While the tales of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz doing poorly on its theatrical release are demonstrably false, it is undeniable that its status as a great American classic was cemented by the almost uninterrupted annual showings of the movie on television from 1956 to 1991. CBS, via its Ford Star Jubilee program, was the first network to broadcast Wizard, and also to initiate a tradition of celebrity hosts to present the movie to the viewing audience, partially because the movie was somewhat too short to fit into a two-hour time slot.
A sampling of names of these presenters includes comedian Red Skelton with his daughter Valentina, Have Gun – Will Travel star Richard Boone with his son Peter, actor Dick Van Dyke with—at various times and in different combinations—all four of his children, and all-around showman Danny Kaye on his own.
Oddly, only one star of the film was ever asked to introduce it on television. That was Bert Lahr, and he hosted its debut showing on November 3rd, 1956, accompanied by Judy Garland’s ten year-old daughter Liza Minnelli. He spoke with fondness of the little girl’s mother (who had in fact starred in the first Ford Star Jubilee in 1955) and their time working together, and admitted that he hadn’t actually seen the movie since its release.
From 1967 to 1975, Wizard shifted to NBC, where the tradition of a celebrity host was discontinued except for one noteworthy occasion.
On the 15th of March, 1970, Gregory Peck appeared on the screen in a recorded segment directed by Mervyn LeRoy himself to dedicate the program to the memory of Judy Garland, who had died on the 22nd of June the previous year at the age of forty-seven.
CBS reacquired the rights to the Wizard telecast in 1976 and continued to show the movie every year until 1991, when Ted Turner, having bought up much of MGM’s stock, including Gone With the Wind, relegated the film to cable television, bringing an annual family tradition to an unfortunate and somewhat wrenching end.
Of course, by then The Wizard of Oz was available on home video, the first videotapes having been issued in 1980, so fans of the movie could watch it any time they wished. This was, to be sure, a good thing, but something had been lost. When, in those halcyon years, the commercials began to inform us that The Wizard of Oz was coming up again, it was almost like looking forward to Christmas; anticipation was built up and excitement could barely be contained.
It was, in its way, like visiting Oz and, once the adventure was over, having to return home—but with, of course, the promise that there would be a return trip!