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Still Following the Yellow Brick Road (After 70 Years)

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It was 70 years ago today that The Wizard of Oz premiered at The Strand Theatre in the little lakeside town of Oconomowoc, Wis. The film, based on the hugely popular children's series by L. Frank Baum, wasn't an overnight success and it wasn't even the most popular film that year "“ but now, where would Kansas be without Dorothy?

In tribute to the film that gave us "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Judy Garland, Toto (whose furry paw we should also shake for "Roseanna" and "Africa," among other awesome songs), "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," here's just a fraction of Oz trivia:

The Books

Lyman Frank Baum, a failed businessman and actor, wrote the first of the Oz books in 1900, becoming an almost immediate success. The first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, concerned Dorothy Gale, a young girl living with her Aunt and Uncle in the flat plains of Kansas, who one day is transported by means of her one-room farmhouse and a cyclone to the wondrous Land of Oz. There, she gets into an awful lot of adventures "“ some decidedly darker than the somewhat treacly film covers "“ in her quest to get home to Kansas.

Dorothy later returns to Oz, although the world also went on without her: Baum wrote 14 books in the Oz series, and one book of short stories set in the Oz-verse. Long after the books were published, people began to discuss the deeper political meanings behind the works "“ and it wasn't all just philosophical stoner fodder. Baum, whose mother-in-law was a staunch and formidable suffragette and was himself a supporter of women's rights, used some of his writing to criticize unequal gender roles.

Others saw a deep vein of satire and morality coursing through the books: Dorothy is the everyman, the Munchkins the populace, even the Tin Woodman as the "dehumanized industrial worker." And one scholar, writing in 1964, claimed that the Oz books were parables on Populism and the false movement from a gold standard (Yellow Brick Road) to unreliable cash (Emerald City), via the magic silver slippers "“ put your hopes in silver, the books seem to say, a message echoed by political thinkers of the time.

Whatever the interpretation, the books remained popular for generations after their initial publication and the stage adaptations within the first years of their printing.

The Movies

scarecrow-ozThe 1939 film wasn't the first screen production of L. Frank Baum's books, by any means. Between 1910 and 1925, no less than four silent films of varying length, quality, and fidelity to the books were produced "“ one, His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz in 1914, was written and directed by Baum himself. It was also not the first screen depiction to show Kansas in black and white and Oz in color "“ that honor goes to a 1933 cartoon that also featured songs and music. (Incidentally, all of these are available on a 2005 three-disc collectors edition of The Wizard of Oz).

No, The Wizard of Oz "“ the one with Judy Garland, the songs, the Technicolor, the Munchkins and the flying monkeys, the one that everyone remembers and is practically a national treasure "“ wasn't the first. But it was the best.

In 1933, MGM studio head Samuel Goldwyn announced his plans to make a Technicolor, musical version of the movie, and MGM bought the rights to the books in 1937. From there, however, it was rough going: Because it would be one of MGM's most expensive films to make to date, it had to be good and everyone was under tremendous pressure to make it work.

Herman Mankiewicz, a former newspaper man who would later pen Citizen Kane, knocked out the first script in four days, but it was laden with a too-cutesy, too made-up Dorothy and laborious subplots. Poet Ogden Nash did a rewrite of the screenplay; it too was canned. George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story) was set to direct, but his ego appeared to have gotten in the way and he lasted only three days. Richard Thorpe signed on to direct, and was fired after two weeks. Goldwyn had hoped to snag Irving Berlin to do the lyrics and music, but they ended up "“ happily "“ with relative unknown Yip Harburg instead (he'd penned the Depression-era stalwart, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"). And ultimately, it was Noel Langely, a 26-year-old South African scriptwriter who finished off most of the final script and who faded back into obscurity soon after, while director Vic Fleming and then King Vidor were brought on to shepherd the film to completion.

Filming The Wizard of Oz was no stroll down the Yellow Brick Road, either.

wicked-witchThe costumes were killers: Margaret Hamilton, who famously played the grotesque Wicked Witch of the West, was nearly killed when her make up caught fire, while her stand-in was hospitalized after being knocked from her broom during the skywriting scene. Judy Garland was forced to wear a painful corset to keep her chest Kansas flat. The Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow also weren't allowed to eat with the other actors in the cantina because their make-up was too frightening (no word on whether the Wicked Witch was welcome).

Even worse, Buddy Ebsen, who had been cast as the Tin Man and had even recorded his songs for the soundtrack, had an allergic reaction to the aluminum powder used in his make up and had to leave the set, to be replaced by Jack Haley (Ebsen himself had replaced Ray Bolger, who convinced MGM to let him play the Scarecrow instead). Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion, was saddled with 90-pounds of fur and hair to achieve the anthropomorphized lion effect. A few of the Winged Monkeys were hurt when the wires holding them up broke.

There were even rumors of Munchkin sex orgies at the hotel where the little people were staying, although surviving Munchkins claim those reports were way overblown. (Of course, they were only getting paid about $50 a week, plus room and board, so can you blame them?)

Munchkin orgies aside, the final product was a bit of a departure from the somewhat bleaker aspects of Baum's classic text: There, Uncle Henry and Aunty Em, for example, were unhappy people who didn't know what joy was "“ all the more reason for young Dorothy to want to escape to a far off magical land "“ and there was no evil Miss Gulch to snatch Toto away. The Tin Man had at one time been a real man, who had, after an accident with an enchanted axe, lost all of his limbs and ultimately his head and had them replaced with tin prosthetics. The same witch who enchanted the axe then called down a rainstorm, fixing the now rusted Tin Man to the spot. Even the Emerald City wasn't actually green "“ that was an effect achieved by the green tinted glasses that the Wizard forced the citizenry to wear bolted to their heads.

And, of course, the shoes in Baum's original were silver, not ruby "“ ruby just showed off the Technicolor better.

The film was, at first blush, only a moderate success "“ its massive budget threatened to swamp its actual take of around $3 million, although the initial reviews of the film were largely positive (The New York Times called it a "delightful piece of wonderworking"). It was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and ultimately took home Best Original Song and Best Music, and a special award for Judy Garland.

The Aftermath

ruby_slippersThe movie's real success story actually came a few years after its first theatrical release. As Judy Garland's star continued to rise and the film took on a more mythic aspect, people began to truly love it. It was reissued in 1949, then again in 1955, both times to record-breaking crowds, before becoming an annual television tradition "“ in its first network showing in 1956, the "event" attracted 45 million viewers.

The groundswell of national obsession with the film has cemented its place in history "“ and in a particularly affectionate fandom. Remember those red slippers? They pop up at auctions often, usually fetching high sums, along with other memorabilia. The Wicked Witch's hat sold for $33,000 in 1988, while Dorothy's dress, the one Garland wore in the film, sold for $267,000 in 2005.

The Adaptations

MJ-WizThe Wizard of Oz has been the inspiration for several more films and stage adaptations, though few have captured the magic of the 1939 film. Most notably, there was The Wiz, an "urbanized" version (meaning African American) of the story. The musical premiered in 1975 on Broadway and was a rousing success; the 1978 film version, set in Harlem and featuring Diana Ross as Dorothy Gale and a bizarrely made-up Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, however, was not.

Then there's Disney's Return to Oz, a 1985 sequel to the first film that took its inspiration from two other books in the Oz series, Ozma of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz. This one involved Dorothy suffering from what looks like undiagnosed PTSD from her experiences with Oz, Aunt Em deciding to chuck her in an insane asylum to get her some electro-shock therapy, and Dorothy eventually escaping to Oz, with her pet chicken, Billina. Creepy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn't do all that well at the box office.

In 2005, The Muppets redid Oz, with singer Ashanti playing Dorothy, Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard, Queen Latifah as Aunt Em, Quentin Tarantino as, bizarrely enough, himself, and the Muppets as the various other characters. All the witches were played by Miss Piggy and of course, Kermit the Scarecrow, Gonzo as the Tin Thing, and Fozzie as the Cowardly Lion. And Toto is not a dog, or a shrimp "“ he's a King Prawn.

And now the enormously popular musical Wicked, based on Gregory Maguire's novel of the same name, which looks at the Oz story from the perspective of the drowned witch.
While today is the day the film officially premiered in Wisconsin, Warner Bros. Isn't releasing its massive, 70th anniversary DVD set until September 29. In the meantime, the company has loosed a seven-story tall, emerald green hot air balloon across the country to advertise the new box set. (You can track its progress here.)

And be on the look out for other Oz-related celebrations "“ like in Wamego, Kan., population 4,312, where the Oz theme has been deployed in everything from the local wine shop, the Oz Winery, which sells Witch in a Ditch Red, to the local hair salon, Scissors of Ahhhhz. This year, in addition to celebrations at the Oz museum, they'll be hosting the street festival, Oztober.

Oh, and why did the film premiere in Oconomowoc, pronounced oh-CON-oh-moe-wok, not, as many people assumed, at Grauman's Chinese Theatre? One of the composers on the film, Herbert Stothart, owned a lakeside cottage there.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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