For giggles and kicks, let’s duck into the Wilma Theater on Sept. 3, 1939.
It’s the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and the Missoula premier of “The Wizard of Oz,” the best movie yet or since. And, yes, there’s a buzz around town.
A teenager in the popcorn line has on her flat-brimmed Judy Garland “Wizard of Oz" hat, advertised in Friday's Missoulian for $1 to $1.89 by The Stork Nest on East Main Street. They sell empanadas there now.
A headline in Saturday’s paper heralded Oz as the “Most Fantastic Musical Ever Filmed,” conveniently overlooking the fact that “ever” encompasses past, present and future. Whoever wrote it was prescient.
The story below the headline called the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film “the most ideal combine of color, music, dancing, spectacle, pageantry, laughs and thrills."
It summarized the plot that starts in black and white on a Kansas farm and blossoms into Technicolor when Dorothy and Toto hit the Land of Oz. The account ran down the roster of actors — Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, et. al., including “ten thousand of the amazing people of Oz.” In other words, the Munchkins.
And it listed the “six new and catchy songs” that embellished the story. Just think: Until 80 years ago tomorrow we’d never heard “Over the Rainbow,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “If I Only Had a Brain, (the Nerve, A Heart),” “The Merry Old Land of Oz,” “If I Were King of the Forest,” or “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead.”
All of that awaits us in the subdued lighting of the Wilma, where uniformed ushers wait to escort us to our seats. Each carries a small flashlight to guide late arrivals and stands guard to shush talkers after the movie has started.
We all wear suits and ties, dresses or smart suits, fedoras and ladies’ hats pert, jaunty or lavish. Some of them are pinned on but signs remind the ladies to “please remove your hats.”
Our seats are equipped not with cup holders but with built-in ashtrays. The smell and haze of cigarette and cigar smoke are part of the theater experience.
You and I speak in hushed tones, soft music in the background, waiting for that regal heavy red velvet curtain to part. When it does, a Universal newsreel shows and tells us things we can never see elsewhere. Americans rush home from war-scarred Europe. The Midwest crowns its Miss America contestant. Youngsters stage a colorful circus parade in Terre Haute, Indiana.
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Next we’re treated to cartoon shorts, perhaps Popeye the Sailor or the latest Betty Boop. We’re feeling pretty good at this point, and when the curtain closes, the theater rustles in anticipation.
How long do we wait? Two minutes? Five? Ten before the curtains reopen and our world is transformed by the roar of the MGM lion?
Dramatic orchestra music accompanies the beast, a forbidding sky is panned behind the title screen. The music segues into wistful snatches of “Over the Rainbow” as the credits roll and, increasing in tempo, of “the wind began to switch/the house to pitch.”
Dorothy and Toto run down a country road after escaping from the wrath of the evil Miss Gulch. Dorothy tries to tell Aunt Em and Uncle Henry what Miss Gulch tried to do to Toto, but they’re too busy counting chickens to listen. She gets little more attention from the three farmhands. “Oh, Huck, you just won’t listen, that’s all.”
We can’t be precise on this, but at about the time during this first of four Sunday showings, at 12:45 p.m., as we’re watching the Wicked Witch of the West spell “Surrender Dorothy” from her broomstick contrails above a horrified Emerald City, something truly terrifying is happening in the real world.
Outside the theater’s front door, across Higgins Avenue and up Hellgate Canyon, over a Continental Divide and an ocean, a German U-boat is firing a torpedo off the coast of northern Scotland.
“British Liner, 1,400 Aboard, Sunk” stretched across the top of Page 1 in the next day’s Missoulian.
London — The British liner Athenia, with at least 216 Americans among her 1,100 passengers, was torpedoed and sunk today off the Hebrides, west of Northern Scotland.
As green-skinned Margaret Hamilton melts away in all her beautiful wickedness on the screen in Missoula, more than 100 passengers and crew members are dying in an attack that comes less than 18 hours after Britain and France declared war on Hitler’s Germany. The Athenia is the first ship sunk in a war that will see 9,000 others go down and an estimated 70 million to 85 million people die. It will stretch six long years before winners and losers are declared.
The thermometer reaches 80 degrees this long-ago sunny Sunday in Missoula. After Bolger, Jack Haley and Lahr discover they’ve had a Scarecrow’s brain, a Tin Man’s heart and a Lion’s courage all along, after Garland has clutched Terry, the Cairn terrier acting dog, one last time and told Clara Blandick, “Oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home,” you shuffle out with the first theater crowd of the day.
The 3:50 p.m. bunch waits in suits and dresses to get its own first glimpse of the merry old land of Oz on the silver screen, and to journey, as we’ve been journeying for 80 years, somewhere over a rainbow. And back.