Given the general celebration of WICKED’s fifteenth Broadway anniversary a couple of weeks ago -- and NBC’s splendid hour-long television special in recognition thereof! – there were many thoughts here in recent days about other New York City stage productions based upon (or drawn from) L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book and its characters. Certainly, the best-known and most successful of these have to have been three musicals: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1903), THE WIZ (1975), and WICKED (2003), all of which enjoyed long-run engagements in Manhattan as well as wildly successful national tours. (WICKED, of course, is still going strong, in NYC and worldwide.)
Across the past 116 years, however, there have been countless other Oz productions. The quality and longevity of these have varied, as has their success or failure ratio. Some appeared on -- or were aimed at -- The Great White Way; many more played in stock, repertory, community, or children’s theater. And this month’s blog is going to look back at one of most short-lived and curious of these shows: an odd but effective mélange of (very much!) commercialized entertainment for youngsters that took advantage of both summer vacation and autumn anticipation. To give the vehicle its full title, the front program cover heralded “Fashion and Fantasy for the neat generation presenting THE WIZARD OF OZ featuring Back-to-School news in ‘ORLON’ acrylic, DUPONT NYLON, [and] DACRON polyester.”
Or to put it more simply: It was a new musical version of Baum’s story, combined with random moments of a children’s fashion show that promoted clothes for the new school year!
There must have been at least two or three companies of actors assembled to perform the production – and even with that, history (at this point in time) doesn’t supply a complete list of the venues that were included in the brief “tour.” It IS fact, however, that this distinctive blend of story-and-sales was created by The Traveling Playhouse (Ken and Kay Rockefeller, Directors), and it played for a single day (of usually multiple performances) in Denver, New Orleans, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Dallas (a two-day engagement there), St. Louis, Panorama City (CA), Philadelphia, and doubtless other cities, sometime between August 3rd and 28th, 1964. Virtually all of the appearances were sponsored by -- or performed in conjunction with -- a local department store and the shows were widely advertised and offered free to the public.
Milwaukee was then my hometown, and on August 20, 1964, I was thirteen-years-old and a rabid and veteran Oz fan/collector. I coerced my eight-year-old brother, Michael, into attending THE WIZARD OF OZ with me, and while details are now hazy, I do recall being thoroughly entertained. The script was liberally (if illegally!) adapted from the MGM film, although there was just so much that the cast of eight could do to recreate the movie’s spectacle across a sixty-minute running time with only minimal – though appropriate -- costuming and scenery. (The latter were designed and produced, respectively, by Maria Fenton and George Corrin). Three actors were double-cast as “Miss Grumple [!] & Witch of the West,” “Aunt Em & Glinda,” and “The Munchkin & Flying Monkey”; the other five performed as Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wizard. There were several original songs (music credited in the program to Ryan Edwards); of the two I recall, the “Off to See the Wizard” surrogate was titled “Here We Go,” and the Guardian of the Gate offered an explanatory “In Oz, In Oz.”
[Above: A very mid-1960s Dorothy – with Toto -- and a jolly Scarecrow; you can read the details about these oversize postcards below.]
The show was about seventy-five percent OZ and twenty-five percent fashion show; the clothes were modeled (during three “interruptions”) by local youngsters. Although – to say the least – the commercial interludes tended to slow down the action, the strength of Baum’s narrative was quickly reestablished, and the event proved most effective overall. Even my kid brother was charmed and insisted we also attend the subsequent autograph session with four of the cast members in the Youth Centre on the Boston Store’s third floor. (The performance itself had taken place in a nearby – and very-well-filled – professional theater.) When we got to the meet-and-greet, Mike loaned a less fortunate child his pencil, so that that little boy could request signatures, as well. This ultimately won my brother a special program inscription from “Wizard” Judd Foster. After accommodating as many children as he could, the actor blithely – and in character – commented to Glinda, that it was time to “return to the Emerald City for a smoke.” But he delayed his departure from the autograph party, stopping in his tracks to sign for Mike, in acknowledgment of the fact that my brother had shared his pencil with the other child. (Ya gotta love actors!)
In each city, a thirty-minute video presentation of The Traveling Playhouse version of OZ was also shown on local television stations, generally sponsored by the participating retailer. We lucked out in Milwaukee, however, as the Boston Store additionally sponsored a coloring contest. They freely distributed four different oversize postcards -- each showing a major Oz character (or two) – which children could paint or Crayola, submit by mail, and possibly win a back-to-school outfit. (There were also tiny WIZARD OF OZ coloring books distributed to each child who attended either of the Milwaukee stage show presentations at the Swan Theatre.)
[Above: Two more of the Famous Five, as disseminated by the Milwaukee Boston Store for its OZ coloring contest, August 1964.]
It’s somewhat of a happy jolt to suddenly attempt as much recollection as possible of a fifty-four-year-old memory! But this “Fashion and Fantasy” adaptation of THE WIZARD OF OZ, and its collectible memorabilia shown here, hold a special place in my heart on several personal levels. Along with the superlative Reed Marionettes’ version of the Baum story, which I saw several times during my early years of fandom, the genial Ozziness of these productions was wondrous and exciting. Most importantly, the unvarying, rapt involvement and sheer joy of every audience was proof positive – then and ever since – of the very unique and powerful Magic of Oz!
Article by John Fricke