The Wizard of Oz!
As every passionate reader knows, THE REVELATOR has maintained a long-standing relationship with L. Frank Baum and his immortal creations. It was THE REVELATOR that first coined the phrases, a timeless classic and for children and for adults who are still children at heart, using both in its 1900 review of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was THE REVELATOR that included free green goggles in its issue just prior to the 1902 stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. And it was THE REVELATOR that published Oz comic strips for over a decade, comic strips that would go on to have a lasting influence on this graphic art form.
It doesn’t end there, of course. Judy Garland earned the enmity of director Richard Thorpe when filming the 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz by refusing to act one morning, her excuse, “But I haven’t finished reading THE REVELATOR,” becoming something of a catchphrase among teens. The exclusive interviews that THE REVELATOR then published with Garland cemented the jealousy of other lesser publications, physically manifested in the smoke-bomb incident of August 17, 1939 and the October 12 Munchkin barricade of the same year.
But why now? How do we explain the proliferation of Oz motifs in this specific edition of THE REVELATOR?
For that we need take just a single step backward in time, to volume 138 of THE REVELATOR. Here, in a story by the award-winning Richard Bowes, we chance upon this seemingly throwaway line:
“But honey, amidst the misery and despair. God had sent you a sign,” says Georgie, “The Wizard of Oz!”
A sign indeed!
We can only conclude that Georgie’s pronouncement lodged in the collective subconscious of our readers, burbling to the fore in contributions for this issue, appearing in ways both large and small, obvious and mysterious.
Hardly surprising, really. Indeed, Dorothy, Toto, and her boon companions of the road and city have assumed such prominence in culture that everyone has some memory of Oz. Even the remarkably resilient editors of THE REVELATOR…
* * *
Editor Eric Schaller shares this experience with The Wizard of Oz:
My wife and I have an eight-year-old cairn terrier. He’s whiskered, walks with a prance, chases leaves, and twirls in excitement before every meal, every day. On summer afternoons, he joins me on the porch, where we listen to music and share parmesan Goldfish Crackers. He can bring a smile to my face on even the dourest of days.
And not just me.
Kids, both girls and boys, have pulled away from the protective grasp of their parents and come running when I walk the dog. They fall to their knees. “Toto!” they exclaim and throw their arms wide. In that instant a world first visualized on celluloid 75 years ago, a communal part of childhood that has now spanned generations, suddenly becomes congruent with ours. In that moment, because all cairn terriers are Toto in the eyes of a child, we are in Oz!
* * *
The memories of editor Matthew Cheney are a bit more nuanced:
It was my first year out of college, the first year of my first real job: working as an English and theatre teacher at an undistinguished boarding school in the middle of New Hampshire. I got the job because I’d gone to the school myself and I was a cheap hire. For $17,000/year, the school got someone who would teach four classes, direct two plays, and do dorm duty in one of the oldest buildings in town, a four-storey box of brick that hadn’t been renovated since Teddy Roosevelt was President.
After surviving two-thirds of the school year — a year in which total sleep deprivation was a way of life, in which I felt endlessly incompetent at even the most basic tasks of teachering, in which students were both marvelous and astoundingly awful (“What we want to know,” I remember someone saying at a judicial committee hearing for one of my dorm students, “is if you were or were not using heroin after light’s out.”) — after surviving the ten-foot drifts of snow, the ice storms, the whips and scorns of winter — after all this, things were getting easier. I’d begun to figure out how to manage my classes. I’d found places to escape off-campus so that I could get something like a full night’s sleep. And the only theatre commitment I had was helping as a backstage supervisor for the school’s musical, The Wizard of Oz.
I had plenty of experience as an actor, director, and writer for the stage. I had very little experience as a crew member. I knew what technicians were supposed to do, but I had no talent for tech. Organizing a crew — never mind high school students — to pull off the pyrotechnics of a big production was well beyond my experience. “You’ll be great,” the Director told me, after I expressed some skepticism. “You know what needs to be done. Anyway, I’ll be there if you need me.”
The Director loved The Wizard of Oz. He’d been in productions of it himself. He’d memorized the movie and found it to be unfathomably beautiful, uplifting, captivating (among heterosexual men, his passion for Judy Garland is likely unique). I, on the other hand, hadn’t seen the movie since I was a little kid, had never seen a theatrical production of the story, and had never read any of the books. I had no personal connection to the story (and despite not being much of a heterosexual, I thought Judy Garland was kind of annoying). But hey, I thought, he just wanted me to oversee some things backstage and make sure the students didn’t kill each other with jigsaws and nail guns. How bad could it be?
I’m tempted to stop here, because dredging up these memories is causing me to grit my teeth, to tremble, to feel my breakfast work its way up out of my stomach… But I will soldier on. The story must be told.
At the first rehearsal, I discovered that the Director didn’t just want me to supervise backstage occasionally. He wanted me to be the stage manager for the entire production.
Stage managers — good ones, at least — are remarkable people. If a production somehow succeeds and doesn’t fall apart in front of an audience, the stage manager is likely as responsible for that success as any other person. Stage managers know every detail of the production, they attend rehearsals and tech meetings, they run the show when the director isn’t around. It can be the most important, and most all-consuming, position on a production.
I am not now nor have I ever been a stage manager. I know my limits.
But once rehearsals began, and once I realized I had a job that was very different from the job I’d agreed to do, what options were there? I could quit, and feel self-hatred and guilt, or I could give it my best shot and hope for the best. Being young and idealistic, that’s what I did.
How bad could it be?
I remember sitting in my tiny apartment with the Director by my side as I sobbed uncontrollably. I don’t remember how far into rehearsals we were by that point. Probably pretty far. Perhaps even to dress rehearsals. I don’t know what had finally caused me to break down. Some students hadn’t done what they were supposed to, and the Director yelled at me about it in front of the entire cast and crew. I think I might have thrown my headset to the floor and walked out of the theatre. It’s possible. It’s likely. I was a faculty member, one who had struggled through the entire year to develop some sort of authority, and he treated me like a disobedient pet. Or something. I don’t remember and I don’t want to remember. I just remember saying to the Director in my apartment, in between sobs: “I’m not a stage manager! I’ve never been a stage manager! I don’t want to be a stage manager! I hate this and I’m no good at it and you treat me like a child!”
Does any of this have anything to do with The Wizard of Oz? Probably not. Whatever show we would have done would have been the same. But the 65 little children probably had something to do with the tension.
One of the reasons the Director wanted to do The Wizard of Oz was so he could cast lots of local children as the munchkins. Their family members would of course want to buy tickets to the show and t-shirts and posters and all the other things parents who are excited to have their children in plays like to buy. The Director cannily saw this as a way to raise money for the theatre department, where money was always scarce.
Thus, any local child who wanted to be a munchkin got to be a munchkin. 65 or so of them.
Have you ever tried to wrangle 65 children through rehearsals and production of a large musical? I had not. In fact, I had avoided children for most of my life. I didn’t even like children when I was a child.
But now my job was to help 65 children dressed as munchkins to get on and off the stage at the right time.
I have no memory of any of it. I have repressed it all. This is perhaps for the best. I do not remember causing any child to lose an arm or leg, or causing set pieces to fall on the children, or, in a moment of pique, throwing juice boxes at them. I do not remember it. It did not happen. Or maybe it did. How should I know?
What I know is that, somehow, the show went on.
I do remember at some point, probably about halfway through rehearsals, finding the songs infesting my dreams. I didn’t like the songs. I thought they were insipid but I could not get them out of my head. I would find myself humming them during lunch or in between classes. How could I not? We were rehearsing for three and four hours every night. Sometimes we would rehearse the same song for those three or four hours. Every note of the music, every lyric, every line of dialogue lodged itself in my subconscious mind.
I remember the deafening din of children screaming, crying, talking, running, jumping, screaming, pulling, touching, moving, screaming and screaming and screaming…
I remember painting the set and the Director yelling about wrong colors in wrong places…
I remember lights not turning on at the right time…
I remember being made to feel like an idiot because I didn’t know how flashpaper works for special effects…
I remember students quitting…
I remember students smoking in the bathroom beneath the theatre…
I remember students trying to have sex in the bathroom beneath the theatre…
I remember students trying to use the bathroom beneath the theatre and discovering its pipes led back into the bathroom and not to a septic tank…
I remember actors not knowing their lines during dress rehearsal…
I remember musicians not knowing their music during dress rehearsal…
I remember thinking it was all my fault…
I remember someone trailing yellow paint across the stage because they didn’t realize that the Yellow Brick Road was still wet…
I remember the little dog that was Toto taking a large shit on the stage…
I remember thinking it was all my fault.
I hated the play, I hated the music, I hated life, I hated everything. I remember thinking afterward: I will never go back to Oz. I hope it crumbles to the ground. I do not want to be the Stage Manager of Oz, I want to be the Terrorist of Oz. Let it burn!
But that was all a long time ago. The munchkin kids are now all in their 20s, maybe even early 30s. The students have gone on to have lives, jobs, children, divorces. The dorm I lived in was demolished and rebuilt as a beautiful, modern building. The school is now wealthy and no longer undistinguished. There are some mercies.
And yet…and yet…I am looking out the window at the clouds. They’re ominous. And that sound? It’s a siren. Don’t you hear? A tornado siren. The wind! Don’t you hear the wind! My home at Revelator Mansion East has begun to pitch, to turn. Everything is in motion. Books are flying. Cats screaming.
And just like that
Land of Oz.