After it was a published book, but decades before it hit the silver screen in 1939’s Dorothy Garland-led adventure we know and love, the original Wizard of Oz was a hit play on Broadway and beyond.
The live theater show premiered in June 1902 in Chicago, then moved to NYC at the beginning of 1903. It was such a huge success that it ran in New York for a year before going on to play at packed theaters across the country.
But what people were seeing up on the stage back then was a lot less charming than you would probably imagine.
Sure, the story was somewhat the same, and it was an upbeat presentation… but when you look back at some of the cast photos, it’s hard not to recoil.
Whether a factor of makeup techniques or artistic vision or cultural norms, the way several of the now-familiar characters were portrayed is distinctly at odds with our technicolor memories of this delightfully motley crew.
What do we mean? Just take a look below at several of the official photos of the musical’s original cast from the early 1900s. Maybe you won’t find them as creepy (and borderline ghoulish) as we did, but you can probably at least agree that one of these things is not at all like the other.
First, a little reminder of the happy gang from 1939
From the original Wizard of Oz: A really scary Scarecrow
Now, meet the Scarecrow, as played by Fred A. Stone in the original Wizard of Oz 1903 stage production.
We’re not sure how crows would feel about him, but the reanimated corpse look would scare the stuffin’ out of most humans.
Original Wizard of Oz musical extravaganza poster (c1904)
The Scarecrow’s look doesn’t get better in color.
The Oz Scarecrow from the original Wizard of Oz in clown white
Here he is again — this time, all dressed up.
From the original Wizard of Oz: The old-school Tin Woodman, aka “Mick” Chopper
Meanwhile, the Tin Man’s makeup was bad enough to drive the woodman to drink… oil, at least.
Fred R Hamlin top-billed on the original Wizard of Oz play poster
Again, color doesn’t add much to the look.
Scarecrow + Tin Man = ❤️
Now, the Scarecrow and Tin Man were tight. In fact, this one looks sort of like an engagement portrait.
And here’s Mick Chopper oiling… the scarecrow?
Off to see the Wizard?
But wait — there’s more! Here’s actor John Slavin as the Wizard of Oz around 1904.
And then the pretty people
Of course, not every character in the original Wizard of Oz was freaky or scary. In fact, most of the characters played by women were quite beautiful.
For example, here’s Anna Laughlin, who played Dorothy Gale.
Anna Fitzhugh in the original Wizard of Oz stage production
Anna was a popular singer/actress who was in the chorus, and also played several small roles in the production.
A lotta Tryxie
Here is Lotta Faust (credited here as Lottie Faust) who played “Tryxie Tryffle” in the original Wizard of Oz stage play in 1903.
Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion in the original Wizard of Oz
Now, check out Anna Laughlin as Dorothy and Arthur Hill as the Lion. She looks adorable… but the Lion seems to be missing the top of his head.
Arthur Hill as the Lion in the original Wizard of Oz (1904)
Here, the top of his head is back (although disproportionately tiny), and he even has fancy hair and glasses. Of all the characters, this one most closely resembles the Lion in the original L Frank Baum book.
“… The costume he wears as the lion in the Chicago production weighs eighty pounds. It consists of two pieces, the head and mane being put on last. The arms of the actor are tightly fitted into the front legs of the lion skin, and cannot be lifted out without removing the head.
“The actor’s eyes come immediately behind the lion’s mouth, and the only way he can see is through that aperture. The brute’s mouth is opened by pulling a string; other strings operate the eyes, ears and tongue.”
A preview of the original Wizard of Oz stage musical (1902)
From The St Paul Globe (Minnesota) September 21, 1902
The biggest spectacular production ever conceived and staged by an American manager is “The Wizard of Oz,” which will burst upon the view of local playgoers at the Metropolitan theater this week in an atmosphere of marvels that cost a bank full of money.
Gorgeous panoramas of mystic scenes and fairy incantations, jovial processions of irresistible comedians, and bright sweet girls, and such indescribable achievements of light, movement and color as the local stage has never before beheld.
With “The Wizard of Oz” will arrive sensational astonishments in the matter of mechanical effects and startling transformations never dreamed about during the shallower, less-informed days of old-fashioned spectacles when the ballet and garish scenes were the sole scenes depended upon for success. Nowadays, electricity dominates, and graceful youth reigns jubilantly.
“The Wizard of Oz” which comes here direct from a three months’ phenomenally successful run at the Grand opera house, Chicago, where the capacity of the theater was tested at every performance is declared to be the greatest spectacular achievement that this country has ever known.
So conservative a journal as the Chicago Inter-Ocean said: “‘The Wizard of Oz’ eclipses anything before originated on this side of the water. It is a gigantic novelty, and its success will extend from coast to coast and from ocean to ocean.”
Amy Leslie, whose caustic pen is usually dipped in vitriol for anything that does not possess the merit of absolute superiority in the theatrical line, wrote in her critique of “The Wizard of Oz” only the most glowingly eloquent encomiums.
Among other things, Miss Leslie said: “‘The Wizard of Oz’ is the most superbly arrayed, beautifully set, and humorously played spectacular burlesque ever given at any time in Chicago.”
There is always something new under the sun — that is every once in a while. Something absolutely new on the stage, however, is a rarity, but the “Wizard of Oz” possesses the merit of absolute originality in its comedy element.
Messrs. Montgomery and Stone, who have the two principal comedy roles, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, are declared by the Chicago press to he veritable pioneers in the field of musical comedy, with impersonations that have never been approached or equaled.
As dancers, pantomimists and eccentric comedians, Montgomery and Stone are distinctly in a class of their own.
The score of comedians in the new extravaganza includes among its bright lights that Celtic genius of natural spontaneous wit and infectious fun, Bobby Gaylor who has been entrusted with the role of the Wizard. The mere mention of Mr. Gaylor’s name provokes a smile from all who are acquainted with his irresistible personality.
In all spectacular productions the feminine contingent is most essential and “The Wizard of Oz’ is said to be up to the highest standard of twentieth-century pulchritude. Dainty little Anna Laughlin, vivacious Helen Byron, comely Bessie Wynn, statuesque Ailleen May, charming Grace Kimball and petite Genevra Gibson head the corps of femininity, which includes over sixty girls.
Particular attention is called to the fact that the curtain will rise at eight sharp tomorrow night on what is described as an entirely novel stage effect showing the disruption of a Kansas farm by a terrific cyclone; which carries away in full view of the audience a substantial looking farmhouse containing the heroine, little Dorothy.
The cyclone whirls the house with the little girl inside of it, over forests and rivers, past villages and cities, over steeple-spires and towering roofs, until the storm subsides and the house descends in fairyland, where the little heroine from Kansas encounters all sorts of strange adventures amid all kinds of whimsical and fantastic creatures and beautiful and benevolent fairies.
How “The Wizard of Oz” was written (1909)
“It is quite true that some playwrights have success thrust upon them,” said L Frank Baum, the fairy tale author, whose extravaganza, “The Wizard of Oz,” is now in its eighth year and boasts the longest successful run in its class of entertainment.
In the words of Baum
“The thought of making my fairy tale into a play had never even occurred to me, when, one evening, my doorbell rang and I found a spectacled young man standing on the mat.”
“Mr Baum?” he inquired.
“Yes,” I said, “What can I do for you?”
“I want to write the music for your opera of ‘The Wizard of Oz,'” he answered.
“There’s a mistake,” I said, somewhat stiffly, “‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a book.”
“But it ought to be a play — an opera or extravaganza or something — and I ought to write the music,” he insisted.
The young man interested me then.
“Come in,” said I, more cordially, and he walked into the hallway.
“Have you ever written the score for an opera?” I inquired.
“No,” said he, shifting on his feet uneasily, “but I –”
“Ah, I thought not. I’m afraid that –”
“Did you ever write a libretto?” he interrupted.
“N — no. But I –”
“Ah, I thought not. But there’s no reason why you can’t, or why I can’t write the music,” he suggested easily.
“Take off your coat,” said I, “and come into the library. Your name is?”
“Tietjens. Paul Tietjens. I’ve come from St Louis to do this work with you,” he explained.
I thought it over for a moment. The idea seemed good, and I wondered I had never thought of it myself. Doubtless I could dramatize my book if I set about it, and the extravaganza suggestion caught my fancy at once.
But my visitor was wholly unknown to me, and I hazarded a question as to his musical accomplishments. For answer, he sat down at the piano and began to play. It was a minuet, a delicate, dreamy morceau, so dainty in conception, so rippling with melody that I drew a long breath when the last sweet notes died away. It was afterward the famous “Poppy Chorus” in the “Wizard of Oz.”
Now, while the 1939 movie adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” generally followed the story as Baum had written it, the Broadway version diverged pretty significantly from the original storytelling — no Munchkins, no witches of the East nor West, no flying monkeys, no Toto (!).
Instead there was Dorothy’s pet cow, Imogene; a poet; an anarchist, a waitress… you get the idea.
In part these modifications (written in by Baum himself!) were due to the nature of stage shows and musicals of the time. In the early 1900s, the musical format as we know it today — where we expect songs to flow with the storyline — did not exist yet.
The original “Wizard of Oz” story structure presented on Broadway was more a loose underpinning for the vaudevillian, variety-show style of production that audiences favored.
That means there were songs, jokes and references to current events that had absolutely nothing to do with the story, and they would even change from year to year. As bizarre as this all may seem, the original Wizard of Oz stage musical was as beloved and iconic to audiences then as “Over the Rainbow” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” later became to moviegoers.
So much so, in fact, that the decision by the studio to write an entirely different set of songs for the movie version was very controversial to fans of the stage production. When details of the upcoming film were announced in 1938, famous gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, had this criticism:
“Why do the film companies buy old musical favorites and then disregard the songs that have already proved popular with the public?”
Talk about a quote not aging well! We can only hope that after the film premiered she gave it a chance and was as impressed by the technicolor dreamscape — and updated score — as the rest of us…