[Above: A legend in a legendary setting: Classic pop/rock musician Paul McCartney shares a publicity pose with a trio of Baum/Disney RETURN TO OZ characters, including a delighted Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. Also seen: Tik-Tok and the Tin Woodman.]
It’s another gala month in 2022, which means our blog honors both Judy Garland in her centennial year and another “Dorothy Gale” of theatrical history. Our additional September Dorothy is special, indeed; she gave an outstanding performance in Disney’s 1985 feature film, RETURN TO OZ, and it’s only fitting to classify the work of young Fairuza Balk as one of the definite highlights and achievements of that troubled, controversial (if now rabidly cult-endorsed) project. Certainly in this viewer’s opinion – which dates back to the picture’s preopening publicity in summer 1984 – Fairuza was an anticipated and then fulfilled delight.
I’ve written about RETURN TO OZ on several past occasions during the course of these eight years (plus!) of blogging for the OZ Museum of Wamego. This time, though, I want to specifically focus on the youngster who won the pivotal role of Baum’s Kansas heroine over literally hundreds of other aspirants – with the proper beginning of a few other Fairuza facts: She was born on May 21, 1974 – a native Californian – but had been living and acting (since age six) in Vancouver. At age nine, she was one of the youngest Disney auditionees for the part of Dorothy, and she turned ten during OZ filming. Ironically, the fact that RETURN TO OZ wasn’t a critical, public, or box office success upon its release kept her from being typecast in a Dorothy mold. As any Balk adherent can tell you, this was almost assuredly of benefit to her subsequent and nonstop career. She’s done a wide spectrum of film and television acting (often in dark -- even goth – productions); enjoyed success as an artist and in music (as both vocalist and songwriter); and even done voice-over assignments in animation and video games.
[Above: In this early concept art for a RETURN TO OZ poster/ad, actress Jean Marsh appears as Wicked Witch Mombi.]
However . . .: Back to Fairuza’s Ozian attainment! (For those who seek other career and professional information about Ms. Balk, there is an abundance of it on the internet. 😊 ) I served as the 1984-1987 editor-in-chief of THE BAUM BUGLE (The International Wizard of Oz Club magazine), which put me in an enviable position of occasionally working with Disney to herald RETURN TO OZ. Their publicist, Craig Miller, attended several Oz club conventions prior to the film’s release, sharing preliminary information, photographs, and posters with attendees. The BUGLE itself offered advance glimpses of art, gave the film front-and-back full-color covers, and devoted a couple of preview stories to alert and stir the core Oz audience for what we hoped would be a major treat and sensation.
I was further “advance-sold” when a sixty-minute documentary, THE WHIMSICAL WORLD OF OZ, appeared on numerous PBS-TV outlets in the several months immediately preceding the June 1985 release of RETURN TO OZ. Half-L. Frank Baum homage and half-Disney trumpeting, the show reached its peak for me in very brief dramatic film clip scene between Ms. Balk as Dorothy and Billina the Hen. Therein, Dorothy has just discovered the desecration of an Ozian landmark: broken, scrambled, crumpled, and crushed pieces of pavement. When the hen pooh-poohs the depth of Dorothy’s reaction, Fairuza offered a simple rejoinder (and I’m paraphrasing here): “No, Billina . . . you don’t understand. . .. This USED to be . . . the Yellow Brick Road.” Her line reading – in a voice that had all the desired emotional highs and lows in pitch, inflection, sincerity, and concerned horror (or horrified concern) – hit me in the heart; Fairuza was, to me (and instantaneously so) The Right Dorothy!
[Above: As Billina looks on, Dorothy discovers the Yellow Brick Road in ruins.]
This personal acknowledgment carried over to my five different viewings of the first-run RETURN TO OZ in June/July 1985. To be honest, I couldn’t exult over the film as a whole; my review for THE BAUM BUGLE (Autumn 1985) was titled “The Joy That Got Away.” It’s undeniably true that many individual moments in the movie were everything one could wish: the Claymation Nomes, the flight of the Gump, the “heads” of Mombi. Yet they weren’t compensation (to say the very least) for the lack of basic entertainment that pervaded the Oz movie and that somehow eluded the collective Disney approach to the material. (If I had to define the Oz book series in a single phrase, I might well choose a declarative, boisterous, and uber-enthusiastic reading of “basic entertainment!” So please spare me the oft-and-since repeated Disney defiance that RETURN TO OZ was “true to Baum.” 😊)
To return to the topic once again: I was. however, very pleased to look back on my 1985 review of Fairuza’s performance – and I absolutely happily stand by those word today: “[She] is a genuine pleasure and combines the requisite spunk, determination, loyalty, courtesy, and courage that have made the Kansas girl a legend. Her snub-nose, wide-eyed appeal is nicely complimented by an unusually musical speaking voice, which gives a nice lilt to her readings.”
So . . .! Here’s a public huzzah and a personal gratitude to the then-just-one-decade-old wonder who brought Dorothy Gale so vibrantly to life. Her persona, personality, and acting power were the highlight among highlights in RETURN TO OZ, and it’s no surprise she was chosen to recreate Dorothy Gale. After nearly four decades, she remains ideal in the role.
[Top and bottom: Dorothy reunites with an enchanted Tin Woodman and serves as a surrogate parent to Jack Pumpkinhead in RETURN TO OZ.]
All this year, we’ve used a portion of this space to discuss Ozzy happenings and anecdotes involving THE “Dorothy Gale” of MGM’s 1939 THE WIZARD OF OZ film: the incomparable Judy Garland. She made what was to be her last formal New York stage appearance on Sunday evening, November 17, 1968, at Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall at Lincoln Center. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) had taken over the theater for a one-night benefit to celebrate of the songs of Harold Arlen, Vincent Youmans, and Noel Coward, and the show starred -- among others --Beatrice Lillie, Howard Keel, Leslie Uggams, Nancy Dussault, and Constance Towers. Judy was the unbilled, "surprise" finale of the evening and walked on unannounced (if a forty-piece orchestra thundering through “The Man That Got Away” -- the hit song Arlen had written for her supreme 1954 film version of A STAR IS BORN -- can be interpreted as an "unannounced" entrance). There was a tumultuous ovation from the shocked and jubilant audience, and her performance that night provided proof of the fact that her voice remained intact to the end of her life. In addition to her "The Man That Got Away" opener, Judy offered the love theme from her A STAR IS BORN ("It's A New World") and "Get Happy” – Arlen’s first song hit, dating from 1930, which Judy had revived in the 1950 MGM musical, SUMMER STOCK, and ever after made her own.
[Above: These three Arlen classics were among many sheet music cover illustrations that touted the Judy/Harold connection: “Get Happy,” “The Man That Got Away,” and “I Could Go On Singing” – the title song of her final film (1963).]
Arlen, of course, had a long, professional (and affectionate personal) history with Judy. He and lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg first worked with her in 1938, writing all the songs for THE WIZARD OF OZ. Twenty-three years, they collaborated again on the score for the UPA animated feature, GAY PURR-EE (released in 1962), which provided Judy with such outstanding numbers as “Paris is a Lonely Town” and “Little Drops of Rain.” In between those productions – and when Hollywood blacklisting kept Harburg from joining Arlen to do the score for A STAR IS BORN – lyricist Ira Gershwin worked with Harold on a superlative sextette of songs.
[Above: THE WIZARD OF OZ songs were first heard nationally on the June 29, 1939, GOOD NEWS radio show, broadcast over NBC. Here at rehearsal, Judy (hair in pin curls) sits next to composer Harold Arlen at the piano. Standing behind them (from left) are “Scarecrow” Ray Bolger, “Cowardly Lion” Bert Lahr, music publisher Harry Link, GOOD NEWS arranger/conductor Meredith Willson, and lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg.]
Judy also recorded, featured in concert, and sang on television many other Arlen melodies. Thus, she was the natural “finish” for his tribute evening in 1968, and the Lincoln Center audience knew it. Yet they went unquietly vociferous when – after her third song that night – he himself appeared in person and joined her onstage. Moments earlier, she had jokingly referred to their "casual relationship"; in keeping with that, and with low-key aplomb, he went directly to the piano to accompany her rendition of "Over the Rainbow." It was a foregone and predictable topper for the show, but the situation was heightened even further by Judy’s physical homage and gratitude. Appreciative fellow songwriter John Meyer watched from the wings of the theater and later wrote, "Judy kneeled by the piano bench and sang it directly to [Arlen].... Harold's tears were dropping on the ivory -- his fingers literally slipped off the keys. "
As Garland reached the last eight bars of the song, she interpolated three spoken words. In between "If happy little bluebirds fly..." and "...beyond the rainbow, why, oh, why can't I?," she said simply, directly, and warmly:
"Thank you, Harold."
The composer – knocked sidewise by the combination of her exemplary, sterling performances of his songs and her “three little words” – left the stage, still in tears.
[Above: Thirteen months prior to their 1968 onstage appearance together, Judy and Harold Arlen informally entertained at a NYC party, following an earlier, different ASCAP salute at Lincoln Center.]
That may be an ending that’s impossible to rival! And yet: HEY, THERE! IT’S THAT VERY SPECIAL TIME OF THE YEAR AGAIN! So please come and join us in Wamego, KS, as the OZ Museum and the Columbian Theatre present the annual OZtoberFest celebration on Saturday, October 1st! There’ll be further “Judy Centennial” celebrating, but of course, Judy’s just one component of the entertainment; you’ll also be able to sit in (and join in?) on a discussion of some of the controversial, puzzling, mythical, legendary (and, in some cases, just plain FALSE!) Oz myths – whether on film, in the books, or on the stage. And more! Plus: Witness the unveiling of three astounding new Ozzy additions to the holdings of the OZ Museum. AND share in all the exciting contests, pageantry, food, entertainment, and Ozzy presentations for which Wamego’s OZtoberFest has become famous.
Don’t miss a moment – and as one of those who gets to offer some of the presentations and serve as one of the emcees, I hope to greet you there!
Wamego # 147 September 2022
Article by John Fricke