By MIKE CHAIKEN
“The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland is one of those films that was declared a classic upon its release and is still considered a classic by fans and critics decades later.
The film, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, was called a “delightful fantasy” by New York Daily News’ critic Kate Cameron when it was released in 1939.
On Aug. 18, 1939, The New York Times’ critic Frank S. Nugent said, “Not since Disney’s ‘Snow White’ has anything quite so fantastic succeeded half so well… It is all so well-intentioned, so genial and so gay that any reviewer who would look down his nose at the fun-making should be spanked and sent off, supperless, to bed.”
Decades later, audiences of all ages still take delight in the adventures of Dorothy Gale, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wicked Witch.
“My earliest memory of watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was actually when I had a nightmare about the Wicked Witch of the West when I was 3,” said Southington’s Kylie McCarthy. “It was a bit random since it was certainly not the first time I watched it.”
“My earliest memories of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ is (watching it) playing outside down in Greensboro, N.C. during the summers of 1962- 1969,” said Southington resident Mary Sargent. “There was rioting and curfews because of the Vietnam War, the shooting of the Kennedys and (Martin Luther King, Jr.). (But) the night of the movie, it felt like a holiday.”
“We watched it every year on our black and white TV until 1967 in New Jersey,” said Bristol resident Laura Schlessinger Minor. “We moved to Kenya that year and I didn’t see the film again until 1973 when I returned from Kenya to attend UConn.”
Recalling that first time seeing the movie upon her return to the U.S., Minor said, “I went to the Student Union to see it on the big screen with a few dozen other students. When Dorothy lands in Oz and the film is suddenly in full color, I shouted, ‘It’s in color!’”
“[I] received the 1970’s equivalent of “Duh!” from the other viewers,” said Minor. “I felt really embarrassed.”
Minor said, “It was one of many culture clashes I experienced between life in Kenya where television was one channel and aired shows only a few hours a day, in black and white, and the American culture, which had moved to color television everywhere during those six years that I was gone.”
Despite, the vintage of “The Wizard of Oz,” the film still continues to win over new fans.
Michela Erksa, 8, of Wallingford is one of them.
“Thinking back, I was 7 years old (when I watched the original),” said Erksa in email written with the help of her mother, Daniella. “I really like the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and lastly the Lion.
“I didn’t know it was all a dream until the end of the film,” said Erksa, who noted she recently got to play the Tin Man in a play.
The appeal of the film varies depending on who you talk to.
“I remember loving (the film) because of the music,” said McCarthy. “I loved singing along to it. My favorite [musical number when I first saw the film] was ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead’ —likely because it was very high energy and featured the beautiful Munchkinland.”
Sargent said the film’s appeal extended beyond what was on the screen. “Twice a year, we all looked forward to two movies- Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” said Sargent. “There was a special feel to those nights, a sense of excitement and I’m sure our parents were thrilled that we bathed obediently and put on our PJs to prepare to watch.”
The film also inspired a family tradition for McCarthy. “My mom and I watched it together more times than I can count. Even today if lions, tigers or bears are mentioned, we laugh and recite the famous chant [“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!],” she said.
Sargent also said the film had its family traditions in her household. When she and her older sister watched it they would munch potato chips, “a can of Charlie Chips that used to get delivered to our house.”
Erska said she would watch the film “at my Nonna and Poppa’s house on Long Island… We watched the film over and over again.”
With so many characters in “The Wizard of Oz,’ McCarthy, Sargent, and Erksa all identified with different characters in the film.
“I really connected with Dorothy,” said McCarthy, who went so far as to have the film’s heroine tattooed on her arm. “Today, I have come to incorporate her style into my everyday look. I can be found wearing pigtails and sparkly shoes on almost a daily basis. I love her sense of wonder and her bravery.”
Minor also found appeal in Dorothy. “I identify most with Dorothy. I had the great good fortune to have moved twice in my life to ‘new lands.’ Arriving in Kenya from New Jersey at age 11 when my father was hired to build a school there, was akin to landing in Oz for me.”
“Gathering a motley group of friends who showed me the ropes and helped me understand this new world is really what helped me along the journey,” said Minor.
Sargent said she was drawn to the Scarecrow. “My parents raised us to be kind and the part where Dorothy has to say goodbye to him always brought me to tears.”
“I can identify with the Tin Man because I got to perform in two musical theater performances acting, singing and dancing [as the Tin Man],” said Erksa.
While some characters in “The Wizard of Oz” provided delight for audiences, the Flying Monkeys under the control of the Wicked Witch, struck fear in the hearts of some viewers.
“I was a bit frightened of them at first when I was young,” said McCarthy. “They’re loud and menacing – so, of course, I didn’t like them.”
“The flying monkey scenes made me think of ‘trouble,’” Erksa wrote. “The background music creates anticipation while enhancing the feelings of a dramatic scene about to unfold.”
But Sargent said of the winged witch minions, “The monkeys were really weird monkeys.”
To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the film, “The Wizard of Oz” will be screened on Sunday, Jan. 27 at 2 p.m. at the Regal Brass Mill 12 Stadium theater at the Brass Mill Center in Waterbury. Tickets are $13.25.
The Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge, Ridgefield will screen “The Wizard of Oz” on Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12.50.
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver.com.