Over the Rainbow and How They Got There:
Special Effects in The Wizard of Oz
Sun, December 5. 2010 3pm
Children’s Museum of Manhattan, Tisch Building, 212 West 83rd Street
exhibit web page: http://www.cmom.org/explore/exhibits/wizard_oz
special programs: http://www.cmom.org/explore/programs/wizard_oz
World renowned Oz historian, John Fricke takes you behind the scenes with movie clips and Ozzy facts; how they melted a witch, twirled a tornado and flew those monkeys!
In the Museum’s advance materials, that text was the lure. Heck, it got my attention! Full disclosure: through Judy Garland fan circles, I have gotten to know and admire John Fricke over the past 10 years or so. I own several of his lovely volumes on the life and career of Garland, and several volumes on the history and wonder of the Oz books, Oz memorabilia, and the 1939 M-G-M masterpiece The Wizard of Oz.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of watching this journalist and deep appreciator of all things Oz and all things Garland conduct public events a number of times. I’ve heard him introduce the movie at a screening and engage in Q and A with fans of all ages; I’ve watched him talk to people involved in collectible miniatures about the wonders of the adaptation of Oz to film. I have found him to be always excited, always respectful (of subject and audience), always enthused.
I wrote about his most recent co-authored Oz book, The Wizard of Oz: An Illustrated Companion to the Timeless Movie Classic, in some general “musings on home” earlier this year: http://mattiewade.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/musings-on-home/ And some of the details within this volume — the “just how did they DO that effect” kind of information — is just what is promised in this presentation.
So I embark this chilly December Sunday on a short trudge north from my West Side apartment to the Children’s Museum of Manhattan to see some exhibits, hear the squeal of little voices, and see how Fricke adapts his talk to this audience. I enter expecting that he will talk to a room full of kids with their parents in the same way he talks to any group of Oz fans. Because we come to the experience with our hearts open. And honestly, he wows the crowd.
In a fourth floor activity room at this museum focused on a child’s perspective, and programmed to accompany the Museum’s extensive Oz exhibits, John has set up a DVD with several examples of special effects that he will discuss with the children. Several staff members warm up the room — children down front and the “big people” in chairs or standing in the back. Do they know The Wizard of Oz? Many excited squeals of yes. Are they ready for their special guest? They can barely contain their excitement.
Fricke sets the scene quickly and brings his audience to him (and himself to his audience). He asks them to call him John, and asks how many in the room are 5 years old. (This turns out to be a possible majority of the kids up front.) When he was five, he explains, he had seen other movies and loved them, but then he saw this movie. “When I was five”, he continues, “I grew up and loved The Wizard of Oz.” In those days (for the Baby Boomers in the room this was our story too), there were no DVDs and we could only watch Oz once a year. “You know what it’s like to wait for your birthday,” he addresses his rapt listeners. “I had to wait for Oz once a year just like that.” He has ’em. And he spends the next 45 minutes describing special effects and outtakes in the 1939 classic.
He quotes the special effects chief on the film, Buddy Gillespie, on the film’s effects:
“We couldn’t draw it, we couldn’t paint it. We had to really make it happen.”
We learn about a number of effects including:  the “Horse of Many Colors” — four white horses — three painted with dissolved jello (one in grape, one in cherry, and a third in lemon);  flying monkeys as a combination of 12 men of small stature (little people and jockeys) and rubber puppets on strings;  Wicked Witch of the West melts by wetting her dress, fixing it to floor over an elevator that takes the actress down, in an oversized hat, with dry ice creating the steam;  tornado mechanics (wire and muslin and other details); and  Dorothy’s dream (the kids were well aware it is a dream) inside the Twister, is superimposed images. The audience is also treated to a number of outtakes including Twister destroying parts of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm before the dream (preview audiences suggest this is too frightening for children), Dorothy’s reprise of “Over the Rainbow” as a prisoner in the Witch’s Castle, and alternative choreography for “If I Only Had A Brain” sung byRay Bolger as the Scarecrow to Judy Garland as Dorothy.
And more. There’s always more. For the young and “young at heart”, there is always more to see and enjoy in this film. And now I think I’ll watch it on one of the recent DVD re-issues. With commentary by — John Fricke.
© Martha Wade Steketee (December 5, 2010)