“Did you watch The Wizard of Oz last night?”
How old was I before I was able to answer yes to the neighbor kids’ question? I knew the 1939 film was broadcast every year – in early December between 1959 and 1962, thereafter in the spring – but we didn’t yet have a television set. It seemed like ours was the last house on the block to get one.
Then one of the kids described the scene where the door to Dorothy’s sepia Kansas house opens into the Technicolor land of Oz. “Wasn’t that neat?” By now I’d seen the movie, but I didn’t know what they were talking about. Again, we seemed to be late in getting a color television.
Living in the bland suburban tract felt akin to Dorothy’s existence in Kansas. No one understood me, I was bullied by other kids, and I longed for another place. For a while that other place was Los Angeles, where my grandmother lived. With her fancy clothes and jewelry, her red hair, and her sophisticated sensibilities, she was Glinda to my boring parents Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. I couldn’t possibly be related to them, could I?
My “Glinda” seemed to understand me, taking me to movies and operas, fancy parties and restaurants. My times with her in the city were inspirational, but then I would have to return to the brown-and-white world of the suburbs.
I read the book by L. Frank Baum as soon as I was able, then quickly devoured the more than dozen titles in the series. I checked them out from the Buena Park Public Library and sequestered myself in my room. Being transported to the magical land of Oz was far preferable to playing baseball in the cul-de-sac with the other kids.
I didn’t know anything about Baum’s Populist allegories, if they ever even existed, nor did I know who Judy Garland or Billie Burke were. All I knew was that somewhere there might be a place for someone like me.
Finally I found that place. I saw the film for the first time in color, shortly after I moved to San Francisco in 1972. Was it at the Castro Theatre? Though it was available, over the years on various video formats, I only watched it at the Castro, with an audience of gay men, as if it was a religious experience. I quickly grasped why the film became a metaphor for the many gay people who moved to the city to find themselves. This is what the kids had seen so many years ago. This was what I’d been imagining.
Over the years I saw Dorothy and Glinda portrayed in the long-running San Francisco musical review Beach Blanket Babylon, and by drag queens. I saw the very first public performance of Wicked, running almost four hours, before it became a Broadway hit, then read, Gregory Maguire’s revisionist Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, on which it was based. I read Geoff Wyman’s 1992 novel Was, the annotated version of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Ruby Slippers of Oz by Rhys Thomas.I wouldn’t say I was fixated on Oz, merely intrigued by its multivalent metaphors.
This year, the 75th anniversary of the classic film, my many memories were triggered. I have lived in San Francisco for over forty years and I hope never to leave. Glinda was right: “There’s no place like home.”