'The Wizard of Oz' made its TV bow 60 years ago today

Sixty years ago Thursday, a new American holiday was born. One that, for baby-boom kids, rivaled birthday and Christmas as the most eagerly awaited day of the year.

Those old enough will remember. Those too young will hardly believe what a big deal it was, once upon a time, when The Wizard of Oz came on the air for its annual network showing.

“This was the ultimate appointment-television for decades,” says film critic Leonard Maltin. “Families looked forward to this with keen anticipation. … I was certainly there, planted firmly in my seat to take it in like everybody else.”

In those days before DVDs and downloads, that single yearly presentation — starting on Nov. 3, 1956 — was a day to anticipate, dream about, count down to. For weeks in advance, TV commercials heralded the arrival of Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, The Cowardly Lion. On the big day itself — usually a Sunday night — all plans had to end abruptly at sundown, as we hurried home to prepare for The Big Event.

It was no ordinary movie screening. Generally a kid-friendly “host” — Danny Kaye, or Dick Van Dyke — would introduce the movie against an elaborate backdrop featuring a yellow brick road slaloming into the distance. He would remind us not to be afraid of the wicked witch and caution that there was “nothing wrong with your TV sets” — the first part of the movie was supposed to be in black and white. For those of us who had only black and white sets — the majority, until the late 1960s — it was a mystifying remark. Some of us never saw The Wizard of Oz in color until we were well into our teens.

By the mid-1960s, The Wizard of Oz had become for kids what the newly minted Super Bowl was to their parents.

“The program has become a modern institution and a red letter day in the calendar of childhood,” remarked Time magazine in 1965.

How did The Wizard of Oz make its momentous leap to television? There are several stories.

One is that CBS had first negotiated with MGM for the rights to broadcast Gone With the Wind; MGM balked and offered The Wizard of Oz instead. Another is that CBS was trying to answer the success of the live-broadcast NBC musical Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin, with a kid-friendly special of its own. In any event, that original Wizard of Oz broadcast — part of the network’s Ford Star Jubilee anthology series — drafted Bert Lahr, the film’s Cowardly Lion, as the first of the film’s many hosts, with an assist from Judy Garland’s then-10-year-old daughter, Liza Minnelli. CBS paid $225,000 to MGM for the rights, with an option to rebroadcast.

It seemed a risky move. Movies — other than the most dismal low-budget Westerns and “B” pictures — were not typical TV fare back then. And The Wizard of Oz had not been a smash hit when first released to theaters in 1939, though it was successful enough to help turn Judy Garland into a star. It was the yearly TV showings, starting in 1956, that turned it into the iconic thing it is today.

"It’s absolutely one-of-a-kind,” Maltin says. “There are other great musicals, other great fantasies. The Wizard of Oz stands alone. It’s in a class by itself.”

The other key component of TV’s Oz breakthrough: the sheer numbers of kids back then. New births, averaging around 2.5 million a year in the 1930s, had risen to 3.47 million in 1946, the first year of the baby boom. Those kids would have been 10 years old when The Wizard of Oz made its TV debut.

The first screening was a ratings smash: 13 million sets, 45 million people, 53 percent of TV viewers that night were turned to Oz. “It defies both time and the diminution to the home screen,” Variety wrote. “It was tops in entertainment, and the network should make provisions for making an annual out of it.”

It wasn’t, however, until 1959 that CBS repeated the experiment. This time, there was no doubt. It was an unqualified sensation. “Television — any television — looks awfully ordinary after The Wizard of Oz, ” gushed media critic John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune.

From 1959 to 1991, it was broadcast annually — usually in January or February — almost without interruption (there was, unaccountably, no broadcast in 1963). CBS, then NBC, then CBS again, took turns as the host network for lengthy stints. For its first nine showings, it captured an astounding 49 percent or higher of the viewing audience.

Meanwhile, Oz jump-started the whole idea of movies as prime-time TV fare. In 1961, partly in response to the success of Oz, NBC Saturday Night at the Movies became the first weekly prime-time TV series to showcase big, recently released feature films. “The Wizard of Oz was just the tiny little crack in the dam,” says Maltin, whose TV movie guides from 1969 to 2014 were a standard reference work.

Then, in 1980, The Wizard of Oz was released simultaneously on Betamax and VHS, the two rival home-video formats. For the first time, viewers could see it whenever they wanted. Soon after, Ted Turner purchased the film; by 1999 it had moved exclusively to Turner Broadcasting. In 2002, it was shown five times.

That was the final straw. The Wizard of Oz would never again be an event. Just a movie. A great movie, but still, just a movie.

“I remember a letter in New York Magazine in the 1980s, when home video had mushroomed,” Maltin says. “They printed a letter from a woman who said she used to wait all year for the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz. Now, she owned a copy, and she didn’t watch it. Thereby lies the difference between old-school television and all-access: If it’s always there, you don’t value it as much. You take it for granted.”


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