[From left: The one-sheet poster for the original 1974 United States theatrical engagements of JOURNEY BACK TO OZ. Center: A villainous, Wicked Witch-adjunct from the plotline of the cartoon feature: one of Mombi’s oversized, rampaging, and horrifically-hued pachyderms. Right: The front jacket cover for a limited-release JOURNEY BACK TO OZ soundtrack record album.]
As a warning to any who might be reading here – whether on a sporadic or regular basis – this week’s entry is going to be another of those that harks back (to some extent) to my preteen years and earliest era of “Ozsession.” I promise some genuine Oz history along the way, however, in honor of those who understandably prefer that kind of research and reportage….
A brief summary: My life-long Oz mania began via the nationwide, premiere telecast of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s musical movie, THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) in 1956. I was five, and thereafter -- in comparatively short order -- I blessedly was gifted with the film’s original soundtrack record album, a picture book abridgement of the tale, and on its heels, the full-length version of L. Frank Baum’s masterwork. I discovered the “Oz Book” series in 1957 (then thirty-nine titles and counting!); concurrently, I also was beginning to scour magazines and the Milwaukee newspapers for any Oz references or, better still, Oz articles.
As a result, there was much jubilation that September when a print ad in The MILWAUKEE JOURNAL depicted Oz characters as components of the DISNEYLAND FOURTH ANNIVERSARY SHOW. It turned out that the TV program itself contained three production numbers in which the original Mouseketeers enacted a preview of a forthcoming – though ultimately abandoned – wide-screen project, THE RAINBOW ROAD TO OZ. (Another story, for another blog.) Three years later, there was a summer 1960 in-advance-announcement of Shirley Temple’s TV adaptation of THE LAND OF OZ, set for broadcast over NBC on September 18th. This meant weeks of way-beyond-eager anticipation on my part, and this time, the expectations were realized, at least in part. (Again, though: another story, another blog!)
Finally, the installments in THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF OZ series for March 20th, March 27th, and April 3rd detailed the prospects attendant to – and the minimal levels of fulfillment achieved through! – the Rankin/Bass TALES OF THE WIZARD OF OZ syndicated cartoons, launched in 1961, and their network TV special, RETURN TO OZ in 1964. But there was another RETURN TO OZ – also known by two alternate titles – and that’s where we pick up this week’s memories and chronicle.
In autumn 1962, HOLLYWOOD REPORTER columnist Mike Connolly broke the news that independent producer Norman Prescott had begun work on a feature-length, animated musical, RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ. His all-star cast of voices was to be augmented by that of sixteen-year-old Liza Minnelli “as” Dorothy Gale, the same role played by her mother, Judy Garland, at the same age in MGM’s OZ. (The part would mark Minnelli’s professional debut.) Connolly’s pronouncement, however, appeared in a trade paper, so any national awareness took a few weeks to blossom; it kicked in – majorly -- in November. Proud mama Judy referenced her daughter’s OZ assignment during a Chicago press conference on November 6th that was covered and reported by most of the local media. Practically simultaneously, Connolly’s initial blurb was repeated in his monthly recap of Hollywood headlines in the nationally-marketed SCREEN STORIES magazine. That’s where I first spotted it…and went into overdrive.
My furor can be (at least partially…?) justified by the fact that these preliminary tidbits included even more tantalizing information: The multiple-Academy Award-winning team of Sammy Cahn (lyrics) and James “Jimmy” Van Heusen (music) had written fifteen new songs for RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ. Apart from Minnelli, the early roster of principal performers indeed amounted to a stellar line-up: Phil Silvers as The Cowardly Lion, Ethel Merman as Mombi the Wicked Witch, Peter Lawford as The Scarecrow, Danny Thomas as the Tin Man, and (in a neat bit of casting-against-legend) MGM’s “Wicked Witch of the West,” Margaret Hamilton, as Aunt Em. A subsequent press release provided additional glamour and “names,” with Rise Stevens signed as Glinda, Paul Lynde as Pumpkinhead, Herschel Bernardi as Woodenhead the Horse, Jack E. Leonard as the Signpost, Paul Ford as Uncle Henry, and Mel Blanc as the Crow.
I had no special interest in Minnelli, except as the daughter of the incomparable JG, but the concept of such a major production seemed too good to be true. It was not, though, too good to imagine, and it certainly spurred further, instantaneous exploration on my part…if to little avail. Notwithstanding its first grandiose heralding, the consequent RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ news almost immediately slowed to a trickle. Connolly’s readers were told in SCREEN STORIES for March 1963 that Minnelli and Merman had finished recording their songs, yet evidently with only piano tracking, as the numbers next were sent to Sweden where the orchestra was added. LOOK Magazine mentioned Minnelli’s participation in OZ in their issue for May 21, indicating that the film was anticipated for release later in the year. And MOTION PICTURE for August (on the newsstands in late June) included a Minnelli interview in which Liza described RETURN… as “based on the second series of Oz stories [and] entirely different” from the 1939 Metro treatment. This, at least, was an intriguing crumb.
Yet everything suddenly sprang back to life when one of the trade papers printed a Boston-datelined interview with Prescott on July 23rd and proclaimed that the “Boston-based film producer is back from Europe with the first rushes…. Walter Scharf did the scoring for the picture and has completed the entire cast album with the ‘Oz Symphony Orchestra,’ comprising eighty-five tooters. The film…runs two hours with an overture, Broadway-musical style, during which audiences will see abstract colors, shapes, and forms on the screen… RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ is skedded for winter release on a roadshow basis…discussions are underway to preem film at Radio City Music Hall.”
And what next?!
Plus a bit of confusion. On February 9, 1964, the aforementioned Rankin/Bass hour-long cartoon, RETURN TO OZ, debuted on NBC-TV. It was a musical, as well, but it purveyed no all-star cast – and no Cahn/Van Heusen score; curiouser and curiouser. (I know that’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but it definitely delineates my contemporary state of mind. That being said, I have to admit that I don’t think many other Ozites had maintained their initial level of interest in Prescott’s project after sixteen months of erratic announcements. I was virtually the sole “show business” Ozzy in The International Wizard of Oz Club, at least at that juncture of the membership rolls.)
Twenty-four months went by before another encouraging “flash.” Then, in their issue for February 28, 1966, NEWSWEEK offered a feature about Minnelli’s concomitant New York supper club act and cited the picture in passing -- and under a new, abridged title, RETURN TO OZ. (Rankin/Bass be damned, apparently.)
But to my knowledge, that then was it for five additional years. The uber-touted venture, with all its high-powered, big-name talent, seemingly had hit more than a snag; it simply disappeared.
There was, of course, a reason. I now don’t remember when the back-story finally filtered through, but it appears that Prescott – for all the outward bravado of the July 23rd press interview – ran out of money in late summer 1963. He did, indeed, have pretty much all of the necessary musical and dramatic voice tracks but only ten minutes of cartoon. It wasn’t until June 23, 1971, that he next surfaced. According to VARIETY on that date, the project now had acquired a co-producer (Lou Scheimer), a production company (Filmation), and a third title, JOURNEY BACK TO OZ. Footage ostensibly had been added across the ensuing years whenever funds could be raised, and the picture was defined as “almost complete.” Despite the delays, Prescott continued to waffle on with lavish plans. VARIETY reported that he intended to mount the “sequel to WIZARD as roadshow attraction featuring live, onstage action within frame of animation….” Per Prescott, “The prolog and epilog and the twelve songs…will be acted out onstage, using the soundtrack we’ve already got.” VARIETY also noted that the whole story had been animated, “so that show can go either way, with special segments pulled for integrated stage action.” A proposed tour was to begin in Milwaukee (this is where I renewed my palpitations – at age twenty…) and then travel the Midwest for a month-long tryout. “If idea works, second and third companies would start up so that show could cover eighty cities in a year.”
By now, the reader may not be surprised to hear that Prescott was – once again – full of it. Even with Jack Haley, Sr., (MGM’s 1939 Tin Man) at one point announced as the technical advisor for the JOURNEY BACK TO OZ arena tour, nothing else was heard from Filmation about their envisioned combo of live action entertainment, haphazardly completed cartoon, and near-decade-old soundtrack (with twelve songs instead of fifteen).
There was, however, someone FROM whom Prescott and Scheimer heard – in very short order -- after that June 1971 article. By then, Liza Minnelli had become a successful concert, television, and recording star, as well as a 1970 Academy Award-nominee as Best Actress for THE STERILE CUCKOO. In summer 1971, she was on location in Munich, filming (and as the lead in) a little thing called CABARET…and she was not at all pleased with the possibility that her raw, sixteen-year-old voice was about to be put into major circulation.
(to be continued)
Article by John Fricke