Silver Screen: The Wizard of Oz

By Carla Charter

GRAND RAPIDS, MI.- If there is one iconic movie that many people remember from their childhood, it’s the Wizard of Oz. From the notes of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ to lines like ‘Toto I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,’ we all remember our childhood trips to Oz with Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West.

The Wizard of Oz which was released on August 25, 1939, was Judy Garland’s most popular movie and has been seen by an estimated 3.5 billion people Garland was something of a star, but the Wizard of Oz made her instantly recognizable as a major star.  Garland was 16 at the time she starred in the Wizard of Oz. She was the first choice for the role of Dorothy, the rights to the book were bought for her.

Judy Garland first became interested in singing through her father, Frank Gumm, who was a singer in vaudeville and managed a movie theatre in Grand Rapids. Her mother was a pianist sang and played piano for the silent pictures. On weekends the family performed, first the parents and then her two older sisters. In December of 1924, Judy made her debut singing Jingle Bells and after that joined the act with her sisters. Her mother also taught them to dance.  The family left Grand Rapids in October, 1926. Judy Garland and her mom came back in 1938 to visit just before making The Wizard of Oz, according to Michelle Russell, Music Historian at the Judy Garland Museum.

Previous to Oz Garland had already worked with Jack Haley (Tin Man) in 1936 in “Pigskin Parade.” She had worked with Billie Burke (Good Witch) in 1938) “Everybody Sing,” and Charlie Grapewin (Uncle Henry) in “Broadway Melody of 1938.”  After the release of the film Garland appeared with Margaret Hamilton (Wicked Witch of the West) appeared in the film “Babes in Arms” in 1940. She worked with Ray Bolger (Scarecrow) in 1946 in “The Harvey Girls.”  Judy Garland performed in a total of 35 films, including 1 short and one animated film, Gay Puree. She also sang the title song for one film, Pepe.  “MGM was basically a stock company so the same actors appeared over and over in many of their films.“ stated Russell

The lyrics for Somewhere Over the Rainbow was written by Yip Halberg and the musical score was written by Harold Arlen. The pair also wrote such hits as “It’s Only a Paper Moon,’ and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime’.  Director of the Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming, also directed Gone with the Wind.

The song, Over the Rainbow, was almost cut from the Wizard of Oz movie. but Associate Producer Arthur Freed and Roger Edens, Garland’s singing coach, persuaded the producers to keep it in. Somewhere Over the Rainbow won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1939.

The first Judy Garland Museum, located in the Old Central Schoolhouse in Grand Rapids, was begun by Jackie Dingmann, an artist who had an interest in both Judy Garland and Native Americans with both being subjects of her paintings. “She hosted the first Judy Garland Festival in 1989, bringing Margaret Hamilton to Grand Rapids, and having her as a guest in her own home,” Russell stated

The present museum was spearheaded by Jon Miner and Jon Kelsch.  Garland’s childhood home was purchased in 1991. In 1994, the Judy Garland house was moved to a plot of donated land and plans for a museum were made. The opening of the Judy Garland Birthplace Judy Garland Museum and connecting Children’s Discovery Museum were opened next door in 1995, after much work fundraising and planning, Russell said.

At the museum there are many personal items which belonged to Judy, including clothing, household items including glasses gifted from Frank Sinatra, silver salt and pepper shakers, many shoes from her childhood on as well as photos, she continued.

Wizard of Oz items at the museum include the carriage from the Emerald City, a test dress and a Winkie Sword, the swords carried by the Wicked Witch of the West Castle Guards. More information on the Judy Garland Museum can be found at www.judygarlandmuseum.com