Ah, sweet summertime in St. Louis. The birds are chirping, our hair is frizzing out and another local tradition is about to begin its 98th season: The Muny. The first show in its lineup? “The Wizard of Oz.” But what’s the history of such a popular musical?
John Fricke, regarded as one of the most knowledgeable Oz historians joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Monday’s show to discuss the history of “The Wizard of Oz.” Fricke’s most recent book is called “The Wonderful World of Oz — An Illustrated History of an American Classic.”
“Virtually anybody over the age of three today knows Dorothy and those characters and is happy to talk about Oz or hear about Oz,” Fricke said. “It resonated with me. Becoming an entertainer, majoring in journalism, there’s this kind of dual citizenship in performing and research and history.”
At 7:15 p.m., ahead of every Muny performance from June 13-22, Fricke will give talks about the history of Oz, from L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and the 13 other sequels to it, to the musical and movie version as well as “The Wizard of Oz’s” place in society today.
Fricke enlightened us about several local connections to Oz. Here’s what we learned:
1. Yes, Mickey Carroll really was in the 1939 version of “The Wizard of Oz.”
St. Louis actor Mickey Carroll, who died in 2009, was one of the last surviving people who played a Munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz.” It was his only film role, though he had danced in local theaters (including The Muny) and worked in Chicago vaudeville.
In 2007, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Carroll was a trickster, and told many comedic stories of his time on the movie’s set — leading to some confusion of his exact role in the film, which Fricke cleared up.
“He was really, really in it,” Fricke said. “But he did not dub the voice for Auntie Em yelling for Dorothy in the tornado; he did not stay with Judy Garland while making the picture; he did not dub the voices of all the other Munchkins; it is not him saying ‘follow they yellow brick road’ on the soundtrack. Mickey was nothing if not, and I say this with respect and affection because I recognize ham in someone else I see it and Mickey was out there delivering whenever he had the chance…you just had to edit anything he said before you put it on the air.”
2. Belleville’s Buddy Ebsen ended up in an Iron Lung because of the film.
According to Fricke, Belleville native Buddy Ebsen (The Beverly Hillbillies, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) was originally cast in “The Wizard of Oz” as the Scarecrow. Ray Bolger, who was originally cast as the Tin Man, “put up a fuss” about the role and Buddy switched with him.
“When I interviewed him years later, he said ‘I knew it was going to be a big picture, I just wanted to be a part of it, I didn’t care what part I played,’” Fricke said.
To make the Tin Man’s character appear tin, they put a base of clown white on Ebsen’s face and dusted it with aluminum particles several times a day to keep it shiny. After inhaling these aluminum particles for two weeks, however…
“Either he did not know he had an allergy or his lungs were particularly susceptible to this,” Fricke said. “He ended up in an Iron Lung in a hospital. The aluminum had coated his lungs. He was off of and out of the picture.”
That’s when they brought in Jack Haley from 20th Century Fox to play the part. They then rectified the costume, mixing the clown paint with the aluminum to prevent inhalation.
Ebsen’s still in the movie, however!
“Listen to the song ‘We’re off to see the Wizard’ after the Tin Man joins the trio,” Fricke said. “Jack Haley re-recorded all solos, but they did not redo the group numbers. You really can hear [Ebsen].”
3. The Muny was the first theater to perform the songs from the movie on stage.
This year marks the twelfth time since 1942 that The Muny has put “The Wizard of Oz” on stage. Although the book had been turned into a musical much earlier, the production The Muny put on in 1942, three years after the movie was released, was ground-breaking.
“They were the very first theater anywhere to do ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on stage with the songs from the movie,” Fricke said. “They knew after three years that people wanted to hear those songs. They borrowed the orchestrations from MGM, not the script, but they had the songs. That version, started by The Muny, played everywhere for decades.”
In fact, it was so groundbreaking that it brought Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the movies to The Muny to play the same part years after the movie was released.
In 1987, the Royal Shakespeare Company in London eventually got the rights to “do the movie on stage,” realizing that the movie version of the music was what people predominantly identified with “The Wizard of Oz” in modern times. That’s the version you’ll see on stage at The Muny this year.
What: The MUNY Presents "The Wizard of Oz"
When: June 13 - 22, 2016 at 8:15 p.m.
Where: The MUNY in Forest Park
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.