[Above: She remains the quintessential Dorothy Gale for the ages, at least insofar as pop culture history is concerned across the last eighty-three years. Here, Judy Garland and her costars from THE WIZARD OF OZ -- from left: Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, and Jack Haley – are presented in two separate 1939 publicity photos; this composite image served as a glowing (if colorized) visual for the front jacket cover of the first OZ long-play, vinyl soundtrack album, released in November 1956 on M-G-M’s own record label.]
For the last two months, we’ve honored “just” Judy Garland here, given that she -- and a good percentage of all ages world-wide -- celebrated her 100th birthday anniversary last month. Now we return to 2022’s “official” vlog/blog format by honoring both Judy (who was MGM’s WIZARD OF OZ-movie Dorothy) AND other actresses who have played that role. Not to worry, though; for any who thrive on Garlandia, our July entry doesn’t stray far, not even away from the same gene pool. Our two “additional’ Dorothys this month are Judy’s daughters: Lorna Luft (born in 1952) and Liza Minnelli (born in 1946).
Lorna’s had two specific encounters with THE WIZARD OF OZ, although only in the first of these did she assay her mom’s part. New to the Brentwood, California, area in summer 1963, Lorna and younger brother Joey Luft (then eight) were invited to participate in an informal children’s theater organization – a sort of “Kids On the Block” and/or “Kids In the Neighborhood” put on a show. The juvenile company was organized by seventeen-year-old Brigid O’Brien (daughter of celebrated veteran actor Pat O’Brien and wife Eloise), and the industrious girl both chose the vehicle and directed youngsters from the Rockingham Avenue area in a semi-staged, minimally costumed version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. (Joe wore a short white fur piece that draped round one shoulder and perched atop his head to convey the mane and presence of the King of the Forest.) Ten-year-old Lorna was an obvious and natural selection to appear as Dorothy Gale, singing “Over the Rainbow” to the joy of the audience; the latter included both her mom and Lorna’s older sibling, Liza Minnelli.
[Above: Judy and her personal pride: All three children appeared with their mom on the December 22, 1963, CBS telecast of THE JUDY GARLAND CHRISTMAS SHOW: Liza, seventeen; Joe, eight; and Lorna, just turned eleven. The two younger kids had made their OZ stage appearance just five months prior to this holiday outing.]
It took another forty-five years for Lorna to “return to Oz,” but the reappearance came in a far more eclectic duo-role: She played Almira Gulch/The Wicked Witch of the West in Manchester (England) for a Christmas pantomime mounting of THE WIZARD OF OZ in December 2008. In an interview several months prior to the onset of rehearsals, she typically/candidly offered, “I've always tried to stay away from that one piece of history in my family, because it's so iconic. [But] when they offered me the role of the Wicked Witch, to be honest with you, they made me an offer I couldn't refuse! It's only five weeks. It's outside of Manchester, which I'm thrilled [about], because Manchester's a cool city. And I'm going to have fun with it; I'll put a bunch of green stuff on my face!” As a personal sidelight, she added, “Do you know what else is nice? I knew Margaret Hamilton. When I lived in New York [in the 1970s], I'd sit and talk with her in Ted Hook's Backstage Restaurant, and she was one of the nicest, sweetest women I've ever known. And I always remember my mom said to me that the hardest thing [about] THE WIZARD OF OZ was being afraid of her, because she was a lovely woman. Plus, she was wonderful as that character -- so I'm pleased to be putting on that pointy hat for her!”
[Above: “It’s Too Early to Be Green”: Perfectly in character, Lorna models her WWW garb in Manchester for a pre-show publicity photo. This was taken prior to active rehearsals – and any necessity for character makeup -- for the 2008 THE WIZARD OF OZ.]
At ten, Lorna was the youngest Garland gal to play Dorothy, but Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli received her first major professional assignment when asked – at sixteen – to “voice” the little girl from Kansas herself. HOLLYWOOD REPORTER columnist Mike Connolly broke the news in autumn 1962 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 the comparatively unknown Liza in the same role played by her mother -- at the same age. In an interview a few months later, Minnelli noted that she initially rejected the job offer, wisely wishing to establish a career without trading on the part that had made her mother a star some twenty-four years earlier: “When they wanted me, I said ‘No!’ – with a bang! But then my agent explained that it would be a different story from the one Mama made. It would be based on the second ‘Oz’ book, and a lot of fine people were doing the voices . . .. In company like that, I had to change my mind.”
Proud mama Judy referenced her daughter’s OZ work during a Chicago press conference on November 6th; added to the power of Judy’s endorsement, it was also announced that the multiple-Academy Award-winning songwriting team of Sammy Cahn (lyrics) and James “Jimmy” Van Heusen (music) had written fifteen new songs for the OZ cartoon. Apart from Minnelli, the early roster of principal performers amounted – indeed! -- to a stellar line-up: Ethel Merman as Mombi the Wicked Witch, Peter Lawford as The Scarecrow, Danny Thomas as the Tin Man, Phil Silvers as The Cowardly Lion (although he would be replaced by Milton Berle prior to prerecording), 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.
[Above: Liza Minnelli had prerecorded her RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ songs and dialogue just a few months prior to this March 1963 nationwide TV appearance on NBC’s weekly Friday night show, THE JACK PAAR PROGRAM.]
Notwithstanding its big-name heralding, the consequent RETURN TO THE LAND OF OZ news almost immediately slowed to a trickle. The next eight years brought sporadic press release statements, each one declarative (however inaccurately) about progress with, new plans for, or a fresh approach to the material. First, there was to be a Radio City Music Hall “Christmas Show” premiere, publicized in late autumn 1963; this went unfulfilled in the underlying, unpublicized fact (despite the hype) that producer Prescott had apparently run out of money earlier in the year. He had the virtually complete soundtrack but only ten minutes of animated action. Additional footage was periodically, slowly added; in 1971, an “arena” show production was announced in a feature article in VARIETY, the show business trade publication. In this new incarnation, OZ would meld existing cartoon footage and live actors (the latter lip-syncing to the famous voices). Jack Haley, Sr., MGM’s Tin Woodman of 1939, was cited as a new “technical advisor.” Across these years, the property’s title changed, as well -- to RETURN TO OZ and then to THE RETURN TO OZ; this, of course, prefigured the 1985 Disney live-action feature film, RETURN TO OZ, but there had been a widely-seen Rankin/Bass cartoon TV special, RETURN TO OZ, televised nationwide by NBC in 1964 and 1965.
[Above: This undated “family” gathering of Prescott’s animated characters specifically focuses on the cast members who would be uber-familiar to fans of the MGM motion picture: Glinda, the Tin Man, the Lion, Toto, Dorothy, and the Scarecrow.]
Back to Ms. Minnelli, however.
When she read (or had brought to her attention) the 1971 VARIETY feature, she or her representatives immediately reached out to Prescott. By then, Liza 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. These new complications were publicized by Hollywood columnist Marilyn Beck; Liza was no longer a novice, and according to Beck, the full-fledged motion picture star straightaway reached out to Prescott for copies of the lead sheets for Dorothy’s four OZ songs. It seems she had every intention of re-recording the numbers with the vocal sheen she’d acquired since 1962. Beck continued, “The studio is going along with her request, but quietly wishes she would forget the idea,” because the “rough and untrained” sixteen-year-old Minnelli voice was “very much like [that of] her famous mother.”
Yet all such furor died down as quickly as it began, and another year of silence went by. Then in late 1972, Warner Bros. suddenly and haphazardly distributed the (seemingly) fully-animated film – now titled JOURNEY BACK TO OZ -- in premiere bookings in Australia and the United Kingdom. It took a further eighteen months for OZ to be shown in this country, and it first opened in June 1974 in Sacramento, CA. Across that summer, the picture appeared in limited theatrical engagements, gradually petering-out via children’s matinee bookings or early-evening special screenings. OZ thereafter enjoyed some widely-syndicated TV appearances, but any present-day familiarity now can be linked to home video. By any standards, it was an odd and limp climax to more than a decade of effort by diverse and (in many instances) genuinely gifted people.
[Above: Dorothy and (perhaps) her closest Ozzy companion, the Scarecrow. Peter Lawford’s original voice tracks for the latter character were abandoned; according to JOURNEY BACK TO OZ production staff, it was decided that the Englishman “didn’t sound like he was from Kansas.” (Or Oz?) So Judy Garland’s ofttime screen partner, Mickey Rooney, rerecorded the role sometime prior to 1971. Danny Thomas definitely sang for The Tinman, but his acting lines were taken by Larry Storch, who did a dandy imitation of the Thomas tones to help maintain continuity.]
From my own first theatrical viewing of JOURNEY BACK TO OZ in 1974, it was immediately apparent that no rerecording had been done by Liza Minnelli. Both of her upbeat tunes (“Keep a Happy Thought” and “Return to the Land of Oz”) were full of family verve and vocally sound, if unrefined and tight in the stretch. Her two ballads, however -- “There’s A Faraway Land” and “The Feeling Called Home” -- were well-intended but uncertain and quavery. Per Marilyn Beck’s pronouncement in summer 1971, the girl’s voice was indeed and basically untrained in 1962 but possessed little of the control, range, or soaring sound her mother naturally manifested at the same age. Not unexpectedly, Minnelli’s work was that of a sixteen-year-old who was just learning to use her instrument; in the process, she did a sincere and believable job, though she was not at all then a major vocalist.
[Above: The famously familiar MGM Ozians are once again pictured here in a 1974 lobby card, as joined by their JOURNEY BACK TO OZ cohorts: Pumpkinhead, Mombi the Witch, and one of her villainous Green Elephants.]
Note: For those who wish to know more about the sometimes torturous and roller coaster route required to bring JOURNEY BACK TO OZ to the screen, this blog detailed it in a three-part history in the entries for May 1st, May 8th, and May 15th, 2015. They’re posted and accessible by: 1) Googling OZ Museum/Columbian Theatre; 2) clicking on the words OZ NEWS when they appear; and 3) then scrolling (way back!) in THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF OZ pages.
We wrap up the month with a favorite OZ-related anecdote about our Centennial Gal -- Judy herself:
Of course, THE WIZARD OF OZ motion picture has remained – in the words of THE NATIONALOBSERVER – the cornerstone of her “eternal fame.” This was increasingly underscored throughout the 1960s, when the by-then-annual network telecast of the film had become a virtual national holiday in the United States. Thanks to those screenings, Judy’s constant fan base was expanded by ever-vigilant and rabid youngsters, emotionally dazzled by her Dorothy Gale. This could be seen in the hundreds of teens (and some preteens) who regularly attended her concerts across the 1960s, and there’s an even more specific case-in-point from that era: Upon arrival at the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport in 1965, she was swamped by “a predominantly youthful crowd.” The waiting reporters described “a circle of outstretched autograph books [that] fenced her in.” The writers then logged forty-two-year-old Judy’s greeting to the kids as, “Hi! Didn’t think I’d look like THIS, did you? I’m a little older, maybe?!” The press rhapsodized, “But the children couldn’t care less,” overwhelmed as they were at meeting the girl from Kansas.
When and where youngsters were concerned, Judy also provided wish-fulfillment on a one-on-one basis as it was possible. Her stage shows, from 1951-1969, invariably included her spontaneous, humorous exchanges with jubilant paying customers, who would call out requests for their favorite songs. Garland was adept at bantering with such shouts, and when she had the music with her, often sang the numbers for which she’d been asked.
Perhaps the most gracious and artless example of this occurred in Connecticut less than two years before her passing. Her “Summer of Love” tour in 1967 encompassed more than seventy-five concerts in sixteen venues between June and December. During an October engagement in Hartford, a woman in the audience suddenly spoke up on behalf of a child who had accompanied her to the show. Evidently, the tyke had heard grown-ups around her making their song entreaties of the star and realized that Judy would do her best to comply. Thus . . .
Women: “Hey, Judy! This little girl wants to ask you something!”
Judy (encouragingly): “What does she want to ask?”
Little Girl (around six years old; blurting nervously): “Nuthin’!”
Judy (gently, solicitously): “No, really…. What is it, sweetie?”
Little Girl (shy and almost inaudible): “Yellow Brick Road.”
Judy (unable to hear her) requested that she repeat her statement.
Little Girl (slightly louder): “Yellow Brick Road!”
Now, twenty-eight years post-OZ and pretty much after-the-fact, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” wasn’t a song for which Judy carried an orchestration. She hesitated for merely a moment, though, and then leapt right in:
Judy: “Oh . . .. All right!” And she began to sing a cappella, while doing the Dorothy-&-Company skip around the stage of Bushnell Auditorium:
"Follow the yellow brick road." “Follow the yellow brick road. " “Follow follow follow follow follow the yellow brick road! “Follow the yellow BRICK! “Follow the yellow BRICK! “Follow the yellow brick road….”
There was a pause, and then Judy leaned over the edge of the stage, peered into the darkened theater, and in the direction from which the child’s voice had come, told her – simply, quietly, and personally:
“Yes. I was Dorothy.”
There was a beat of silence as her statement registered with the onlookers. Then, as if someone had cued an imaginary ovation machine, there was a roar – a wall of sound – from all the thousands in the audience: applause, cheers, and huzzahs of sudden realization, remembrance, acknowledgment, admiration, affection, comprehension, confirmation, and love.
Judy Garland was all that they’d been witnessing -- in some cases, for more than three decades --
AND . . . she “was Dorothy,” too.
[Above: Judy during her 1967 tour.]
More about Judy – and three Dorothys of THE WIZ! – next month. 😊 As ever, many thanks for checking in and reading; comments on the OZ Museum Facebook page are always welcome.
Article by John Fricke