Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Herbert Jarvis Goes to the Show!

I much enjoy when I run across a contemporary audience reaction to The Wizard of Oz. One assumes there is no bias, such as an official reviewer or critic might have. Alas, most mentions of the show, like the one below, are usually lacking in detail.
Today's blog is a brief look back in time via a letter I recently acquired, in which a young man named Herbert Jarvis wrote to his mother in Burlington, Iowa, on February 11, 1904, from Lafayette, Indiana:

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Dear Mother — 
    Did you think I'd forgotten all about you? Well I haven't by a good deal.
    Of course Fred saw you at the beginning of the week, so you knew that I spent Saturday and Sunday with him. They were having sales of clothes and so I got a very good pair of trousers for $3.50. I also got myself a pair of shoes.


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We were out at the fairgrounds Sunday - Lute Liebrick and George Lilley were with us. Lute and I took pictures. Saturday night I saw the "Wizard of Oz." It was fine and I enjoyed it more than anything else I've seen, I believe.

    Tuesday night F. Hopkinson Smith lectures on "Old Plantation Days."I think it was the best in the course so far. I took Martha Smith.
    Had I told you that the young men of the Presbyterian church were going to give a Valentine social Friday night? I was chairman of the committee that had charge of it. We've had to give it up because Mrs. Horn's father died and the funeral is to be at the church Friday afternoon. Mrs. Horn is the teacher of our young men's class at S. S.


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We are having beautiful weather. All the snow is gone and during the day it warms up just a little. The sun is bright and when the wind don't blow it feels almost like Spring.

    Lately I've been awfully hungry by dinner time. Maybe I'll eat a breakfast some of these days.

With lots of love from 


Herbert certainly seems like a good son, and I'm glad he so enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, but we can learn a bit more by analyzing his letter home in a little more detail.

Herbert states that he attended the show on the previous Saturday, which is February 6, 1904. On that date, both touring companies were performing in Missouri. Company No. 1 was at the Century Theatre in St. Louis, their last night of a week-long engagement. Company No. 2 was doing a one-night stand in Sedalia in central Missouri.

Herbert saw the show in St. Louis with the original Broadway cast. How do we know this? Well, aside from St. Louis being closer to Indiana, where Herbert was living, he gave us a major clue elsewhere in the letter when he states: "We were out at the fairgrounds Sunday." So, the day after seeing The Wizard of Oz, Herbert and his friends went out to watch the set-up of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, aka the St. Louis World's Fair, much like Judy Garland's character did in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) when she boarded the trolley to go check out the progress at the fairgrounds.

Long-time Oz fans take note that when Judy sits down between two young women .57 seconds into this video clip, the woman in pink (on Judy's left) is Dorothy Tuttle, later Dorothy Nitch, who was a long-time member of the International Wizard of Oz Club, married to Oz fan Jim Nitch. Dorothy Tuttle was an MGM dancer who appeared in many films, including The Harvey Girls and The Pirate. Judy sings about half the "Trolley Song" directly to Dorothy Tuttle. Keep your eyes on the woman in pink, if you can take them off Judy Garland.

Below, you can read a review of company No. 1's run in St. Louis. It was printed in the St. Louis Republic on February 1, 1904. 

The reviewer concludes: "The music, by Paul Tietjens of St. Louis. is a satisfying feature. There isn't a tiresome song in the piece."

I'm sure Herbert Jarvis could never have imagined his letter home would be shared and dissected a hundred and twenty-two years after he wrote it. But he went to the show and went to the fair, and little else need be said. At least he also had new shoes and trousers for the occasion.

Now, if I had only had time to try and link him genealogically to Royal Historian of Oz, Eloise Jarvis McGraw, this blog would have been a little longer.

Copyright © 2022 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Don't Have a Cow!

I am delighted to report that in the latest issue of the Thurston County Historical Journal, I have an article published, entitled "Luther J. Wyckoff: The Frolicsome Heifer of Oz."

Wyckoff joined The Wizard of Oz company in fall 1902 for the post-Chicago tour, where he played one of the Wizard's wisemen, among other chorus parts. In the summer of 1903, he took over the role of Imogene, after both Ed Stone and Joseph Schrode were left exhausted from playing Dorothy's devoted little bovine.

Wyckoff went on to play Imogene for almost two years with company two.

You can read all about the "frolicsome heifer" in the online version of the journal by clicking here.

My article came about after my husband, Eric Shanower, ran across an article by Mary Paynton Schaff in an earlier issue of the Thurston County Historical Journal, relating the story of Luther J. Wyckoff's later career as a hybridizer of lavender. You can read that article by clicking here.

I used the photograph below in my article on Wyckoff. It is my favorite of the various backstage photos I have. I acquired it in the late '90s when I bought three bound volumes of the New York Tribune from 1903—this photo appeared in the September 20, 1903, issue.

Luther Wyckoff (left) and Arthur Hill (right) take a break backstage at the Majestic Theatre, NYC, summer 1903.

I immediately loved the photo. It shows such an intimate moment backstage: the two sweaty young men having peeled down their animal costumes, the look Arthur Hill is giving to Wyckoff as he wipes the perspiration from his neck, and it's a good shot of the Imogene head.

Curiously, it was only after I started writing the article that I realized that it was Luther Wyckoff in the photo. I had always assumed it was Joseph Schrode (the second Imogene)—though it looks nothing like him. It looks even less like Ed Stone (the first Imogene), who was short with a very round face. But after discovering the Wyckoff lavender article and seeing multiple photos of Wyckoff, I quickly realized that it was he in the heifer's costume above.

I was also able to identify another photo of Wyckoff from earlier in the Broadway run, when he was credited as playing a Munchkin Youth (he would have also played other male chorus parts). I did not use the photo in my article, as I thought it would reproduce too poorly.

Luther J. Wyckoff as a Munchkin Youth, January 1903.
I have extremely good copies of the various Byron stage photos of The Wizard of Oz. But Wyckoff, as one of the three male Munchkins, is in the back row and the camera was not focused on him. I have sharpened the close-up (above) as much as I dare. Below, you can see the full stage image.

Luther J. Wyckoff can be seen under the green arrow.

I hope you'll go read my article on Wyckoff now.  If you like, you may order a physical copy of the journal. See the instructions in the forematter of the viewable PDF.

Copyright © 2022 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 19, 2022

A Simple Little Girl from the Prairie


A few weeks ago, I picked up another piano roll from The Wizard of Oz. The roll was produced by the Q-R-S Company and features "Just a Simple Little Girl from the Prairie" composed by Paul Tietjens.

The immediate curiosity is that the title differs slightly from the published sheet music, "I'm Just a Simple Girl from the Prairie." This song, written by L. Frank Baum and Paul Tietjens for the original Chicago production of the show, is not listed in programs as having been performed. But that is because the song forms part of the seven-and-a-half-minute long finale of Act II.

Julian Mitchell cut the Baum/Tietjens Chicago finale of Act II for the Broadway opening, replacing it with a new Act II finale by A. Baldwin Sloane and Glen MacDonough called "Star of My Native Land." 

Tietjens was not pleased - and Julian Mitchell may not have been wholly pleased either, as by late summer of 1903, he devised a new Act II Finale by combining both the Sloane and Tietjens compositions. Thus, "Simple Girl" was reintroduced to the show, where it stayed through the final touring performances in 1909.

The Q. R. S. piano roll company was founded in 1900 by Melville Clark, who had invented the modern player piano. He was also the Clark of "Storey & Clark," fine piano makers. Q. R. S. released a number of titles from The Wizard of Oz in addition to this one, including "When You Love, Love, Love," "I'll Be Your Honey in the Springtime," "Sammy," and, of course, the "Selection," a medley of songs and music from Tietjens's score. 

The list price for this piano roll back in 1903 was $1.20 (the equivalent of over $40.00 in today's currency). The player piano to play it on would have cost $250 (over $8000.00 in 2022).  "Just a Simple Little Girl from the Prairie" was the least expensive of Q. R. S.'s five rolls from The Wizard of Oz. The selection would have cost you $3.00 (nearly $100.00 in 2022 funds).

I have not had a chance to listen to this new roll yet. This is a "65-note" piano roll, thus it will not play on most modern player pianos. Once I have been able to play it, I will share a recording here on the blog.

If you have any piano rolls from the early Wizard of Oz stage musical, I would love to hear from you in the comments or by email.

Copyright © 2022 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 25, 2022

I'm All Eyes!

One thing that had been hampering the completion of my book was a much-needed research trip to New York City. My husband Eric and I had been hoping to travel east a couple years ago, after I had finally gotten down to the actual writing of text. Then Covid hit, libraries shut down, travel became unsafe, and my access to much critical research was cut off.

This past March, Covid infections hit a low point and the research facilities I needed to visit had all reopened. Eric and I were anxious for a road trip (any trip!) after two years of world lock-down. Eric said, "Let's go!" And after purchasing a new car, we took off on a three-week, cross-country road trip from Portland, Oregon, to New York City and back.

Eric and I spent many hours each day examining photos, scrapbooks, correspondence, legal documents, clippings, costume sketches, scripts, sheet music, posters, and more. 

The alarming image below shows how I felt for much of the week. It seems that I, too, "enjoy a little trip to town now and then," just like Mr. Pyeye ogling the Snow Queen and her Sprites.

Clipping from The Standard, May 27, 1904.

Much of our time was spent at the New York Public Library, but we also had a wonderful day at the Shubert Archive and visited two private collections. 

In the evenings, with libraries closed, we got the chance to visit several friends, saw the new production of Company (which I really liked), and spent our last free afternoon walking through Central Park, going to the zoo, and afterward walking across town to see Wizard of Oz producer Fred Hamlin's home at 305 West 71st Street, which he bought with profits from the show in August 1903. 

Home of Wizard of Oz producer Fred R. Hamlin.

Then we decided that as long as we were already on the east coast, we would add a few days to the trip and drive down to Washington, DC, and spend a couple days at the Library of Congress.

The research vacation was great! I got virtually everything I needed and more. Much more. Thanks to smart phones, the days of traveling with camera and macro lens and standing over a photocopier for days on end are pretty much behind us. Over the course of a week, I took slightly over seven thousand photos.

So, seven thousand new pictures . . . a picture is worth a thousand words . . . so that means seven million more words to write! Don't worry, my book isn't going to be that long!

Copyright © 2022 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Lavender Blue, Dilly, Dilly

I am most sorry for the long time between blog posts, but much exciting work has been going on behind the scenes regarding my 1903 Wizard of Oz book project. I'll share more about that next post. 

But in the spring and early summer, my energies are also split between work on the book and work in the garden. Lately, the 1903 Wizard of Oz has found its way into the garden, too.

You might recall a blog post from early February about Luther Wyckoff, who played Imogene, the frolicsome heifer, on Broadway for a few weeks and then for two full seasons with Company No. 2. Wyckoff had begun his association with the show as a member of the male chorus in the summer of 1902 before putting on hooves as Imogene.

Now, as mentioned in the earlier post, Wyckoff abandoned the stage after his two-plus years as Imogene and in the ensuing years began in-depth research into growing lavender in the Pacific Northwest. He went on to develop his own two cultivars, "Wyckoff White" and "Wyckoff Blue," which were selected and are still used by Yardley of London—makers of the famous soap.

Upon learning all this, my husband Eric asked the inevitable question, "Are you gonna start growing Wyckoff lavender in the garden?" Of course, the answer was "Yes."

I began my search and had little luck finding it available for order online. But I placed a request at my local nursery and a couple weeks ago my "Wyckoff Lavender" arrived.

The plants are not particularly large, but they'll get bigger. So, there is now "Oz Collection" growing in the backyard. What will I do with the lavender, you ask? Well, some might go into cooking, but perhaps I should create some 1903 Wizard of Oz collectibles . . . anyone want a small Imogene the Cow sachet stuffed with "Wyckoff" lavender blossoms?

Copyright © 2022 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Black WIZARD OF OZ - Part Three

Playbill from 1979 bus-and-truck
For this final part in our Black History Month series, The BLACK Wizard of Oz, I want to share the story of how the ultimate all-Black version of Baum's story informed my career, first as a stage manager, then as a designer, and now as a theatre historian. You can read Part One and Part Two by clicking these links.

One of the most influential events in my life was seeing the national bus-and-truck tour of the original Broadway production of The Wiz on February 24, 1979.

I had just seen the film version starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson a month and a half earlier when it had opened in December 1978. I had liked the film version well enough and was playing the double-LP soundtrack album a lot at home. After seeing the film, I started playing the original Broadway cast album a lot, too. And I was now eager to see the stage version, which was coming to Popejoy Hall on the University of New Mexico campus, where all the big touring shows and concerts played.

I bought two tickets to the show. I was going to the matinee by myself, and my mom, sister, and I were going to see the evening performance that night. 

Ticket stub from The Wiz on tour, 1979.

The playbill said Dorothy was to be played by someone named Deborah Malone. But there was a photocopied insert in the program saying that the role of Dorothy was NOW being played by Lillias D. White, and let me tell you, Lillias White gave and sang a performance for the ages! For those that might not know, Lillias White has gone on to become a legend and Tony Award winning Broadway star. You can read a bit about her here.

Garry Q. Lewis, Jai Oscar St. John, and Lillias White in the1979 bus-and-truck tour of The Wiz 

Lillias White as Dorothy in The Wiz circa 1979.
This was the first Broadway tour I'd ever seen, and the magic and intensity of the performance were incredible. The brilliance of Geoffrey Holder's making the Tornado a human dancer, the faithfulness to Baum's story, the fact that Dorothy was such a believable little girl . . . well, it all utterly blew me away! Lillias White, as Dorothy, also bore a startling resemblance to my best friend growing up.

I loved the second performance just as much. I had really never felt "magic" happen on stage before. I don't mean tricks, smoke, and flying monkeys; I mean that the stage disappeared, and I was totally absorbed into the show—like when reading a good book when the words disappear and you're just living the story. It was such an overwhelming experience that I knew I had to be a part of making theatre and to try to make that kind of "magic" happen for other people.

Several years later I began my theatre work as a Production Assistant at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. In 1984 I was working on Hang On To Me, a musical that was being choreographed by a lovely woman named Carmen De Lavallade (she was also acting in the show). On opening night, I discovered that Carmen was married to Geoffrey Holder, and that HE was coming to the opening night performance!

Geoffrey Holder was the director, costume designer, and artistic conscience of the original production of The Wiz. He was also an actor, had recently played Punjab in the film version of Annie, and was well known for his 7-Up commercials as the "un-cola" man. I mentioned to Carmen that I wanted to meet him, and she said, "Of course!"

I'd had only a little warning. I called home and asked my mom to bring my 
Wiz LP over to the theatre, which she kindly did. I also borrowed the Polaroid camera from the stage management office and snapped one photo of him.

Geoffrey Holder backstage at Guthrie Theatre, 1984.

Carmen introduced us, but they were on their way out to a party. There was only time for a quick hello. I told him The Wiz tour had been what made me go into theatre work. Then Geoffrey Holder signed my Wiz album. I wished we'd had a chance for a longer conversation—but for that I would have to wait several years.

Original cast album signed by Geoffrey Holder.

In the summer of 1990, my boyfriend Eric and I had just moved in together in New Haven, Connecticut. I would be starting grad school, as a scenic designer, at the Yale School of Drama in the fall. But the two of us had agreed to serve as chairmen of the 1991 Winkie Con—the annual west-coast Wizard of Oz conference. Our theme was "Oz on Stage." I wanted the Saturday evening program to be a multi-media presentation on the Broadway production of The Wiz. I secured a high-quality audio tape of the stage show and shot slides of nearly 350 photographs at the New York Public Library. I already had a substantial collection of Wiz ephemera, photos, and programs in my own collection. But I also knew this was my chance and best justification for re-connecting with Geoffrey Holder.

I still had my contact sheets from the Guthrie Theatre, so I had Carmen De Lavallade's (and therefore Geoffrey's) address. I sent a letter outlining my idea for the presentation and asked Geoffrey if we could meet for an interview. A few days later I got a simple postcard in the mail from Geoffrey Holder. It had a phone number and the words, "Call me."

So I called—nervous beyond belief! Geoffrey answered the phone with his boomingly resonant voice. He explained he had no time, but would make time, to see me. About a week later I took the train from New Haven to Manhattan. I rang the bell and was buzzed in.

Souvenir program from Japan.
I was soon inside Geoffrey Holder's apartment, standing in front of Geoffrey Holder! He took a large breath and said, "I am most sorry, but I am going to have to cancel our interview for today. I have a meeting, I can not get out of it. Can you come back next week?" I said, "Yes, of course," but my insides were falling into my legs. Perhaps Geoffrey saw my disappointment, and before I left, he asked, "Do you have the Japanese Wiz?" I replied, No, I wasn't sure what it was. He reached up to the top of a very tall bookcase and pulled a large, yellow, over-sized book from a top shelf and added, "Then you may have this." He'd given me a copy of the beautiful deluxe souvenir program from his 1983 Wiz revival's performances in Japan. He added as he showed me to the door, "These lovely photos in the book were all taken by my son, Leo."

A week later I returned. Oddly, I was even more nervous on this second attempt to get the interview. Geoffrey welcomed me into the grand and loft-like apartment. Carmen was there this time, making coffee in the kitchen. She greeted me as an old friend and said she'd now excuse herself so Geoffrey and I could talk.

We sat down, and I opened up my backpack and pulled out my tape recorder. I also pulled out a book I had brought as a gift for Geoffrey and Carmen, a first edition of L. Frank Baum's The Enchanted Island of Yew. I had only recently learned that in 1987 Carmen had adapted and performed in a one-woman show based on this 1901 fairy tale by Baum, directed and designed by Geoffrey, with music by their son, Leo. Geoffrey called Carmen back in to see the book. They were both very pleased.

Still a nervous mess, I could barely get an intelligible question out. So, Geoffrey began by asking me why I was interested in The Wiz. I told him of my seeing the bus-and-truck tour and how important the show had been to me—though I think I rather hemmed-and-hawed out the information. 

Geoffrey was very aware of my nervousness and said he would get something to "relax me." He went to their kitchen-area and soon brought back two cups of coffee. The coffee was very black. I asked if he had any milk or cream and he explained they didn't generally keep milk in the house. But I must try the coffee—what he had put in it was much better than milk! 

I took a sip. The coffee must have been nearly half rum. Very good rum, too. It was stupendous! After a few sips, I began to relax and the interview finally began. We talked for about ninety minutes. Below are a few excerpts from our interview. I found I barely even needed to ask questions. Any few words from me brought forth wonderful and voluminous answers.

I first asked Geoffrey how he had become involved with The Wiz.

Well, number one, that was a whole accident. I met Ken Harper on the street, at Third Avenue. We had dinner. And after dinner at my apartment Harper said he want to do The Wizard of Oz with today’s music—as a television show or something to that effect. It was not a Broadway show at the time. He wanted the bad witch to be beautiful and the good witch to be ugly, someone like Moms Mabley—and Josephine Baker to be the bad witch.

He asked me, “Oh, you would be lovely as the Wiz.” Well, I said, why not? As a black guy, I said I must help him. I should support him. It was a nice idea.

Geoffrey next elaborated on how the show acquired its backers, how he developed the concept drawings and costumes.

[Ken Harper] called me and asked if I’d like to come to an audition. I wore a white suit, being very Geoffrey Holder, just to support Ken.

Now, this old man’s sitting, listening to the music, and Ken Harper only had a little cassette tape. He played the music for this man, and he tried to tell the whole story, how he had conceived the story.

This old man said, “Well, who can play Dorothy? Lena Horne is too old. We don’t have any stars.” In that period nobody ever thought of Motown—nobody ever thought of going in that direction. This old man, the only black he knew was Lena Horne!

I was very disturbed at the presentation. I said, “Ken, when I get time, I will do some drawings for you.”

So one day when I had some time, it was a Sunday, and I drew the Lion, the Tin Man and Dorothy, the Tornado, and all the characters. I called Ken—I’ll never forget this—he said, “Geoffrey, you know I don’t want to come to the west side.” I was on 92nd Street and Broadway, and he didn’t want to cross Central Park! I said, “Ken, find your ass in my house now.” So he came over and he saw the drawings and he freaked out.

I said, “The next time you have an audition, show these drawings.” These drawings would erase Judy Garland from their minds. It would erase Billie Burke. All of the images they have of The Wizard of Oz will be erased when they see it done this way.

A couple months later he got a lead to Los Angeles, to Twentieth Century Fox. I said, “Don’t leave without these drawings.” He took the drawings and I think he took Charlie Smalls, or he took his music.

He met Gordon Stalberg, head of Twentieth Century Fox. Gordon Stalberg just loved the music, just loved the drawings, didn’t care for the book—wanted him to work hard on the book. “Why doesn’t Geoffey Holder design the show, do the choreography, direct the show, and play the Wiz? And here is 750,000 dollars. Go ahead and do it.”

It was the first time a major movie company had invested in a Broadway show. It had never been done before. Ken was very happy about the whole thing.

I asked Geoffrey how he had become the director of the show. 

I had never asked to direct. I had never asked to choreograph. I didn’t ask to play the Wiz or even design the costumes. I did the costumes as a gesture to support [Ken Harper].

Well, in signing the contract, somebody said, “I don’t see how one man can do everything.” I said, “That’s an insult to my energy!” See, the major directors today have always been choreographers—Jerome Robbins, Herbert Ross, Michael Bennett. You don’t have a choreographer and a director. When you do costumes [too], you save money because you know exactly how the costumes are going to be used; you don’t have to deal with a costume designer who is busy showing his line and has not related to what the book is all about.

They had a clause that they wanted me to have a co-director. I said, “I’ve never heard of a co-director. I’m not in trouble, why would I need somebody to help me?”

And they said, “Oh, we must have a co-director.”

I said, “No no no, I need an assistant director—that’s something else.”

They said, “If you don’t sign the contract, you’re out.”

I said, “Fine, I’m out! I didn’t ask to be in in the first place. May I have back my drawings?”

They said, “Oh, we want the drawings.”

I said, “No no no, those are MY drawings.”

There was a bad conflict about that, because the concept was in the costumes. And they knew that was what Gordon Stalberg liked. I was very broken-hearted, not for the fact that I had to have a co-director. I was broken-hearted because I thought Ken Harper would have stood up for me.

Well, something told me, “Geoffrey, forget it. Resign and just do the costumes.”

“OK, I’ll do the costumes. And I want to speak to the new director”—which was Gilbert Moses, who automatically hired [choreographer] George Faison. “I don’t want him to see my costume designs. I want to know what he has in mind. These costumes were for my direction, for my choreography.”

[Gilbert Moses] said, “How can you make a wicked witch melt on stage? And how can you dwarf men and make them look like Munchkins?”

I thought he had a concept—he didn’t. The man had no vision—no fantasy vision, that is—I’m not knocking his credibility as a director. But he didn’t have a vision for the show.

The show opened and we were in Baltimore, and every time something was wrong, they criticized the costumes. They couldn’t hear the crows sing. “Cut the costumes!”

Mr. Faison wanted to have the tornado coming up like a tarantula. I said, “No, that’s baffling to the audience. A tornado is something that goes up into the sky.”

There were a lot of misunderstandings. We were doing three different shows. The reason why they really wanted Gilbert Moses was so that he could work on the book with Bill Brown. That’s what they wanted him for. When the show got in trouble, they decided to get rid of Moses. Ken Harper asked everybody—he asked Hal Prince, Donald McKayle, Patricia Birch, to direct the show. Pat Birch said, “The only person who has any sort of continuity and some vision is really Geoffrey Holder.”

I was signed to direct the show. There was a lot of bad feeling for me. I was considered arrogant. I was considered grand. And I am arrogant, and I am grand, but I know what I know, and I know what I want.

I got a hundred yards of black silk, and I went and said to the costume lady, “Make me a black bonnet. Attach this silk to the bonnet. Fly that over that trapeze and feed this girl like you feed a microphone, so that she can dance around the house as the house spins.” And that’s how we got the tornado ballet. And we stopped the show within the first two minutes! Gordon Stalberg was coming back to see the show next day, and if I’m going to be the director by then, I needed something new.

Geoffrey and I talked on for another hour at least—about adventures during the try-outs, the publicity campaign, theatre politics, Holder's 1983 revival, his short-lived involvement with the film version, Michael Jackson, and much more.

At one point, I mentioned to Geoffrey how much I loved the brilliant but subtle moment in the show when Dorothy quietly undoes her tight pigtails and lets her hair down while she is singing "Home." Dorothy visually grows-up while singing the song. 

Geoffrey seemed pleased I had noticed and remembered that specific detail from seeing the show only twice, eleven years earlier. He said that Dorothy's journey from little girl to young woman during the course of the show was critical. Dorothy had to be a little girl at the opening of the show—and how do you make a seventeen-year-old Stephanie Mills look like a little girl? He explained he had put Dorothy in her best Sunday dress, as if the family had just returned from church and Dorothy hadn't changed into her everyday clothes yet. Dorothy is running around, playing with Toto, risking wear and tear on her most expensive dress, just like any very little girl might. Then Geoffrey casually mentioned his most brilliant touch. He had designed Dorothy's dress to be just a little too small for Dorothy, a little too short. She is outgrowing it! This subtle touch shows Dorothy is a child, wearing an old dress she's becoming too big to wear and that her aunt and uncle can't easily afford to replace.

I had just graduated from NYU's undergraduate design program and would be beginning my MFA at Yale School of Drama in set and costume design in the fall. I don't think I ever got a better lesson in my life in what real costume design could be. Geoffrey had created character, informed the audience of Aunt Em's and Uncle Henry's socio-economic status, gave Stephanie Mills something to play as an actress, and with luck, triggered some strong emotion-memories in the audience—all with a little white dress that didn't fit quite right.

I remember one other thing Geoffrey said that I find most pertinent to this three-blog series about creating an all-Black version of The Wizard of Oz. Geoffrey pointed out that L. Frank Baum, in his effort to make Dorothy a universally identifiable character—an every-child, so to speak—gave no indication in the text of Dorothy's race or skin color. Even W. W. Denslow, the illustrator, had made Dorothy racially neutral by coloring her skin a non-realistic skin color, bright yellow.

Geoffrey Holder's point is essentially the same made by pioneering Black theatre critic Sylvester Russell in Part One of this series. He wrote in his 1904 article:  "The [Wizard of Oz] is a budget without race or color . . . It's a something from somewhere that nobody knows anything about." Race doesn't come into play when you're made of tin, stuffed with hay, are a lion, a cow, or a simple little girl, off on an adventure. I've little doubt that this idea informed Gertrude Blanton's decision that The Wizard of Oz was the right show for her all-Black production in 1923. 

Anyone can be Dorothy. Anyone can go to Oz. 

Advertising poster for cast album. Click to enlarge

Copyright © 1990, 2010, 2015, 2022 by David Maxine. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Black WIZARD OF OZ - Part Two

As you read in Part One of this series, Black music and theatre critic Sylvester Russell proposed a "colored company" of the Baum and Tietjens Wizard of Oz in early 1904. As wonderful as his casting ideas were, the producers never pursued the idea.

But Russell was not the only Black American to imagine such possibilities. Two days before Christmas 1922, the Chattanooga News announced:

Colored People to Give Play January 10 

The Wizard of Oz, a musical opera said to be the best ever presented by a colored cast, will be given Wednesday, January 10, at the Liberty Theater. The play will be supported by the A.M.A. [American Missionary Association] of the First Congregational church of this city, with Gertrude Blanton director. The proceeds of the play will be devoted to charities of the colored people.

Chattanooga News, December 23, 1922

This production of The Wizard of Oz to be given by "colored people" was the brainchild of Gertrude Blanton. She was Born Gertrude Edwina Lewis, youngest daughter of Albert and Ellen Lewis, on September 9, 1888. The 1910 census reports her working as a musician in an orchestra. In 1912, Gertrude married James Harvey Blanton and they eventually had three children: Dorothy born in 1914; James, Jr., born in 1919; and later, in 1928, another daughter, Caroline. Gertrude continued her musical career as pianist, musical director, and conductor while raising her family.

Gertrude Blanton circa 1930. Courtesy of Richard Davis.

Chattanooga Daily Times, December 24, 1922
Gertrude Blanton had directed one other stage work with students from Howard High called A Trip to Zanzibar, on May 18, 1922, about six months prior to her staging of The Wizard of Oz. 

There's no information on how or why Blanton came to the idea to stage a Black version of The Wizard of Oz. The original national tour played in Chattanooga four times between 1904 and 1908. I like to think Blanton saw the show and became fond of it. She named her first born daughter Dorothy, too. 

Tennessee's "Jim Crow" laws regarding Blacks attending theatre performances were not quite as heinous as many of Tennessee's other forms of repression. According to Blackpast.org, the 1885 Tennessee statute provided for: "All well-behaved persons to be admitted to theaters, parks, shows, or other public amusements," but the statute also declared that proprietors had "the right to create separate accommodations for whites and negroes." So, Blanton certainly had the opportunity to see The Wizard of Oz on several occasions when she was a teenager.

No definitive proof has surfaced that Blanton's 1923 production was a performance of the 1903 Baum and Tietjens musical extravaganza, but what else could it have been?

Timing discounts the possibility of it being the Junior League stage version of The Wizard of Oz, which had been written and performed for the first time on December 23, 1922, the same day Blanton's production was announced. The Junior League script had not yet been published and Blanton, not even a member of the Junior League, would not have had access to it.

Advertisements explicitly refer to Blanton's production as a musical opera and musical comedy, and there is no evidence that Blanton, or anyone else, composed a new score. If she, or anyone else, had written a new score, I think it would have been mentioned in publicity. I have also found no evidence that Blanton was a composer. 

Blanton was a professional musician, playing in orchestras and bands for at least a dozen years by this point. She would have been conscious of properly acquiring performance rights. I believe that Blanton rented the performance materials for The Wizard of Oz from Tams-Witmark, and what we have here is the first, and so far, only performance of the Baum-Tietjens Wizard of Oz performed by a Black cast.

The Wizard of Oz seems to be the last stage work that Blanton directed. But Blanton managed several small orchestras and bands—one "Colored Orchestra" called the Syncopating Six. They played at hotels, clubs, and dancehalls. The Chattanooga Daily Times reported on June 19, 1932, that "one of the largest dances of the season at Cloudland on Lookout Mountain, took place last evening at the hotel, with Gertrude Blanton and her Syncopating Six playing."

Chattanooga Daily Times, July 21, 1933
During this time, she and her husband continued to raise their family of three children. Author Matthias Heyman writes about the Blanton family:
In 1912, . . . Gertrude married another Chattanooga native, James Blanton, and the pair moved in with her parents in their red-bricked house on 320 Cherry Street, situated on the border of downtown Chattanooga, once home to affluent white middle class families, and Ninth Street (on the East Side, now Martin Luther King Boulevard), a “center of African American life in Chattanooga since the mid-1800s.”

The Blanton children grew up in relative prosperity surrounded by a warm and caring family: Dorothy remembers that her parents “always saw [to it that] we had plenty of toys. We had bicycles and wagons and scooters.” The three children playfully called themselves the "three musketeers," and all members of the family were given affectionate names: Albert and Ellen [Gertrude's parents], who continued to live in the Cherry Street house until their deaths, were called Momma and Poppa, their son-in-law, James, Sr., was known as Jim, and their daughter Gertrude as Gert, while Dorothy, Jimmie, and Caroline were referred to as Dotty, Brother, and Tines, respectively.

The central figure in the Blanton family was Gertrude. While James, Sr., helped to make all important decisions, it was she who took care of the day-to-day business of housekeeping and raising the children, as well as caring for both her resident parents. While this would take up most of her day, it still allowed for her actual profession, which was mainly limited to evenings and nights: pianist and bandleader. Indeed, Gertrude was a professional, self-employed pianist who led a first-call small band for “all the local ‘high society’ dances.” “There’s a jump unit known as Ms. Blanton and her Swingsters who walk off with most of the society gigs around the mountain city of Chattanooga,” reported Down Beat in February 1940, where it was revealed that this combo’s leader was indeed the mother of Jimmie, the “sensational [] solo bass man now starring with Duke Ellington’s band.” She may even have been somewhat of a musical entrepreneur. Wendell Marshall, her nephew and future Ellington bassist as well (he was the son of Hattie Lewis, Gertrude’s older sister), maintained she managed about three to five bands in the Chattanooga region, often simultaneously, going from one club to another to make an appearance. Furthermore, the 1940 census lists her profession as a music teacher, so she might have taken in the occasional private student on the side as well.

Through her, music was an essential part of the family: Dorothy learned to play the piano, Jimmie first took up the violin before switching to string bass . . . , and Caroline sang. Gertrude took her children everywhere, including the bandstand, and they would occasionally perform with their mother’s band(s). There can be little doubt that this early experience was of vital importance to Jimmie’s swift rise to professional musicianship.

So, why is Matthias Heyman writing about the Blanton family? Because son, Jimmie, grew up to become an incredible musician—the jazz double bassist Jimmie Blanton. You can read more about Jimmie and Heyman's forthcoming book, Jimmie Blanton. Revolutionizing the Jazz Bass: The Life and Music of Jimmie Blanton—to be published by Oxford University Press— by visiting Heyman's website: www.mattheyman.com

Jimmie Blanton exploded on the jazz scene. On November 19, 1939, Jasper T. Duncan of The Chattanooga Daily Times reported in his "Activities Among Negroes" column:

Another hometown colored boy has made good in music in the east. He is Jimmie ("Kid") Blanton, son of Gertrude Blanton, well known in music circles as an orchestra leader, and who plays for several of the most exclusive dance schools of the city. 
"Kid" Blanton, a native Chattanoogan, was taught the rudiments of violin technique by Dr. J. L. Looney, local practitioner, followed his studies through, and is now a member of the Duke Ellington band featured not as a "doubler," but as a violinist, of whom Ellington says, "there is no finer before the public today in the field of commercial music.' 
Blanton is on tour with the orchestra at the present time, and has been extolled in musical magazines throughout the country for his outstanding ability.

Jimmie Blanton
Jimmie Blanton joined Duke Ellington's band in 1939 and through their multiple recordings, transformed jazz and how the jazz bass could be played. While Blanton's recordings and influence live on still, his life and career were cut tragically short. In November 1941, he left Ellington's band, suffering from tuberculosis. His mother, Gertrude, was at his bedside when he died on July 30, 1942, at the age of 23.

*          *          *

In addition to her family, Gertrude Blanton touched many other lives through her music and musicianship, including all those she cast in The Wizard of Oz back in late 1922.

The morning of Blanton's production of the show, the Chattanooga Daily Times reported that The Wizard of Oz would be performed by "a cast of about sixty performers," with the principal parts taken by students of Howard High School. 

Chattanooga Daily Times, January 10, 1923

The Chattanooga Daily Times reviewed the performance on January 11, 1923:
"Wizard of Oz" Given.

A very creditable presentation of The Wizard of Oz was given last night at the Liberty theater on East Ninth street by a cast of colored amateurs. Horace Hicks was the Tin-man, and Alonzo Pope, the Scarecrow. The role of Dorothy of Kansas was well played by Dorothy Blanton. Others in the cast were Dave Smith, Minerva Hatcher and Thelma Vaughan. The musical comedy was directed by Gertrude Blanton and a good sum was raised for colored charities.
I spent some time looking into the cast. Blanton's eight-year-old daughter, Dorothy (called Dotty by her family), was cast as Dorothy Gale. The other principal parts were students at the all-Black Howard High School. 

Alonzo H. Pope, who played the Scarecrow, was a sophomore at the time. He graduated from Howard High in 1925, attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and married Louise Marshall. They had two sons, Alonzo, Jr., and Thomas. 

Horace Hicks, who played the Tin Woodman, had a fine voice and performed with several "colored" men's choruses.

The only other cast member I could find information on was Minerva Hatcher. Alas, I do not know what character she played in Blanton's production of The Wizard of Oz. But she grew up to have a rich and influential life. Minerva Hatcher was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on September 22, 1906, and almost immediately, the Hatcher family moved to Orlando, Florida.

Minerva's 7th Birthday, 1913. The KKK burned the house a few days later.

Shortly after Minerva's seventh birthday, the family returned from church to discover their home had been burned down by the Ku Klux Klan. Minerva was sent to live with relatives in Chattanooga. 

Minerva Hatcher's high school graduation, 1923.

Minerva was a senior at Howard High School in 1923 when she performed in The Wizard of Oz. She graduated several months later. She went on to receive a B.A. and an M. A. from Fisk University, the third generation in her family to attend Fisk. She attended Yale University as the only Black John Hay Fellow in Humanities, under the Whitney Foundation, in 1952-'53. Of her time at Yale she said:
I spent the weekdays at Yale, but I'd spend the weekends visiting a friend of mine in Harlem. I told my classmates I could act like a white during the week, but on weekends I had to get back to being black.
Her first husband, Henderson A. Johnson, Jr., was a coach at Fisk. They had a son, Dr. H. Andrew Johnson, III, a dentist. Her husband died in 1954, and Minerva married a second time, to William Daniel Hawkins, Jr., in June 1955.

In 1946, Minerva began teaching at Pearl High School in Nashville, Tennessee. She taught American History and was the senior adviser for twenty-three years. In 1999, one of her former students, civil rights leader Mary Frances Berry, said: "There was a high school teacher, Minerva Johnson Hawkins, who expanded my vision of life, and I feel obligated to try to do the same for others."

Minerva Hatcher - Courtesy of Greg Johnson.

Minerva died May 18, 2001, in Nashville, Tennessee. She was 94. Minerva's granddaughter said: "She told stories about African-American history you don't read in textbooks."

*          *          *

Gertrude Blanton lived until January 1969 and died at the age of eighty in Detroit. Had she lived another several years she would have been able to see the most important Black production of The Wizard of Oz ever—Charlie Smalls and Geoffrey Holder's The Wiz. But, of course, Gertrude Blanton had that idea fifty-two years before they did!

I extend grateful thanks to Gregory Johnson for both family stories and
permission to share photos of his grandmother, Minerva Hatcher Johnson Hawkins.

And many thanks to Matthias Heyman for information on Gertrude Blanton and her family
from his forthcoming book. You can read much more about Jimmie Blanton's life
and music on Matt Heyman's blog Pitter Panter Chatter

Photograph of Gertrude Blanton courtesy of Richard Davis. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2022 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 7, 2022

The Black WIZARD OF OZ - Part One

Theatre critic Sylvester Russell
Seventy-one years before the premiere of The Wiz, a Black journalist and theatre critic named Sylvester Russell first proposed a production of The Wizard of Oz with a Black cast. 

Russell began his career as a singer in the late 1880s as Harvey Russell. In 1891, resisting attempts to pigeon-hole him as just another "minstrel" performer, he wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Age, explaining he was not associated with any minstrel troupe and should "hereafter be known as the famous countertenor." Click here to read more about Sylvester Russell. By the late 1890s, Russell had transitioned from singer to music and theatre critic, writing for newspapers such as the Indianapolis Freeman and the Chicago Defender.

Russell published his critique of The Wizard of Oz in the February 27, 1904, issue of the Indianapolis Freeman, the first illustrated Black newspaper in the United States. The Wizard of Oz had recently completed a run at English's Opera House in Indianapolis, February 18-20, 1904. 

The Wizard of Oz produced a strong response in Russell, so much so that he felt compelled, for the first time, to review a white performance.


By Sylvester Russell

For the first time in my history as a stage critic I review a white performance. I do so merely for comparison and to satisfy colored actors that my past criticisms have been quite favorable to their future comedy success.

The Wizard of Oz is a musical comedy extravaganza, exploiting Dave Montgomery and Fred P. [sic] Stone as stars. The Wizard is a very large production with the usual 75 people billed as 150. The curtain rises on a gale storm such as you have never before seen.

When the storm subsides, you behold a beautiful chorus of women and plenty of fresh painted scenery which changes to many different shades by mean of transcendent lights. All this is a portion of extravagant time which pleases the eyes and eases the playwright.

The Wizard of Oz is said to be the greatest musical comedy of the season, but it is certainly not the funniest, and that's why I review it.

The choruses work well and the incidental music is fine. The singing is made up of popular sounds and choruses, which all go well, surrounded by an atmosphere of heavenly grandeur. This means the music is by many different composers without any regard to what the programs say.

The popular song, "Sammy," is sung by a quaint soubrette dressed in a short skirt of silvery glittering spangles. She sings to a man in one of the boxes, which proves that any old gag of the variety stage order suits the majority. What a pity this young woman can't talk to the men in boxes, in the bargain, and set the houses wild—she would even be quite as legitimate as she is now.

Ada Overton Walker (1880-1914)
"Sammy" is a bird. This same song, if enacted by Ada Overton Walker would be a walkover. Another little soubrette, Miss Loughlin [sic], I believe, with a very weak voice, was quite a feature. There is only one real female singer in the show and she sings love songs very tunefully. The singing of the chorus is good, but no better than the Howard Atheneaum Stock Burlesque Company in Boston, which can boast of having one of the best drilled choruses of real voices in America.

Montgomery and Stone as Stars

Nothing is more pleasing to a manager than to read the critic's estimation of his stars, especially when they have to play characters bordering on the very verge of insanity. In the first place, Montgomery and Stone's names are twisted.

The bills should read Stone and Montgomery. If Montgomery had less name and more ability, his partner, Fred P. [sic] Stone, would not be able to attract as much attention as he does. Neither of them are loaded down with much more than nimble feet and a natural appetite for dancing. 

Fred Stone plays the principal comedy part, for no other reason than being the best comedian of the two. His first creation of a "man without brains" is an easy victory for a starter, and he has nothing to do until he is given some brains. In some parts of the dialogue Montgomery and Stone may have been botchworkers and many of the comedians of to-day are badly affected with spoiling much of the fruit of a good playwright's mind. But we can rest assured that Fred P. [sic] Stone is a good comedian and gives good account of his worthy exercises. Mr. Montgomery is simply a very good buck dancer and outside of that, verdict is dismissed. He wears a heavy clad suit of clothes that will save him from making a fatal attempt at real acting. He also sings through the limbs of a tree, not a hoodoo tree such as we used to see DeWolf Hopper display his matchless buffoonery in, in [the] comic opera Boccaccio. No. He sticks his head through a limb and bids the chorus girls to do the rest. 

Montgomery has a good, loud voice, and being a graduate from the variety stage, he knows how to use it.

I forget now where it was I remember as far back as seeing him play a dime museum engagement. Just for the sake of mediocrity of racial comparison, I might state that Montgomery and Stone, two white comedians who have worked their way up from the lowest rank of performers, did not succeed in reaching the goal in advance of Williams and Walker, who had to plough through all the common prejudices of America; even succeeding in reaching the king's throne in a country where lynching is unknown and where color has no drawbacks except from an inferior European-American. This proves that colored performers, like other successful people of their race, are fully entitled to all the honors in proportion that a King or a U. S. President can bestow upon them.

Indeed, if we are to have a new addition of disguised cromos—there are two of the Wizard companies on the road—let us have a third; let managers Hurtig and Seamon secure the rights to The Wizard of Oz, and let Williams and Walker star in it. Mr. Williams could play Mr. Stone's part as it has never been played before (so could Bob Cole) and Mr. Walker could play Mr. Montgomery's part—but with plenty of clown grease on his face. Sam Lucas could play the long-bearded old man [Sir Wylie Gyle], Jesse Sharp could play it also. Fred Douglass could play the Irish Wizard, but I'm not too sure about his dialect. I am confident that a colored company in this comedy would have great drawing power. The play is a budget without race or color excepting the "Wizard." It's a something from somewhere that nobody knows anything about.


Russell's review fascinates me. The subjectivity of Russell's point of view as a Black critic, creates one of the most objective appraisals of the show I have seen. Russell neither regurgitates the press releases, nor does he condemn the show from on high, in love with the sound of his own voice.

Russell had wisely suggested Hurtig and Seamon as producers for the "colored company" of The Wizard of Oz. A perfect choice, as Hurtig and Seamon had presented Williams and Walker in Sons of Ham in 1899 and In Dahomey, which again starred Williams and Walker, in February 1903 and was the first Broadway show to be both written by and performed by Blacks on Broadway. Hurtig and Seamon went on to build what became the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem.

In November 1906, Hurtig and Seamon did, in fact, buy the rights to The Wizard of Oz. A shame, then, that the producers never took up Russell's idea for the "colored company" of the show. Hurtig and Seaman toured The Wizard of Oz for three seasons. As far as is known, they never cast a person of color in the show.

Russell's casting ideas are phenomenal. Bert Williams [1874-1922] and George Walker [1872 or 1873-1911] had both achieved stardom independently before joining forces and debuting in vaudeville at Koster and Bial's in 1897. The duo first appeared on Broadway at the Casino Theatre in 1898 in their act The Gold Bug.

Bert Williams and George Walker.

George Walker was married to Ada Overton Walker, whom Russell had so appropriately cast as Tryxie Tryfle. Known as "The Queen of the Cakewalk," she was also an actress, singer, dancer, and choreographer. If given the chance, she would have owned "Sammy."

Performer Sam Lucas (1848-1916)

Russell provided two casting ideas for Sir Wiley Gyle, whom Russell calls the "long-bearded old man," Sam Lucas and Jesse Sharp. Sam Lucas (1848-1916) began his career in minstrelsy, but became a respected dramatic actor and sometimes composer. I find no information on Jesse Sharp. 

I can find no information on Fred Douglass, whom Russell suggested take the title role of the Wizard. I wish Russell had given us his imaginary cast for the remainder of the principals. 

Alas, this proposed "colored company" of The Wizard of Oz never happened. Or did it? You'll have to wait for part two of this post to find out!

Click here to read PART TWO of The BLACK Wizard of Oz

Copyright © 2022 by David Maxine. All rights reserved.