Monday, October 12, 2009

Munchkin Memories

Take a trip back in time, back before YouTube, back before TiVO, back before you could even rent videos, back before DVDs, back before VHS, back to the dark ages when there were only three major television networks (four with PBS), and they told you what to watch and when to watch it. Movies were heavily controlled by the studios, and major releases often didn't make it to the small screen for years - Gone With the Wind, released in 1939, didn't see TV time until 1976.

Movies on televsion could be a major event, with the newest ones promoted with slogans like "First Time on Television!" Some movies were just occasional events to fill up the weekend afternoons when there were no major sports to televise ("major sports" being pretty much limited to baseball, football, and The Olympics). But other movies were huge, annual events and none of these was bigger than The Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz was first televised in 1956, seventeen years after its original release. Even in the age of DVR the market has not been overrun by Oz airings: it has only been shown on broadcast television 43 times, and never more than once per year (though there have been additional cable airings of late). I remember the showings being promoted for weeks before they aired and I always looked forward to the big night with a delicious anticipation completely alien to the iPod generation.

I would sit in front of the TV and watch the film, from the black and white farm scenes, to the witch's shoes curling up under the house, to the scarecrow, to the wicked witch and the flying monkeys - well, I didn't actually see a whole lot of the witch and the flying monkeys because I was behind the couch being extremely not-afraid - then there was the sand running out of the hour glass and, of course, the man behind the curtain.

There were other specials, of course: It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but no movie besides Oz made it to my pantheon of annual events.

Interestingly the film was not shot in a wide-screen format. If you see a wide-screen version it has been altered from the original. The television proportions of the film are one of the reasons it seems so natural on the small screen. Another is that with a running time of 101 minutes, only one minute needed to be edited out to allow for the 20 minutes of commercials, the standard amount of time (in 1956) for a two hour time slot. Although it was filmed long before television was a consideration it's as though it was made with television in mind.

Recently Newsweek gathered the five surviving munchkins, Ruth Robinson Duccini, Meinhardt Raabe (the coroner!), Margaret Pellegrini, Karl Slover, and Jerry Maren for an interview. The baby is 86 and the rest are in their 90s.

I own the Wizard of Oz on DVD, but I've never watched it. Somehow it feels wrong to just walk over to the shelf and pop it in just because I want to. The waiting is part of the deal. The anticipation is part of the movie's joy for me. Maybe I'll put it on my calendar for some time in November and watch a YouTube trailer every day for the next few weeks until the moment is just right, then I can fully relive a small but memorable piece of my childhood.

TV Party

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