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John Fricke: The Wizard of All Things Oz

by David Krauss

One of the foremost authorities on The Wizard of Oz chats with dOc about Warner's new collector's edition DVD, the film's history and timeless appeal, and the joy of Judy Garland.

On November 3, 1956, five-year-old John Fricke plopped himself in front of the family television set with three cousins, two sets of aunts and uncles, and his mom and dad to watch the inaugural network broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. "I didn't even know what it was," he sheepishly remembers. But ever-so-soon, he found out. "Nine of the people in that room had a lovely evening" Fricke recalls with typical good humor. "But I had the life-changing experience." Not only was he attracted to L. Frank Baum's absorbing chronicle of Dorothy's journey through Oz, but he was also captivated by the film's wide-eyed leading lady, Judy Garland. Her warmth, sincerity, and mellifluous voice flicked on a switch in his young mind, and within a month, Fricke's supportive parents purchased for his birthday the newly released Oz soundtrack and a pop album of the adult Garland singing standards. Admittance into fan clubs followed, along with a voracious curiosity, and before anyone could say "Toto, too," his interest evolved into a passion for both Oz and Garland that has only increased over the past half century. Yet unlike most fans, Fricke has parlayed this passion into a rewarding career, and is now regarded as one of the world's foremost authorities on the film and its iconic star.

Serendipity played a part in his success, but Fricke's knowledge, enthusiasm, and eloquence paved the way. Spend an hour with him (or better yet, read his exceptional books—The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History, Judy Garland: World's Greatest Entertainer, 100 Years of Oz, and Judy Garland: A Portrait in Art & Anecdote) and you'll not only become a Judy Garland fan, you will cherish the artistry and communicative ability of this legendary performer.

Thankfully, Fricke is omnipresent on the new Wizard of Oz three-disc collector's edition DVD. He's interviewed about L. Frank Baum, the Oz books, the 1939 film, and contributes a fascinating audio commentary. (In fact, all the inserts in the Promotional Portfolio included in the box set come from his personal collection.) In addition, you'll see his name in the credits of practically every legitimate documentary about Garland and Oz that's ever been made. He won a 2004 Emmy Award for co-producing the riveting PBS-TV American Masters documentary, Judy Garland: By Myself (included on the Easter Parade DVD); a 1997 Emmy for co-producing and co-writing the A&E Biography special, Judy: Beyond the Rainbow; and a 1996 Grammy Award nomination for "Best Liner Notes" for the CD, Judy Garland: 25th Anniversary Retrospective. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

In honor of the new Warner Oz DVD, we talked recently about the film and our mutual regard for Garland, and Fricke proved to be as affable, candid, and insightful as ever.

dOc: What initially attracted you to The Wizard of Oz?

John Fricke: Probably the fact that it's so involving. One of the reasons it continues to resonate almost 70 years later is that from frame one, it's the story of a child. It doesn't matter if you're a little boy or a little girl, you get drawn into that story. Part of that is because Dorothy is symbolic of every kid, and every kid registers some of those same fears that Judy Garland puts across in the first 20 minutes of that film?people don't understand you, you're worried about your pet, somebody takes your pet away, you want to run away, you get lost and try to find your way home. You factor all that in with the fact that this character is being impersonated by the single great communicative talent of recorded time, and I don't think there's any way you cannot be drawn into it. Not every child ends up—to their great relief, I'm sure—to be John Fricke, but they do end up with an identification with and great affinity for that film and that story. And I think it starts even younger now, because of home video and because children can see it again and again. You and I are both old enough to remember when the three most important days of the year were your birthday, Christmas, and the night The Wizard of Oz was on TV. And that was because it had such an impact on everybody's life. That was a two-hour space when the center of the universe was that event. And there are very few films about which you can say that.

dOc: Do you think The Wizard of Oz might be too accessible today, because of its availability on home video?

JF: There's absolutely nothing we can do about that. I think the bottom line is that children are still watching it. It might not be a special family event anymore, but it is still an extraordinarily special motion picture, and that hasn't gone away. One of the points I make about Oz specifically and Judy Garland generally is that no matter how much tastes have changed in music and entertainers and entertainment over the last 40, 50, 60 years, those two things are proven thus far to be timeless. I do on average three Oz festivals around the country on an annual basis (and have for the past 15 years), and the thousands of kids who turn out every year—hundreds and hundreds in costume, by the way—prove it hasn't gone away yet, and that's a fair measure of its potency. The nice thing is that everything we felt about it 30 or 40 years ago on TV is still being echoed by kids, even without it being a special event. You can say "Scarlett O"Hara," "Rosebud," "Play it again, Sam," or "Make him an offer he can't refuse" to most people under the age of 30, and they're not going to have a clue what you're talking about. But if you say "Dorothy" and "Toto" and "yellow brick road" to anybody age 2 and up, you got 'em. It's one of the few talking points that still transcends generations.

dOc: If Shirley Temple had played Dorothy, would we be having this conversation now?

JF: No. To be Dorothy, and to be timeless, you had to be Judy Garland. I think time has also proven that you can't name any other girl between the age of 12 and 16 in the history of sound motion pictures who could sing, dance, act, and have that sincerity and humor and communicative power, and who could have brought Dorothy off as effectively as she did. There just isn't anybody. And, of course, the Shirley Temple legend has been blown way out of proportion. There was nothing in the MGM legal files about Shirley Temple and The Wizard of Oz, or in any of the gossip columns in 1938 or '39. By the time the script and the songs were being written for The Wizard of Oz, it was only for Judy Garland. She was locked in to the part. Over the Rainbow was not written for Dorothy, it was written for Judy Garland.

dOc: I guess what I'm trying to get at, too, is that Judy Garland is the heart and soul of The Wizard of Oz, but if you take her out, and you just look at the other characters and the special effects and the color and music, it's still a wonderful movie—and it may have been nice at the time—but it would not endure.

JF: I think that is a very, very safe statement. And again, that takes us back to the idea of with whom could it have endured besides Judy. I don't think we can underestimate what she brought to that film or what her ability has helped that film transcend in terms of years and changing tastes.

dOc: So we've ascertained that The Wizard of Oz would not have been the same without Judy, but without Dorothy, would Judy Garland have become the same legendary star she is today?

JF: Oh, I think so. You know, we've always said that MGM was just an interruption in Judy's career. Because without MGM, Judy would have gone on to be a stage star, a radio star, and a recording star—

dOc: And would probably still be alive today...

JF: Well, that's always a possibility. But I don't think there's any question that she would have become the preeminent film musical star. Again, you've got to remember that she was lined up for plenty of other films before Oz even came out. Babes in Arms was already in the can before the Oz premiere. The Wizard of Oz was pivotal because it was there at the beginning, but with that talent and that power... You know, the ironic thing is that I look back at all the National Board of Review and New York Film Critics citations, and you never see Judy Garland's name in there in the '30s and '40s as Best Actress. And yet now you look at Oz or Meet Me in St. Louis or For Me and My Gal or Easter Parade and you think, well, she didn't get a Best Actress citation because she wasn't acting. She wasn't quote-unquote acting! Greer Garson was acting, Joan Crawford was acting. They were all doing what passed for drama in those days. Yet one reason Garland is still so timeless is that there's nothing artificial about her. You don't get the sense that she's acting, you get the sense that she's being. That was something the British critic Dilys Powell said about Judy in her review of I Could Go on Singing back in 1963.

dOc: As a child, what scared you the most, the tornado or the witch?

JF: The monkeys. The monkeys scared me the most. I remember it was the monkeys that made me get up off the living room floor and crawl into my father's lap. The tornado, on the other hand, absolutely fascinated me, and has led to a lifelong passion for meteorology. I mean, I watch The Weather Channel all the time, and especially during the spring and summer when there's going to be tornado footage. I mean, I love that stuff! So certainly that is traceable to The Wizard of Oz.

dOc: Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?

JF: Yes. It's the scene where they come out of the forest and see the Emerald City in the distance for the first time. Between the underscoring and the jubilation and the emerald green and the blue sky and the yellow brick road and the red flowers, it's just kind of like "Hot damn!" And after they get across the poppy fields, I think the song Optimistic Voices is one of the great jubilant confirmations; the joy is just transcendent.

dOc: Can you recite the movie by heart, line-for-line?

JF: I don't know. I suppose I could come close. You know, somebody once asked me in an interview how many times I'd seen the film, and I started counting, and I figured it was somewhere between 125 and 150 times. Now, I know that sounds like a lot, but you've got to realize there are kids out there who have seen The Wizard of Oz 150 times this year!

dOc: What ever happened to The Jitterbug footage? Was it lost in one of the MGM vault fires in the 1960s? Or did the studio destroy it immediately?

JF: Oh, I don't think they destroyed anything immediately in those days. I think a lot went in the vault fire, and a lot went because it was nitrate film and it might have just deteriorated over the years. And then there's always the hope that those 25 deleted Judy Garland numbers that she filmed for her random MGM films are in an editor's sock drawer somewhere in Carmel—

dOc: Along with the complete, uncut version of A Star Is Born!

JF: Exactly. You know, I don't think anything per se "happened" to The Jitterbug, it's just that we have to remember that none of that stuff was considered important in those days... or marketable. And that makes all this rare footage so difficult to trace. I remember the week after Judy died, Vincent Canby, the New York Times film critic, was asked to do a reflective piece on her for the Arts and Leisure section that next Sunday, and he commented in passing that he looked in a number of film history books that week, and there weren't that many references to Judy Garland in terms of film history. I think his phrase was, "Judy Garland did not make films important simply by inhabiting them." Well, times have changed! And you realize now just how important films are because Judy Garland was in them or because Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were in their films. This was an art that did not become appreciated wholeheartedly until That's Entertainment!. Trust me, if it had been appreciated in 1969 and 1970, there would have been no MGM auction, that back lot would be a tour, and there would be a great museum in Culver City.

dOc: How difficult is it for you to combat all the misconceptions that surround Judy Garland's life and career?

JF: It's not difficult for me with the general public. It becomes frustrating when I talk to supposed major fans who ask questions when all the answers are in the work that is available to them. So many good people have done such a body of work about Judy's work, and about her life and times, trying to answer basic questions, trying to solve the riddles, trying to put things in perspective...

dOc: But it seems that people want to cling to all the negative aspects of her life.

JF: That's evaporating, though, to a certain extent with the coming generation. So many of the kids that are now discovering Judy Garland have their own take, and can see her in a more balanced light.

dOc: For someone who may only know Judy Garland from The Wizard of Oz, but wants to see or hear more, name a few essential performances that people can purchase right now.

JF: The Carnegie Hall CD, no question. Absolutely no question! As a primer for her movie work, the single CD Judy Garland in Hollywood that Rhino has out, which goes from Pigskin Parade [her first film] in 1936 to I Could Go on Singing [her last film] in 1963; I think the American Masters PBS special from last year, By Myself, which is part of the Easter Parade DVD set; A Star Is Born is another essential film. The bottom line, however, is that Judy Garland is her own greatest salesperson. If you get these items, I can't help but think they will lead you to Meet Me in St. Louis and the Pioneer collection of the 26 episodes of her TV series to the [Frank] Sinatra/[Dean] Martin special to Decca recordings to, well, being like us and setting your VCR to record Presenting Lily Mars at three-o'clock-in-the-morning! Again, "Judy Garland did not make these movies important by merely inhabiting them." HA!

dOc: Like I would have watched Presenting Lily Mars if Lana Turner [who was originally announced for the role] was in it!

JF: Well, that's what drove me crazy when they restored A Star Is Born in 1983. All the Ron Haver [who restored the film] and Fay Kanin [the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the time] hoopla about, "Oh, you're all so interested in film restoration, and isn't this a great celebration of George Cukor." Trust me, if A Star Is Born had starred James Mason and Jeanne Crain, nobody would have given a flying f*** how many numbers they cut out of it!

dOc: They probably would have been glad they cut those numbers out! But getting back to the Oz DVD... Ultra-Resolution is so clear, and we love it, but is it ever too clear? Does it ever take away from some of the magic if we see the string on the Lion's tail more clearly than we used to?

JF: You've been seeing the string on the Lion's tail since you were a kid, if you looked for it! It's funny, because when Warner was in the process of producing this DVD, I participated in a conference call, and there were two camps debating the pros and cons about whether to digitally remove the fishing-pole string, or leave it in. You know, Warner wanted to do the film justice, so they left it in, and believe me, you can't notice it any more than you did before. But I will say that I am absolutely blown away by certain elements of this new version—and I am not at all expert in ascertaining differences between the various video incarnations of Oz. I think Rob Hummell, who oversaw the restoration, said it best. He said, "We haven't changed the picture, we haven't enhanced it; we've just made it possible for you to see everything that was there." This is the "you are there" version of The Wizard of Oz. I can't imagine it being any easier to see or experience unless you'd been standing next to the camera 60-odd years ago at Metro.

dOc: Do you have a favorite bit of Oz trivia?

JF: I think my favorite bit of trivia is not so trivial. One thing we've tried to do in the Oz books and documentaries and this DVD set is point out that the legend that paints Oz as a critical flop in 1939 is so incorrect. It got four or five negative reviews, and about 75 or 80 that I have found that were rapturous, or at least excellent, and many of which were prophetic. That's not trivia, but I think it's a very important part of history.

dOc: And because the film was so expensive to produce, its profit margin was quite slim, wasn't it?

JF: Well, it lost roughly $750,000 in its first release, but it broke attendance records all over. The trouble is that two-thirds or three-quarters of the audience were kids, who were getting in for five or ten or fifteen cents less than adults. Also, 1939 was not only a great year for quality film, it was a great year for mass produced film. According to Variety, The Wizard of Oz did great business, but it couldn't be held over, because there were so many films booked in to follow it. And then you factor in that two weeks after The Wizard of Oz premiered, World War II broke out in Europe, and eliminated great chunks of the potential foreign market. Those were all things that led to The Wizard of Oz not breaking even in 1939. But it was a Best Picture nominee, it was one of the top 10 grossing films of the year, and it was on the Film Daily nationwide 10-best list of the year. So, it isn't like, oh The Wizard of Oz wasn't appreciated. Everyone knew how good The Wizard of Oz was, and they virtually all embraced it and cheered it and championed it and loved it. This affinity for Oz isn't something that came about just because it was shown on television once a year. That took it to a whole new level, no question, but there was no way that The Wizard of Oz was dismissed or disregarded except by four or five publications. Nothing is black-and-white, but there's no question that Oz was very, very, very much embraced by the public and the critics and the industry back in 1939.

dOc: If there is anyone left on the planet who hasn't yet seen The Wizard of Oz, and you were going to introduce them to it or sum up what they were about to see, how would you do that?

JF: I would suggest that they see it in a theater with a big screen and a great projection system that can show this new DVD, and surround themselves with kids—and with adults who love this picture—to get the optimum out of it.

dOc: As you get older, does Judy Garland enhance or enrich your life differently? Do you react to her in a different way now than you did when you were a kid?

JF: I think one of the most gratifying things about being a Judy Garland fan since I was five—and being almost 55 now—is that she has the power to turn me into a fan every single time I see or hear her. Whatever adult perceptions or adult estimations have entered my psyche and my intellect and my emotional response levels in these last five decades have only led me to realize there ain't nobody like that out there, then or now. There's no end to the appreciation she can inspire. She has given us, regardless of generation or age, so much joy.