see the blogs for October 10th and 17th!]
Public reaction to FORD STAR JUBILEE’s OZ was best-summarized by the text of an article published three days later. The Tuesday, November 6th edition of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER proclaimed, “The Saturday night televising of M-G-M’s WIZARD OF OZ hit a high rating of 39.0 with an audience of better than 45,000,000, according to the fifteen-city Trendex. Had the picture gotten an earlier showing to catch children who were bedded at the late hour, the audience probably would have jumped another 5,000,000 to 8,000,000.” [Note: Trendex was an early, much-utilized TV audience calibration service.]
Such a rating was an amazing achievement, as OZ was one of the very first motion pictures to be televised coast-to-coast. As a result, both movie and TV concerns suddenly realized that a major audience existed for “special event” film programing.
Fortunately, there may have been some specific corporate anticipation of at least a measure of success where OZ was involved. When CBS first contracted with M-G-M for the picture’s television unveiling, the paperwork contained “safety” options for additional showings. It’s doubtful, however, that anyone on either side of the deal ever thought they’d -- one and all -- be implemented. In fact, the network waited more than three years to schedule an OZ repeat. But when the December 1959 reprise drew an even larger audience, the die was cast, although it’s still safe to say that there was no conception that the movie had firmly embarked on a broadcast career that would see it become the most familiar and recognized film of all-time.
OZ as a treasured and virtually-annual network television event continued until 1998, when it became instead -- and remains -- a cable TV staple. Yet even into the 1980s (when the film was first released on commercial video tape, and home recording became increasingly possible), the once-a-year opportunity to travel the Yellow Brick Road during a network, cross-country presentation remained a special family event. Especially for those now in their forties, fifties, or older, the phrase, “We’re off to see” THE WIZARD took on a depth of meaning and import for countless millions of them during their preteen years – and beyond. The OZ telecast was a magical “once-a-year-day” experience on par with birthdays and the December holidays.
A future entry in this series of blogs will discuss some of the later OZ TV hosts from 1959-1962, 1964-67, and 1970. But for today, here’s to November 3rd ! On any given year, it marks the date that M-G-M’s THE WIZARD OF OZ set firmly down a Yellow Brick Road of its own and, ultimately, reached a rarified plateau of pop culture fame and intimacy both unprecedented and never equaled by any other motion picture in history.
Article by John Fricke