‘Wizard of Oz’ made history in Oconomowoc

“Going so soon? I wouldn’t hear of it. Why my little party’s just beginning.”

A party indeed is about to begin in Oconomowoc. Soon the downtown will seem like an odd and emerald city, with a walkway of yellow bricks and “Over the Rainbow” broadcast loud and often from a sound system at City Hall.

As for the opening quote, you’ll learn the source a little later.

This city of 14,000 in Waukesha County on Aug. 13 celebrates the 70th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz.” The film classic opened Aug. 12, 1939, for a five-day run at Oconomowoc’s long-gone Strand Theatre; that was three days before the movie’s Hollywood premiere and five days before its New York City debut.

The film “has become a part of our local history, our folklore,” says Craig Pruscha, founder of Moonlit Movies, which since 2006 has shown movies outdoors on summer nights. “Oz” covers the 40-foot screen Aug. 13.

That’s not all. Buy “emerald cupcakes” from Sweetie Pies café. Oil the Tin Man’s knees and cavort with other costumed actors. Enter a mutt in the Toto look-alike contest, sponsored by the Doggy Bag (a pet bakery and gift shop). Approach the great Oz as he bellows from a big white tent.

Local residents seem to love their connection to the movie. Example: Maureen Stapleton, a local real estate agent, has filled the World of Wood storefront window with her “Oz” collections.

She counts herself among the movie’s biggest cheerleaders, and much that seems “Oz”-like ends up with her. Friends have produced makeshift ruby red slippers, found a Tin Man made of tin cans. “Nothing is of museum quality,” Maureen says, “but a lot of it is unusual.”

A framed poster from the 50th anniversary of “Oz” hangs inside of JC’s, a little diner that’s been around 59 years. Elly Cochrane, daughter of the restaurant founders, effortlessly recites some of the movie trivia, like 1939 ticket cost.

It was 25 cents for the matinee, 40 cents for the evening show, “10 to 15 cents higher than the average movie of the time.”

What remains elusive is why this pretty but obscure Midwest town was chosen to host the world premiere. As a Tennessee researcher inquired of the Oconomowoc Historical Society in 2005: “Did someone from the (MGM) studio have a friend or relative that owned the Strand Theatre, or did they throw a dart at a map of the Midwest?”

Among the more widely held theories:

– Oconomowoc – nicknamed “Newport of the West” because of its literally rich history of beer barons, retail magnates and meatpackers (think Pabst, Ward, Armour) – had the means to give “Oz” a strong send-off.

– One of the movie’s 124 adult Munchkins, Meinhardt Raabe, is a native of the area (and at age 93 still lives in Watertown).

– C. Herbert Stothart, who won an Oscar for his “Oz” musical score, was a part-time resident of nearby Okauchee.

– Hollywood was anxious to see what middle America thought of the production and figured this was one way to quietly measure audience reaction. This is the explanation that seems to stick best with historians.

“People around here aren’t going to like hearing this, but we weren’t the only” small community to show “Oz” before the official Hollywood premiere, says Craig, who recently was in contact with MGM’s historian. Looks like a small town in Massachusetts was given the same honor but hasn’t run with that morsel of history like Oconomowoc has.

Does it matter? Nah, not unless you’re the type of person who roots for the Wicked Witches of the world.

And if that’s the case, you likely are in need of a heart, “you clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk.”

(That’s from the Wizard himself, actor Frank Morgan, as he addressed the Tin Man.)


For more about “The Wizard of Oz” festivities in Oconomowoc, go to www.moonlitmovies.org. Activities start at 5:30 p.m., and the movie begins around 8:30.

Promotional materials tease that a “super secret guest” is being flown in Aug. 13, to dedicate a granite historical marker downtown.

Craig Pruscha says only that “it’s somebody short” – and alive back in 1939. He adds that the movie’s six surviving Munchkins, including Watertown’s Reinhardt Raabe, are in high demand nationwide during this anniversary year.

Oconomowoc events are part of the Aug. 8-16 Festival Week, which ends with the Oconomowoc Festival of Arts from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 15-16 in Fowler Park.

Lake tours on a mailboat occur at 1 and 6 p.m. Aug. 10-14. Also planned are concerts, retail sales, a parade, street dance and ice cream social. For more: www.oconomowoc.org, 262-567-2666.

Who shrieked out the words in the first paragraph? It was actress Margaret Hamilton, as the Wicked Witch of the West in “Oz.” She died in 1985.

Meinhardt Raabe’s share of “Oz” stardom, as the Munchkin coroner, came during his pronouncement of the witch’s demise: “She’s not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.”

For more about “Oz” trivia and hoopla, head to www.filmsite.org/wiza.html and http://thewizardofoz.warnerbros.com.