Wamego #80 February 17, 2017
[Above: Some forty-seven years ago, the legendary Norman Rockwell was commissioned by The Singer Company to paint this portrait of Judy Garland and Terry as Dorothy Gale and Toto. The famous “sewing machine” manufacturer then used the art to promote its sponsorship of the annual telecast of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ, shown over the NBC network on March 15, 1970. Rockwell’s work was just one of several key elements in Singer’s publicity package for OZ that go-round – all of it in honor of Judy herself, who had died the preceding June 22.]
Recently, THE BAUM BUGLE – journal of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. -- featured on its back cover the Norman Rockwell portrait shown above. Its reproduction came in conjunction with an article about the sixtieth anniversary of the TV debut of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ, which occurred on November 3, 1956. And while Rockwell’s picture only harks back to 1970, its appearance in the magazine did have an appropriate OZ-on-television correlation. This, however, was merely referenced in passing in the BUGLE, and since the publication of that issue, I’ve received numerous requests for background information about the painting. This is understandable; it represents one of the most iconic entertainers of recorded time -- as depicted by an equally iconic artist.
Thus, this blog!
The coast-to-coast airing of THE WIZARD OF OZ on March 15, 1970, marked its twelfth television appearance in fifteen years. In every preceding outing, the classic motion picture had never ranked lower than number four in the ratings for its week, and – except in three instances – garnered anywhere from fifty to fifty-nine percent of the viewing audience for its time slot. In short, the movie had firmly established its status as a national institution and treasure, as well as a constant (if alternately conscious or subconscious) presence in the minds and hearts of hundreds of millions of people.
OZ itself was thirty-one years old in 1970, and time had long since begun to take its toll on the film’s principal cast. “The Wizard” himself, Frank Morgan, had passed in 1949, “Uncle Henry” Charley Grapewin in 1956, and “Aunt Em” Clara Blandick in 1962. It was, however, the loss of “Cowardly Lion” Bert Lahr in December 1967 that created a genuine stir; by then, the film was familiar to one and all, and media headlines proclaimed, “Cowardly Lion Dies at 72.” Judy Garland immediately took vocal umbrage to such reportage. She was declarative in her dislike of the fact that children were being told that “the Cowardly Lion is dead,” and she proudly (and correctly) told a radio interviewer that Lahr would ever live on through his filmed and recorded work. With a nifty meld of defiance and humor, she concluded, “Some people are just NOT ‘die-able!’”
Ironically, it was her own unexpected death on June 22, 1969, that followed, and perhaps Judy herself would have been amazed by the media coverage, the sage editorials and mourning editorial cartoons, the twenty thousand-plus who attended her wake, and the extensive, diverse manifestations of international sorrow. Since then, she has long since come to embody her own pronouncement -- and happily proved to be “not die-able.”
Shortly after her passing, however, The Singer Company (established in 1851 and still in business today as a division of SVP Worldwide) decided to celebrate her legacy by signing on to underwrite the next tele-showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. They devised a combination of publicity, ad campaign, special merchandising, and TV sponsorship that was estimated to have set back the organization by two million dollars – the equivalent of twelve million dollars in today’s reckoning. Their campaign was highlighted by five activities:
[Above: As themselves – and as “themselves”! Ray Bolger, Margaret Hamilton, and Jack Haley, on the promotional and reminiscent road to Oz, thanks to The Singer Company, 1970.]
#1) Singer brought together in New York City three of the four surviving principal cast members of the movie: “Scarecrow” Ray Bolger, “Tin Man” Jack Haley, and “Wicked Witch of the West” Margaret Hamilton. (Billie Burke, “Glinda, the Witch of the North,” was increasingly frail in California and would pass in May 1970.) The actors aligned for an extensive photo shoot and press interviews; most notable among the latter was “OZ Revisited,” which appeared in the ever-ubiquitous TV GUIDE.
# 2) Singer also licensed the “original soundtrack” MGM Records’ edition of OZ, which included many of the film’s songs and some of its dialogue. They repackaged the twelve-inch disc in a new jacket, and sold the album at their coast-to-coast outlet stores at a bargain price. Fans could also go to the Singer stores and receive a free OZ poster that duplicated the original (if somewhat inaccurately hued) illustration from the front of the record sleeve.
[Above: THE WIZARD OF OZ soundtrack album, as visually reconfigured and produced by Singer in 1970. The well-intentioned but apparently oblivious artist not only put Dorothy in the wrong color dress but managed to screw up her famous footwear as well.]
# 3) On the night of the March 15, 1970, telecast, Singer notably returned to an idea abandoned four years earlier. For the first time since 1967, they supplied an introductory host for the film, and the distinguished Gregory Peck appeared for sixty seconds at the top of the show. His words made it clear that this particular screening was, for many, an opportunity to venerate the actress who played “Dorothy Gale.”
Here is the complete text of Peck’s statement:
“Judy Garland left behind her a legacy of performances perhaps unequalled by any star of our time. Judy was only seventeen [sic] when she made THE WIZARD OF OZ, one of those rare films which became an instant and unquestioned classic – which has for years appealed to family audiences at every age level – and which boosted Judy herself to a plateau of stardom unique in entertainment annals – and which, through theater engagements and telecasts may well have been enjoyed by more people than any other entertainment production in the history of the world.
“That’s something to think about.
“Judy always displayed a deep and generous concern for the welfare of others, particularly those within the motion picture industry with whom she worked so closely for so many years. It is thus fitting that, through tonight’s telecast, there has been established at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital here in Hollywood, the Judy Garland Memorial Cottage.”
# 4) Peck’s speech quietly and -- with Singer eschewing any specific self-promotion – classily referenced the company’s most heartfelt contribution. They had, indeed, donated twenty-five thousand dollars to the complex that cared for ailing or aged members of the film and television industry, with that sum explicitly designated for the creation of a Garland medical library.
#5) Finally, Singer commissioned Norman Rockwell to paint the portrait shown above – and his original artwork was then donated by Singer to that same Hollywood Country House and Hospital.
[Above: OZ producer Mervyn LeRoy (left) poses with the Rockwell portrait and Alfred di Scipio, group vice president of The Singer Company, who flew from New York to California to present both the art and the corporate donation of twenty-five thousand dollars to the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital.]
And that’s how Norman Rockwell, some three decades after her portrayal, came to create his “take” on Judy’s Dorothy! (Savvy Oz fans and collectors will note that the five background denizens in his picture are liberally adapted from Evelyn Copelman’s illustrations from various editions of THE WIZARD OF OZ book.)
A final thought:
Back in 1970, it was astounding to hear the claim that THE WIZARD OF OZ was quite possibly the most widely-seen film in history – and this a full decade before the advent of home video, which would provide the opportunity for countless millions more to watch OZ “at will.” Now, nearly five decades after Peck’s assertion, one really can’t conceive of the total number of billions of people who’ve gone over the rainbow with Judy & Company.
Yet seventeen years into the twenty-first century, it’s perhaps Peck’s preliminary statements that overwhelmingly resound: THE WIZARD OF OZ film, he noted, “boosted Judy [Garland]…to a plateau of stardom unique in entertainment annals.” She “left behind her a legacy of performances perhaps unequalled by any star of our time.”
I’ll raise a toast to Judy on that! In the intervening forty-seven years, Peck’s estimations seem ever more true…and wonderful.
Just like THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ itself.
Article by John Fricke