[This design for the cover of MGM/UA Home Video’s WIZARD OF OZ videotape won out over several others to commemorate the movie’s fiftieth anniversary VHS release in 1989. See the rare, “unfinished” art below.]
For countless men, women, and children – past, present, and probably future – the cornerstone and heart of their Oz familiarity was/is/will be firmly founded in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 musical production of THE WIZARD OF OZ. I can’t predict whether that makes this next statement easy or difficult to comprehend, but believe it or not, we’ve just hit the inception of the eightieth anniversary year of this legendary motion picture. It was July 1938 when various creative aspects of the enterprise began to genuinely coalesce: casting and scripting were well underway (if, as it turned out, far from complete); most of the songs had been written, submitted, and approved; and Technicolor camera tests actually began eighty years ago this coming week. So, this seems like a good time to look back to the fiftieth OZ anniversary, which became – at least to the somewhat-surprise of MGM and its licensees – the onset of an Ozian furor that has yet to subside. It also propelled the Oz collectible market to new heights . . . and both vintage and new collectors to unbridled passion in their desire to amass related products and association items.
Spearheading that 1989 celebration (if, initially, unexpectedly so) was the film’s latest home video incarnation. The VHS box cover shown above should be familiar to many of you, especially Oz fans or those who were (or had) children or grandchildren at that time. But its ubiquitous success was neither premeditated or taken for granted, as this was far from the first commercial release of THE WIZARD OF OZ for at-your-own-pleasure viewing. The movie initially went out to the prerecorded videotape market in October 1980. It then enjoyed a major repackaging and price reduction in August 1985, and the same thing happened again in 1988, as the Wicked Witch of the West came into her own and became a primary feature of both cover and promotion.
[Above: The original OZ videotape packaging from 1980 is shown here at left. The 1985 “Kiddy-Oh! For Kids” edition was marketed in a plastic clamshell casing. The 1988 “red cover” highlighted the presence of Margaret Hamilton’s characterization in the plot. Ironically, her appearance has been “drawn in” from a still taken during early OZ production in October 1938. When that footage was junked – and a new director brought in to helm the picture – the Wicked Witch’s hair was pinned up; she was never seen in the movie in this (pending your generation) Marlo Thomas/Lea Michele “flip” style.]
Between those three releases, it was estimated that THE WIZARD OF OZ had sold – by late 1988 – nearly two million copies. This in itself was a genuine achievement as, across the 1980s, the cost of videotape recorders themselves had decreased to the point that many households boasted them, and their owners could have easily taped OZ off TV during one of its annual national teleshowings. As a result, and despite the approach of the film’s fiftieth anniversary, MGM/UA Home Video was unsure of how and whether-or-not to proceed with yet another new “container” and reissue in 1989.
However, the fates aligned to propel the company into a (for-the-times) lavish new edition. Oz and Judy Garland fans were blessed to have MGM honcho George Feltenstein onsite as an omniscient and indefatigable fellow enthusiast. In autumn 1988, I was introduced to George via corporate publicist Sue Procko, whom I’d met via a decade-old New York friendship with Rick Skye. Rick had business with Sue at company headquarters in California and took me along; I was in Los Angeles doing the final research and writing on what came to be known as “the green book”: THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE OFFICIAL 50th ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL HISTORY, published ten months later in August 1989. In brief, we all hit it off; George took Rick and me on a tour of the original MGM lot and soundstages, and when he and Sue heard about the forthcoming coffee-table book, the three of us sprang into a fervent brainstorming session on what might comprise a special OZ home videotape – more spectacular, in effect, than any of the previous versions.
During that conversation, we discussed the fact that OZ would be duplicated on a two-hour tape, which left roughly fifteen minutes of space “to fill” at the film’s conclusion. I told George and Sue about the recently-discovered soundtracks of “The Jitterbug” and Buddy Ebsen’s rendition of “If I Only Had a Heart” (prerecorded before his allergic reaction to the aluminum dust in the Tin Man’s makeup led to his replacement in the movie). When I added that research for the book had led to never-before-published Ebsen costume and make-up test photos (as well as several on-the-set scene stills of Buddy as the Tin Man), it was determined that they could be “laid down” on the videotape to accompany his recording of his song, resulting in an audio/visual treat. We followed the same concept – using OZ publicity photos – to illustrate the introductory patter section of “The Jitterbug,” and then segued to OZ composer Harold Arlen’s home movies of a dress rehearsal of the number to cover the rest of the song. Ray Bolger’s lengthy, special-effects dance to “If I Only Had a Brain” (deleted from the original 1939 OZ print) had already been seen in the theatrical film, THAT’S DANCING (1985) . . . but only in part. As a result, the anniversary OZ video provided the perfect opportunity to share the entire routine. Then, to ensure that we utilized every possible moment of the excess videotape, the supplement also included the reissue trailer for the film; an excerpt from a 1938 newsreel (that also depicted Buddy Ebsen in company with Bolger and Bert Lahr); and the film footage of Judy Garland receiving her special “juvenile” Academy Award from Mickey Rooney on February 29, 1940.
Once these plans were in swing, additional ideas began to fly fast and furious: what else could be done to make the new OZ product even more special? It was decided to “cast” the movie’s opening and closing credits and Kansas sequences in the same sepia-tone hues that had been used (only!) for the film’s 1939 theatrical prints. Then, I believe it was George’s idea that I write an introductory booklet about “the making of . . .” OZ, to be attached to the video packaging. I came up with enough text to fill more than thirty mini-pages, including detailed historical notes about the ancillary section of the tape. The lengthy pamphlet then concluded with a full-page ad for the forthcoming 1989 Warner Books pictorial history. The latter project, incidentally, was also beginning to take on an aura and excitement of its own (but that story will have to wait for another blog!), and in turn, Warner’s gave over the last leaf of the book to a full-page promotion for the fiftieth-anniversary video.
[Above: The final pages of the MGM/UA mini-booklet, attached to the fiftieth-anniversary WIZARD OF OZ home video package cover.]
Finally, Procter & Gamble entered the mix, underwriting aspects of the product in exchange for a brief, new, Oz-related Downy Fabric Softener commercial at the onset of the tape. They also offered a five-dollar price reimbursement to those who purchased the video; it was Rick Skye’s clever suggestion to them that they make the rebate certificate so beautifully and Ozzily designed that most buyers might opt to retain the colorful document rather than submit it for the cash return. (It worked!)
If memory serves, there was some level of competition among designers when MGM/UA endeavored to select cover art for what was evolving into a major (and to-be-heavily-publicized) issue. The art that won is, of course, shown at the top of this blog, and is uber-familiar to those who purchased the 1989 video. However, here’s an early, unfinished draft of that design; it was privately circulated in-house before the final decision was made to utilize it. As a result, it’s a rare collectible item:
The finished product was a dazzling one for that era. It retailed at $24.95, and MGM/UA’s publicity team operated at maximum to herald it. Sue Procko discovered I could talk (. . .), and that realization – backed by the work I’d done on the video and the fact that I was lead author on the coffee-table book – enabled her to book me as company spokesman on such national program as THE TODAY SHOW with Jane Pauley (an appearance that marked the first of many work encounters with Roger Baum), CNN, and ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT. When the video and book instantly took off in sales, MGM and Warner Books teamed up to send me to numerous other cities for dozens of local TV, radio, and “signing” opportunities. These included (among others) Boston, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Milwaukee (my hometown), and Los Angeles. They also dispatched me for first-time appearances at the Judy Garland Festival in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and to the Oz Festivals in Chesterton, IN; Liberal, KS; and (in 1990) Chittenango, NY. The head of MGM/UA asked me – as we were on our way into the theater! – to introduce the film to an invited audience of NYC celebrities and business and media mavens at a gala cocktail party “launch” at the Museum of Modern Art in August 1989. I also worked with Macy’s here in New York as a consultant on their enormous, month-long, turn-the-department-store-into-Oz festivities, both serving as their representative and then emcee for “The Second Generation of Oz” panel discussion in their book department. Participants included Judy’s daughter Lorna Luft, Jane Lahr (daughter of Bert), Hamilton Meserve (the “son of a witch,” Margaret Hamilton), and Jack Haley, Jr., who’d written the introduction to the pictorial history book and then utilized it – and me as associate producer -- for his 1990 CBS-TV documentary about OZ. A few days later, Jack, Lorna, more than a dozen surviving MGM Munchkins, and I all spoke as part of a colossal party at MGM/UA headquarters in Culver City, CA. (Lorna had Judy’s first grandchild, her four-year-old son Jesse, in tow.)
And the result of all of this OZ MANIA? The coffee-table book went through three hardcover printings in six weeks, topping out as a best seller. And the home video itself? Remember: At this juncture in 1988, MGM/UA wasn’t certain that there would be a market for a fifty-year-old movie that had already sold a couple of million tapes – and was accessible/”tape-able” on network television once a year. However, with the added features and booklet, their advance anticipation and hope by the following spring in 1989 was that it might rack up sales of another three hundred thousand units.
It all turned out quite differently. There’s a beautifully designed and mounted hologram here on the apartment wall which attests to the success of amalgamating OZ, its fifty years, and (of course!) Downy. It shows the outline of a road, winding across rolling meadows and leading to the Emerald City; the engraving below the illustration references the video’s “unprecedented success” and notes – in capital letters! – that it sold:
“3 MILLION UNITS”.
At this point (as it was in 1988 for the fiftieth), there’s no telling what the eightieth OZ anniversary will occasion and encompass. But one thing is certain: As we look back twenty-nine years, it’s proof positive that anytime you hear people discuss “the Magic of Oz,” you can trust that they know what they’re talking about! 😊
Article by John Fricke