[Above: This is one of the first promotional photos that NBC released to launch their production of THE WIZARD OF OZ on network radio. It featured an ersatz Toto but compensated by putting temporary costumes on all of the principal actors who would carry forward the L. Frank Baum story. From left: Nancy Kelly as Dorothy, Bill Adams as the Scarecrow, Jack Smart as the Cowardly Lion, and Parker Fennelly as the Tin Woodman. The September 1933 press caption for the picture made particular note of the fact that “Little Nancy Kelly of movie fame is playing the part of [the] heroine of this most famous American juvenile classic”; elsewhere, her role was defined as the largest and most demanding job ever assigned to a child in the medium of radio.]
Welcome to the fourth installment of our 2022 duo-celebrations! This year, we honor the centennial of Judy Garland (“Dorothy Gale” in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s film classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ), plus a score or more of some of the other actresses who have played that character in the last 120 years – whether on stage, screen, small screen, soundtrack, or radio.
And that’s about as logical a segue as is possible when our topic this month focuses on the first “Dorothy” of the national airwaves – way back in the 1933-1934 radio season on NBC -- or to give its full name, the National Broadcasting Company. (Never fear, Garland fans; we return to Judy and discuss a singular aspect of her television career for the finale of the blog below.)
Just for openers, however, here are some Ozzy factoids from ninety years ago: In late 1932, there were already twenty-six books in the Oz series, and their popularity showed no signs of abating, whether one considers L. Frank Baum’s first fourteen novels or the subsequent dozen by Ruth Plumly Thompson. (“RPT” would contribute seven more volumes in the next seven years.) Beyond the books -- and beginning in the 1920s and extending into the 1930s -- there were also various play scripts of some of Baum’s stories available for production by community, amateur, and school theaters: THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE LAND OF OZ, OZMA OF OZ, and THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ among them. Miss Thompson’s 1927 playlet, A DAY IN OZ, continued to pop up in several seasons of “special event” matinees for children in department stores around the country. Her script for THE MAGICAL LAND OF OZ, written for the famed Jean Gros French Marionettes, also toured, as did another marionette version of THE WIZARD OF OZ by Ellen Van Volkenburg. Finally, some stock theaters still – if only occasionally -- trotted out as well their own remountings of the original 1902 stage musical of THE WIZARD OF OZ.
[Above: Pert and gifted Nancy Kelly poses as Dorothy in this 1933 Milwaukee (Wisconsin) newspaper clipping, heralding Jell-O’s THE WIZARD OF OZ as heard over the NBC Network and its local affiliate, WTMJ. The headline reflects a combination of contemporary facts: the “Nine Tiny Piglets” from L. Frank Baum’s fourth Oz book (DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ) would be among the radio cast, and they tied in nicely – if coincidentally – with the fact that, at that moment in pop culture history, the breakout cinema stars of 1933 were Walt Disney’s animated THREE LITTLE PIGS. Their theme song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf,” was equally pervasive.]
Factor in the Oz merchandising of that era (games, notepaper, candies, party horns, stationery, and promotional endeavors from Oz book publishers, The Reilly & Lee Company), and it’s clear that the Baum/Thompson fairyland was then enjoying a unique popularity and familiarity among all ages. NBC moved to capitalize on this, and through the Young & Rubicam agency, they licensed broadcast rights to the characters and storylines of the Oz books to that date (and to future Oz books for the length of their contracts with Maud Gage Baum --Frank’s widow -- and Reilly & Lee). General Foods/Jell-O quickly came onboard to sponsor the programs: there would be three, “live” fifteen-minute episodes every week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at 5:45 Eastern Standard Time. Twenty-six stations across the East Coast and Midwest initially signed on for THE WIZARD OF OZ, and affiliates as far west as Denver were presumably later added to the roster.
Central actor to the series was Massachusetts-born, twelve-year-old Nancy Kelly, already a show business veteran. Prior to her engagement by NBC, the girl had appeared in five motion pictures, made her Broadway debut in 1931, and did so much modeling work that she had already been described as “the most photographed child in America.” Across the twenty-six weeks and seventy-seven episodes of THE WIZARD OF OZ, Nancy was heard as Dorothy in (sometimes freewheeling) adaptations of THE WIZARD OF OZ, OZMA OF OZ, DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ, THE ROAD TO OZ, and THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ. Her Dorothy also served as a transitional character in the initial scripts for THE LAND OF OZ, but as the Kansas child didn’t feature in Baum’s original story of that title,
“Dorothy” beat a brief retreat, and the girl actress instead and briefly played General Jinjur in several installments.
[Above: Nancy Kelly and Parker Fennelly in a promotional photo for the NBC/Jell-O THE WIZARD OF OZ. Of course, neither they nor the other actors who were heard during the shows were dressed in costumes for the actual broadcasts. After OZ, Fennelly quickly came to radio stardom as “Titus Moody” (“Howdy, Bub!”) on Fred Allen’s long-running ALLEN’S ALLEY, and he later served as the laconic Pepperidge Farm spokesman in many fondly remembered TV commercials.]
The OZ actors had the responsibility of carrying the program’s plotlines, but they also participated in commercials for their sponsor. Given her absence from some episodes of THE LAND OF OZ story, Dorothy “sent” a letter to be read aloud on the air to the children listening in. It included her own poem about Jell-O, and her promise to be back to the show “any day now.” On a mid-February broadcast, she was not only present but announced that she wished she could present everyone in the audience a huge heart Valentine made of strawberry Jell-O. Even the program’s regular announcer, Ben Grauer, got into ad-man mode with such awesome pronouncements as, “Maybe the Hammerheads would be in a better mood if they had some Jell-O for dessert!”
One of the most genuinely Ozzy radio associations across the seven-month run of the series was manifested when Jell-O offered their listeners the opportunity to receive paperback versions of four of Baum’s 1913 LITTLE WIZARD STORIES OF OZ. These were accurately touted as tales that didn’t appear in the other Oz books, although the audience was assured that each had been written by the same man, “so you know it’s a swell story.” The booklets were free, but the written requests sent to Battle Creek, Michigan, had to be accompanied -- of course! -- by three Jell-O “package fronts.” The titles included THE SCARECROW AND THE TIN WOODMAN, JACK PUMPKINHEAD AND THE SAWHORSE, OZMA AND THE LITTLE WIZARD, and TIK TOK AND THE NOME KING:
[Above: Each of the LITTLE WIZARD story booklets found space to further promote their benefactor, but as can be seen, these advertisements were given a happily Ozian touch. Jack Pumpkinhead himself is the genial Ozzy here who is generously dispensing Jell-O to the youth of America!]
The most eventually prominent name among the OZ radio cast was that of young character actress, Agnes Moorehead. She was then a mainstay of the airwaves and soon segued into a film and television career that would earn fame surpassing even that of Nancy Kelly. For Jell-O, Miss Moorehead voiced such legendary Ozians as Mombi the Witch (from THE LAND OF OZ), Princess Langwidere (from OZMA OF OZ), the Queen of the Scoodlers (from THE ROAD TO OZ), a random witch, and a cow. Twenty-six years later, she’d offer another wily but cockney-voiced interpretation of Mombi for NBC-TV’s THE SHIRLEY TEMPLE SHOW, as Miss Temple and her production associates presented a color video abridgement of THE LAND OF OZ on September 18, 1960. Such an assignment may or may not have had some bearing on Miss Moorehead’s future casting, for four years later, she took the role for which she’ll be forever renowned: the chic, sophisticated, beauteous -- but scarcely complacent -- witch Endora in the hit sitcom, BEWITCHED.
[Above: During the OZ/Jell-O era, the very young Agnes Moorehead already possessed a versatile voice and an undeniably multipurpose acting talent. These qualities, along with her supreme professionalism, would enable her to play countless radio, film, stage, and television roles across a glorious forty-five year career.]
Jell-O’s THE WIZARD OF OZ left the air on March 23, 1934, after providing immeasurable Ozzy entertainment for hundreds of thousands of children. It was also a solid introduction to Baum’s characters and their adventures, although some of the occasional flights of imaginative “sidetracking” by the program’s writers might have disconcerted a stringent Oz fan here and there! Best of all, however, her OZ opportunities afforded Nancy Kelly a fine foundation on which to foster her burgeoning career.
In turn, she became the first ingenue to appear on the prestigious CBS radio series, THE MARCH OF TIME, although her abilities and fresh, piquant face then swiftly led Nancy to active motion picture employment. She made twenty-seven films between 1935 and 1946, playing opposite or with such contemporary stars as Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Abbott & Costello, Johnny Weissmuller, Eddie Cantor, and George Murphy. She hit the pinnacle of her career, however, when she starred in Maxwell Anderson’s stage adaptation of the William March novel, THE BAD SEED. It opened on Broadway in December 1954, played 334 performances, and told the harrowing tale of Christine Penmark, who discovers her long-forgotten real mother was a conscienceless, homicidal maniac -- and that she herself has unknowingly passed that gene/characteristic to her own preteen daughter.
After the show closed in New York, much of the original cast took the production on a year-long tour, and many of them also reprised their stage roles for the 1956 Warner Bros. film of THE BAD SEED. The motion picture proved a financial and popular success; additionally, Miss Kelly received an Academy Award nomination as best actress, and her costars Patty McCormack and Eileen Heckart were both nominated in the category of best supporting actress. That being said, the codes of the motion picture industry being what they were at the time, THE BAD SEED movie was tricked up with a new, all-about-retribution ending. Despite those final moments of rewriting, however (which, in truth, provide somewhat of an alternate measure of satisfaction), it remains a most effective and unsettling film.
[Above: In the film version of THE BAD SEED, Nancy Kelly as Christine Penmark wonders how to end the guilt-free killing spree of her young daughter, Rhoda, played by Patty McCormack. As noted in the audio track of this month’s vlog for the OZ Museum, Christine was not at all an Ozzy sort of heroine!]
After THE BAD SEED, Miss Kelly picked up a television career that had started earlier in the 1950s, and she completed more than two dozen appearances by 1977. She also returned to Broadway as one of the actresses who played the demanding, volatile role of Martha in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGNIA WOOLF, and in 1971-72, she toured eighteen cities across eight months in THE GINGERBREAD LADY. The latter was Neil Simon’s first complete play to attempt an amalgamation of drama and comedy and offered Nancy another bravura vehicle.
Nancy Kelly was seventy-three when she died in 1995, and she had amassed a remarkable variety of legitimate and classic acting credits in all principal media. Somehow, however, it seems fitting and unsurprising that her superlative career was expedited when she won such a pivotal assignment as being the first actress to bring Dorothy Gale to network radio audiences.
As you’ll read here over these next nine months, Judy Garland had a deep, profound respect for the role of Dorothy she played in the MGM movie musical version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. That esteem extended as well to the music and lyric that both defined the farmgirl in the film and became Judy’s own unquestioned theme song, “Over the Rainbow.” In 1963, when about to debut her own television series, Judy was encouraged by musical arranger Mel Torme and the program’s other staff writers to do “a rather funny bit built around” that number. She looked at them in astonishment and disbelief and then held forth: “You’ve all got to be kidding. There will be no jokes of ANY kind about ‘Over the Rainbow.’ It’s kind of . . . sacred. I don’t want anybody ANYwhere to lose the thing they have about Dorothy and that song.” Torme later admitted that such a reaction on her part was both correct and a demonstration of “Judy’s personal appraisal of her own professional assets. To her, ‘Over the Rainbow’ was nothing short of holy, and she regarded it with awe and gratitude.”
This was borne out on many occasions in the thirty years that “Rainbow” was part of her repertoire, and one of the most telling of these was her refusal to randomly sing the song on television. Oh, she did a quick eight bars on THE PERRY COMO KRAFT MUSIC HALL (1966); a much-truncated duet version with her host on THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW (a year earlier); and the telecast-in-the-United-States-only-decades-after-the-fact (and audience-sing-along rendition) in JUDY AND LIZA AT THE PALLADIUM (1964). She also sang the song on THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW (1968), but it was impromptu and unrehearsed. (He actually requested it of her on-camera, even though he’d been specifically asked not to do so prior to the taping.) As a result, there are only two audio/visual, “time capsule,” TV versions of Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” in full performance mode, and both are – if for vastly different reasons – as special as one might want them to be.
Judy made her formal television debut on the premiere program of the CBS FORD STAR JUBILEE series on September 24, 1955. The ninety-minute program and the material therein largely drew from the history-making return she’d made to the stage four years prior, for -- after appearing in twenty-eight feature films in fourteen years -- she’d left MGM in September 1950. Between 1948 and 1950 alone, she’d given them four box-office blockbusters, but the preceding decade-plus of overwork and stress had also led to her dismissals from three films during those same three years. Earlier, she’d undergone two unfortunate marriages, two naturally unreported (but studio ordained) terminated pregnancies, and a much-publicized but clearly spiritless 1950 suicide attempt. The international headlines attendant to some of this brought world-wide audiences to the realization that all the joy Judy Garland had been giving them since the late 1930s had come at a colossal cost to her health and nervous system. Thus, when she returned to her childhood vaudeville roots after leaving Metro, they were waiting to cheer her on – initially during an extraordinary engagement at the London Palladium in April 1951. This was followed by an even greater Garland triumph when she reopened New York’s legendary Palace Theatre on Broadway in October 1951. Winning a special Tony Award in the process, Judy sang the hits of the great variety stars of years past, socked across her own memorable movie hits, and capped the show with the hobo-costumed tramp routine, “[We’re] A Couple of Swells” from EASTER PARADE.
[Above: Judy disports in her tramp costume in this promotional pose for her 1955 television debut. This was the garb she’d wear for the final two numbers of that TV show.]
As an encore at the Palace, she sat on the very edge of the stage. All the lights were extinguished but for a tiny pin spot framing just her face, and without the microphone, she filled the immense theater with sound, soul, and “Over the Rainbow.” She and the audience were often reduced to tears by the resonance of the number; twelve years after THE WIZARD OF OZ, its lyric had acquired a new, deeper meaning for everyone on site -- whether for the singer or the listeners. Judy’s vocal, its physical staging, and the overall theatrical approach to its presentation resulted in an instant and classic show business “moment,” and throughout her nineteen weeks on Broadway and eight weeks on tour, she repeated the magic again and again. Its poignant impact – after her preceding forty-five minutes of “Get Happy,” “The Trolley Song,” “For Me and My Gal,” and similar upbeat numbers – was immediate and infinite. Thus, it was decided to conclude her TV premiere on the FORD STAR JUBILEE appearance in the same manner.
Unexpected drama attended that rendition, however, as 1955 was still several years prior to the implementation of videotape. Petrified at the idea of doing ninety minutes “live” on television, Judy contracted an acute case of laryngitis during the extensive rehearsals across the week leading up to the telecast. The night prior to the show, she was overwrought, couldn’t sleep, and finally resorted to medication in an effort to get some sort of physical rest and relaxation for her throat. This only further impaired her; as a result, she didn’t open her mouth at all throughout the next day and merely “walked through” the show’s dress rehearsal. Finally, an hour prior to showtime, she summoned up courage and determination and went on as scheduled. In the process, and with the viewing audience unaware of any problems, she won the highest rating to that date for a TV “spectacular” (as such shows were termed in those days).
Yet given her lifelong insecurities – and even after she finished “A Couple of Swells” to an ovation from the studio audience – she was still afraid that (as she later put it) she’d “blown the whole thing.” Her throat remained constricted, and she knew “Over the Rainbow” would require supreme effort. Yet she did a comic, mock-collapse as she sat on the TV studio stage, smiled warmly at the crowd, and began to sing. The resultant performance ended up as a summation of all the emotional wonder and resilience of her life to (and, as it turned out, after) that point.
[Above: In this FORD STAR JUBILEE promotional picture, Judy strikes a pose similar to that in which she’d sing “Over the Rainbow” on the show.]
The public around the country reacted in kind; forty-eight hours later, CBS made the pronouncement that Judy had “scored the greatest personal triumph in [our] history. Our switchboards were still jammed twenty-four hours after the telecast. People from all over the country called JUST to tell us how much they liked Judy. We’ve never before had such an intimate personal reaction from viewers.”
Here is the surviving black-and-white kinescope of the September 24, 1955, “Over the Rainbow.” The ongoing ups-and-downs of Judy’s subsequent personal and professional lives -- and the intervening decades -- have only served to heighten the significance of her performance; she was ever-aware, ever-self-comprehending, and she knew that “Rainbow” was the song that bonded her forever with those who saw and heard her. It was always her moment of ultimate outreach, as she understood that everyone listening could relate to the problems of life, love – and longing for a place “where there isn’t any trouble.” (The introductory voiceover offered on this clip was made by Judy’s younger daughter, Lorna Luft when the FORD STAR JUBILEE version of “Rainbow” was used to conclude the 1983 PBS-TV “Great Performances” program, JUDY GARLAND: THE CONCERT YEARS. Lorna was the host of that award-winning special.)
One further quote here: Dr. Edward Wagenknecht was a preeminent twentieth century historian of popular culture, as well as a professor of English at Boston University. As late as 1989 – twenty-five years after the FORD STAR JUBILEE telecast -- he remained awed by that rendition and wrote: “Judy’s singing of ‘Over the Rainbow’ was perfect for OZ and for her as she was [in 1939]. But for subtlety and sophistication, it was far inferior to the way she sang it . . . on television. It seemed to me that, for a moment, the line between popular art and great art had been wiped out. This does not often happen with this kind of entertainment.”
And Judy’s other TV performance of “Rainbow”? Well, it’s touching in a whole other way – and speaking of Lorna Luft, we’ll also factor in here her little brother, Joe. They were respectively eleven and eight when they appeared on the Christmas episode of THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW TV series in December 1963. After a mélange of holiday variety material – and songs by Jack Jones, Mel Torme, “other daughter” Liza Minnelli, and the program’s regular singers and dancers – the program came to a quiet ending, with the “living room” set cleared of guests, and with just the hostess and her kids (in their pajamas). Referencing the then-annual OZ telecasts (also on CBS), Joey cued his mom into “the thing you do every year,” and this was the result:
THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW began to be reshown on television in the mid-1980s. Since then, it’s become an occasional cable or streaming pleasure, as well, and all twenty-six episodes have been released on DVD. The CHRISTMAS SHOW received a special revival on The Disney Channel in 1990, and among many laudatory notices, NEWSDAY praised, “Belying the ‘tormented soul’ legend, Garland shines as the warm and enthusiastic mother her children always recall so fondly. The show appropriately closes with ‘Over the Rainbow,’ sung to the younger kids as a loving lullaby. Perhaps the most telling legacy of this hour is that afterward, you’ll want Judy to tuck you in, too.”
Many, many thanks to those of you who’ve read through this month’s extended blog; there was a lot to say and share. Looking ahead, please be aware that the May and June vlogs and blogs will be all-Judy/all-the-time! Her one-hundredth birthday “hits” on June 10th, and we – obviously -- feel she warrants the attention. 😊 There’ll be OZ anecdotes and OZ art galore, and we hope you’ll return for the celebration; then, in August, we’ll revert to our duo topic format for the rest of the year!
--- Article by John Fricke
Article by John Fricke