A DOORWAY (AND WINDOWS) TO OZ – COURTESY A KINDLY MUPPET COHORT!
[Above: We welcome you to Munchkinland, Muppet style! Can more than a very few Baum/Henson fans – or any at all – guess which physical elements of this photograph actually provided “back-up” for Ashanti & Company sixteen years ago? Please keep reading. 😊 ]
If you’ve watched the ninety-second video of this month’s TREASURES FROM THE OZ MUSEUM, you’ll be aware that it begins with some facts about Oz dramatizations -- musical and otherwise – and that those adaptations span more than a century of entertainment history. While briefly referencing several successes, the vlog’s narration also points out that the majority of the media versions of L. Frank Baum’s stories and characters haven’t been massively popular.
Perhaps, though, it’s best to say that most have been dwarfed by a handful of Oz properties that DID attain some legendary amalgamations of commercial, critical, and/or audience achievement. Three Oz stage musicals are unquestioned hits in the Broadway pantheon: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1903), THE WIZ (1975), and WICKED (2003). Motion picture bonanzas include the recent OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013) and, of course, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s timeless THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939); the latter has been defined as the most influential, popular, widely-seen, and best loved movie ever made.
These five entertainments – some of their time, some (seemingly) in perpetuity -- stand to a great extent as pillars of perfection for millions of fans. Yet the ratio of failure-to-success is remarkable when one considers all of the “Oz shows” over the decades. Many other Ozzy attractions have their own good points, their adherents, and even minor cults. But the general populace or critics just didn’t rally to the silent Oz films in 1908, 1910, 1914, and 1925, or to Shirley Temple’s THE LAND OF OZ (NBC-TV, 1960), the Rankin-Bass RETURN TO OZ (NBC-TV, 1964), the all-star cartoon JOURNEY BACK TO OZ (1972), the movie or TV versions of THE WIZ (respectively 1978 and 2015), or such darker (some would say “dismal”) television excursions as TIN MAN (the Sci Fi Channel, 2007) and EMERALD CITY (NBC, 2017).
This brings us to the 2005 melding of Oz and the Muppets, and the latter denizens certainly join the Ozians as undisputed pop culture franchises of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Jim Henson’s creations, and those of his inspired coworkers, are as magical in their own ways as those of Baum, his “Royal Historian” successors, and their illustrators. Yet when the two worlds aligned, something went amiss in the making, and THE MUPPETS WIZARD OF OZ went down in Glinda’s Great Book of Records as dissatisfying in both its approach to the material and its appeal to the public.
Not having much enjoyed the production some years ago, I revisited it prior to prepping the video and written blogs for this month. It seemed more than ever an uneven and overall missed opportunity. There are those odd, of-the-era contemporary show business references (or, in the extended home video edit, “cameo” appearances by guests). There is smarmy innuendo that tosses -- however infrequently or fleetingly – R and X-rated allusions into the mix. The revisioning of the Dorothy and Toto characterizations manages to dilute their appeal to a major extent; Ashanti in a belly-shirt heaves all hope and heart behind. The personas of Dorothy’s colleagues often went beyond caricature to parody, and there’s not much emotional resonance in that.
Audiences have always been meant to take the Muppets seriously. They’re idiosyncratic, to be sure, but invariably lovable . . . or, at least, embraceable. That isn’t often enough the case here in their OZ -- at least as it’s been “wink-wink”/elbow-nudgingly conceived and scripted for much of their journey to and through the realm. Or, to put it more simply (and Fozzie Bear groan-inducingly): Those in charge seemed to think it would be possible to shed their fur and have it, too.
The production does possess were some nice conceits, among them the clever slotting of Miss Piggy as all four directional Witches. As long as there were off-camera moments in the MUPPETS WIZARD OF OZ treatment, however, I would have loved to have seen some preproduction back-story, wherein Piggy initially expects to be cast (au naturellement!) as Dorothy. One can imagine the flurry of feathered and furred and amphibious plotting to convince her that a quartet of sporadic tour de force appearances was somehow better than playing the program’s in-every-scene protagonist.
But – hey! – whatever its flaws, the MUPPETS WIZARD OF OZ has its devotees. Beyond that, it is history, both in terms of its Henson origins and fame AND as part of the greater annals of Oz.
And that’s where we move on to this month’s TREASURES FROM THE OZ MUSEUM. In the Muppet scenario, scenes in Munchkinland bookend Dorothy’s time in Oz. It’s there that she lands, but it’s also from there that she later departs. The Munchkins themselves are played in diminutive dimensionality by Rizzo and the rats, and in the background one can see many little thatched roof cottages, denoting their homesteads.
A number of years ago, one of The OZ Museum’s fine early directors, Mercedes Michalowski, asked curator Clint Stueve what he felt the venue most needed to both expand its collection and to make its displays more all-inclusive. Clint is now executive director of both Wamego’s OZ Museum and the Columbian Theatre Foundation, Inc. On behalf of this month’s blog, he looked back to his work with Mercedes and remembers, “I pushed for actual artifacts used in later [Oz] films [and] Broadway productions” – these including the Muppet telefilm. In the process, he tracked down contact information for some of those connected to WICKED and Disney’s RETURN TO OZ; Mercedes reached out for Muppet material. “My hazy recollection is that [eventually] we made contact with one of the [creative] artists involved with the Muppet movie."
“When they were dismantling the set for disposal, he grabbed the two windows and the door from one of the Munchkin houses to save samples of his work [and as a] souvenir of his time with the film. I believe he was the carpenter on-set, which is why he only saved the three wood (I believe it’s pine) pieces. He simply couldn't bear all of it being destroyed."
“The OZ Museum purchased those pieces, but it was for a nominal fee. [The donor/carpenter] wished to remain anonymous, and he really just wanted [the two windows and door] to find a safe home with the Museum."
However! To appropriate a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song title, “a house is not a home” when it’s comprised of just two windows and a door. Clint continues, “As curator at the time, I was very excited to figure out a creative way around my $0 budget to better display the new pieces. I made the replica house . . . [using] scrap paper and cardboard. [It’s] not to scale, but built to showcase the pieces within the museum [case] space. The windows are wood-framed with mylar in place of glass; the mylar was on the windows when they arrived, and I assume they were that way for filming. Then, I printed images of Muppets from the movie and put them behind the windows.”
To provide a “finished” setting for the house in The OZ Museum case -- and “to make the display more immersive” -- Clint appropriated flowers and green felt (for grass): “They ‘disappeared’ from the Props and Costume Departments at the Columbian Theatre! I was also able to access Muppet plush dolls through [collector] Johnpaul Cafiero and added them.” [Note: The extensive collection of the Cafiero family makes up a goodly percentage of The OZ Museum’s holdings.] “I believe THE MUPPETS WIZARD OF OZ material was installed in the Museum in 2010; it may have been 2011. Now, though -- eleven years down the road -- I am not sure how well my papier-mâché project holds up to the scrutiny of Museum visitors!”
I think all who read and view here will concur: Clint’s work holds up very well, indeed. As for his ingenuity, the ongoing magic of the Muppets, and the now-heralded generosity of an anonymous carpenter who took pride in his work . . . well, they all add up -- to more TREASURES FROM THE OZ MUSEUM!
Article by John Fricke