[Note: This is the second of an anticipated three-part series about occasions – fortunately and blessedly -- spent in the company of a great actress and remarkable woman; enough said!]

[Above left: Margaret Hamilton – the serenely wicked Witch of the West – poses in front of the Oz flag and an exhibition of memorabilia related to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ. The photograph was taken during a fortieth anniversary celebration of that motion picture, when Miss Hamilton appeared as an honored guest at The International Wizard of Oz Club “Ozmopolitan” Convention in June 1979. Above right: This scene still was made during the first two weeks of OZ filming in October 1938 and shows Judy Garland in her blonde-wigged and overly-made-up “Lolita Gale of Kansas” visage, while Miss Hamilton’s “Wicked Witch” wears a hairstyle foreshadowing (by nearly thirty years) Marlo Thomas as THAT GIRL. After director Richard Thorpe was fired from OZ on October 24th, interim director George Cukor and subsequent director-of-record Victor Fleming oversaw the simplification of Judy’s appearance and then exaggerated that of Miss Hamilton. The latter’s hair was pulled back to better reveal her terrorizing features, and her nose and chin were prosthetically enhanced and elongated. In the process, the two men (along with Metro’s make-up wizard, Jack Dawn, and Miss Hamilton’s immeasurable artistry) created an indelible image. History has proved her to be the all-time female motion picture villain.]
Last week, this blog recounted memories of a first encounter with Margaret Hamilton at the June 1979 International Wizard of Oz Club Convention in Castle Park, Michigan – and of the unprecedented thrill she provided for more than one hundred attendees, plus numerous local media representatives. There was absolutely nothing pretentious or grand about the woman; she was as down-to-earth, accessible, and charming as one could wish. Yet all were visibly enchanted and stirred by Miss Hamilton’s gracious presence -- and the seeming “benediction” of The Wicked Witch of the West.

If the assembled throng was totally impressed by her, there was one unforgettable moment when Miss Hamilton seemed genuinely transported herself. She spoke at length about her OZ experiences during the Saturday evening conference programming, after which the entertainment was capped by the showing of a ten-minute,16mm kinescope of excerpts from a 1963 episode of the CBS-TV series, THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW. During the two film clips, Judy and special guest Ray (The Scarecrow) Bolger reminisced about their own work on OZ, sang impromptu versions of “If I Only Had a Brain” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” and then joined fellow MGM star Jane Powell and THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW dancers in a non-Oz but quintessentially-TV-variety-program rendition of “The Jitterbug.”

Miss Hamilton was a life-long Garland advocate and caring admirer; she also had long since learned to be appreciatively wary of Bolger’s star-centered, scene-stealing tactics! But she was swept up with the rest of the convention crowd in the palpable affection displayed by Dorothy and The Scarecrow in their professional reunion. Topping that, Judy’s beaming regard for Ray and her delight in recalling OZ were everywhere apparent. When the film was over, Maggie -- as noted last week, she preferred to be called such -- took me aside, as she knew I’d been responsible for accessing the footage. She was clearly moved and wanted to know the back-story of the show in question, how I’d been able to acquire the material, and (especially) to share her own emotional, mingled-joy-and-glistening-eyes at seeing Judy so buoyant and having such a happy interlude.
We now jump ahead about four or five years to the early 1980s, and another Oz fan friend enters the equation: Michael Patrick Hearn. Actually, we’d begun our association as pen-pals back in 1962 or 1963, introduced via letter by Oz Club Secretary Fred M. Meyer. Michael and I were roughly the same age, and we had been – on an extremely regular basis -- snowing Fred under with (as he phrased it) a “blizzard of Oz” mail; I’m sure he hoped we’d find some sort of correspondence kinship and ease up on him.

Well, his wish was half-granted. Michael and I began pouring out our Ozzy enthusiasms to each other (he from Virginia and upstate New York, and me from Wisconsin), but neither of us let up on Fred, either! Then, over the next decade or so, Fred and I and all the Oz Club members were privileged and elated to see Michael – as an L. Frank Baum historian and researcher -- leap WAY out ahead of the rest of the Ozians his age and beyond. Before he was twentyfive, he’d published a bountiful, beautiful keepsake volume, THE ANNOTATED WIZARD OF OZ, and become both “known” and highly respected. His investigations for that book led to an early friendship with Maggie, whom he’d interviewed in conjunction with the project, and Michael generously tried to bring us together even prior to my semi-chance meeting with her as described above.

When we finally all aligned, it was on a sunny, balmy weekend here in New York circa 1983 or 1984. There was some sort of outdoor book fair being held in booths and small tents along Fifth Avenue (if I’m correctly remembering, anyway!). Maggie was asked to take part in a celebratory acknowledgement of controversial books that had been banned or kept out of public libraries; L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ had fallen prey to that sort of “distinction” in some areas of the country, particularly in the 1950s. And who better to draw attention to such a circumstance – and draw crowds to such an occasion – than the Ozziest resident of Manhattan?

My partner-at-the-time, Christopher O’Brien, and I specifically were invited by Michael to join him and Maggie “back tent” prior to her appearance; he had arranged for her participation that day and was serving as her escort. It was a gladsome reunion for me, and Chris was gleefully nonplussed and exhilarated to actually meet “The Witch.” That general pleasure was much magnified when she took the stage and read aloud Chapter Fifteen of Baum’s original text, “The Discovery of Oz, the Terrible.” As one might expect, her dramatic talents were much to the fore, yet it was a gentle and genteel rendering of the “You’re a humbug!” sequence of Dorothy’s adventure, with just enough emphasis to bring out the humor, light satire, and perfect storytelling that suffused Baum’s work.
[Note: I’d be doing a disservice to Oz in general – and a friend, indeed – if I didn’t add and advertise the fact that Michael Patrick Hearn long has been regarded as the world’s foremost authority, expert, and journalist as re: the life and career of L. Frank Baum, the “Royal Historian of Oz.” Michael’s much- expanded, deluxe, revised treatment of THE ANNOTATED WIZARD OF OZ appeared in 2000 from W. W. Norton & Company; no one with a serious interest in (or passion for) Oz should be without it.]
Next week: Maggie turns the tables, hears “John Fricke in Concert” -- and lives to party on!]


Article by John Fricke


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