Oz Recurs

Yesterday afternoon I stopped by Mildred’s house to see if my 10 year old wanted to come home and read while I got some work done.  That didn’t fly.  While I was there, Mildred, who must be in her sixties, was loading The Wizard of Oz into the DVD player for the pre-school kids.  I asked, “isn’t that too scary for them?” She replied, “no, not at all.  Not compared to what else they see these days.”

As I walked home, it occurred to me how often Dorothy, the witches, Toto, et. al have recurred throughout my life.  Other movies have touched me more deeply.  My senior year in high school I snuck out to a midnight showing, passed by the line of Rocky Horror Picture Show weirdos in their costumes, and saw Fame.  As a successful French Horn player, I identified with the hopes, dreams, and realities of the kids at the performing arts school.  As hokey as the story was, it was inspirational.  Just before college graduation, I saw The Graduate and spent the following hours pacing, filled with apprehension: what would happen to me after I left Oberlin?  Anticipation of movies like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter cause me to re-read book series before seeing the film.  But it’s the yellow brick road that quietly keeps winding by.

Growing Up with Oz
My earliest memory of television is of watching part of The Wizard of Oz on our black and white set when I was about 3.  I remember Dorothy next to the wagon with the great big wheel singing a lovely song about a bird.  I remember a neighbor woman sticking the dog in her bike basket, cackling, and then turning out to be a witch.  I was terrified.  After seeing the witch, I became convinced that our next-door neighbor looked exactly like her.  When I saw her outside, I quietly moved to a different part of the yard.  Apparently she was actually a very nice woman.

When I was six or seven, Katie, my friend down the street, invited my sister and me over to see The Wizard of Oz.  My parents discussed whether they would allow us to go, speaking in French so we couldn’t understand them.  They decided we could.  That time it was the flying monkeys and witch with her crystal ball that frightened me most, perhaps because I hadn’t seen them in color before.  At that time, the early 1970s, the movie was only broadcast once a year. Until we got our own color television, going off to Katie’s house to see The Wizard was an annual event.

image from Library of Congress exhibit
Credit: Library of Congress

Although the monkeys were always an object of my fear, at different times different scenes scared me more than others: the soldiers marching, singing their deep “oh-eeeee-oh, oheeeeeeoh,” Dorothy in the flying house with ghosts appearing outside the window, the witch throwing fireballs at the scarecrow. . .  At some point, I finally understood that in the movie Dorothy had been having a dream rather than just travelling from Oz back to the farm.  At another point I read some of the books in Frank L. Baum’s Oz series, in which Oz was a “real,” not imaginary, place.  Oddly, perhaps, the Wizard himself never captured my interest.

Although I’d stopped seeing The Wizard of Oz on an annual basis, the story, and the story behind the story, occasionally piqued my interest.  In junior high, when I was cruising the biography section in the adult’s (as opposed to children’s) section of the library, I found a long book about Judy Garland.  I learned about the abusive conditions under which she’d made the movie, her beautiful voice, her relationships, her daughter, and her life-long struggles with alcohol and drug addiction.  When I was in high school, I discovered that the annual broadcast was cause for a party.  Two years in a row, I watched with a group of kids who’d seen it together for years and knew the whole story inside and out.  Looking back, Oz had a following somewhat like Rocky Horror, albeit more benign.  As for me, I trod the yellow bricks when they briefly intersected my road, and walked on.

My first year in college, it was the fantastical aspect of The Wizard of Oz that most struck me.  I saw it in the college’s theater with my best friend.  I took in the phantasmagoric woman in the rocking chair out the window of the flying house, the creepiness of the Lollipop Guild, the soft focus around the overly beautiful Glinda.  Simultaneous to the movie on the screen I experienced my own dream-sequence.  My friend was holding my hand.  Wasn’t she?  What did this mean?  She said it was just what friends did.  But surely it contributed to my long-term crush.

At this point in my life, I read and watch with a more analytical eye for quality, connections, and artistry.  A year ago, I downloaded and watched Tin Man, a bizarre Sci-Fi channel four-part mini-series.  What an amazing production of weirdness, political commentary, and fairy tale.  As its own story, it doesn’t end nearly as well as it begins, but do watch it.  The way they weave the story behind the story, the omnipresent The Wizard of Oz, throughout the series, is wonderful, starting from the get-go with the tornado.

Popular Culture
Like many people over 40, I experienced The Wizard of Oz as an annual event, as part of the culture of my time.  A couple of years ago, a woman in her mid-thirties, one her in mid-twenties and I were searching for a theme to help us publicize to the college community our upcoming shift from one version to another of Windows, the Mac OS and Microsoft Office.  One of us, I don’t remember who, suggested we use Leopard, Vista, Office. . .Oh My!  But, I said, there has to be more of an allusion than just a great tag line that would remind people of a good movie.  In what ways would our marketing and education campaign match the storyline?

In the next moment, I learned that The Wizard of Oz had become iconic, not always directly experienced.  Everyone knows the set of characters, and that there are a yellow brick road and ruby slippers.  “We’re not in Kansas any more,” and “there’s no place like home,” are American idioms, or perhaps they are shorthands used in many languages, not just ours.  But with videotape came the demise of the broadcast as annual event.  Now, people probably don’t watch it repeatedly throughout their lives.  The woman in her mid-twenties hadn’t ever seen it.  The woman in her mid-thirties admitted she couldn’t remember the plot line!  Yet, because of its strong resonance in general popular culture, both thought The Wizard would be the basis of a good publicity campaign.

After my colleagues borrowed it from the Library and watched it together, we met again to brainstorm about how a technology roll out could be like the journey in the film and found that our guts had been correct:  there was a good match between the movie, and our goals.

  • Dorothy had an adventure while trying to get home. After learning the features of a new operating system or version of Microsoft Office, (we hoped) people would feel comfortable again, like they were home.  Or, if they were adventurers, they would experience the new computing environment as a wonderful magical place and want to stay there.
  • The Scarecrow sought knowledge; faculty, staff and students facing these changes needed factual information about when, where, how and of what consequences they needed to be wary.
  • The Tin Man needed oil.  Maybe one’s computer or software needed servicing before being upgraded, so better check beforehand.
  • Like the Cowardly Lion, all of us need to conquer fear.  Learning what differences there were between Tiger and Leopard, XP and Vista, and Office 2003/2004 and 2007/2008 would help people tame their technical fears.

Our publicity worked: some people had the vague impression something about computers on campus was going to change sometime, students with new machines were pleased to know classroom and lab computers would be up-to-date by fall, and others actually understood what the upgrades meant and so complained, looked forward to them, or took it all in stride.  The publicity worked because, like all good marketing, it struck a chord with people.  If you would like to see a few items from Leopard, Vista, Office. . . Oh My!, my portfolio includes some samples.

Oz May Never Die
The Wizard of Oz isn’t the first show kids see that scares their pants off any more.  It isn’t the movie most repeated throughout people’s lives as an “event.”  But both the story and the movie remain in our shared consciousness.  In 2039, 100 years after its making, you can be sure “cowardly creature,” with the answer “lion” will still appear in crossword puzzles.

As for me, the yellow brick road will doubtless continue to occasionally intersect mine.  The monkeys scarred my partner for life and so she won’t join us, but someday I’ll watch The Wizard of Oz with our son.  That will take me through Oz in my memory’s lane again.  That time around, who knows what aspect will most intrigue him, and therefore me.

We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Oz Recurs by Kim Brookes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Permission to Use.