70 Years Ago Today, Wizard of Oz Had World Premiere in Area

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  • A Wizard of Oz poster. | Photo: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A groundbreaking movie that some may consider the most popular and greatest in the history of the cinema didn't hit a theater in Hollywood or New York, but in the western Milwaukee suburb of Oconomowoc.

"It's a fact we take pride in," said Craig Pruscha on 620WTMJ's "Wisconsin's Morning News."  He founded Moonlit Movies - a group re-showing the movie Thursday night in Downtown Oconomowoc.

The amazing fact is, MGM didn't take much pride in a movie which they thought might be a bust, so they decided upon Oconomowoc instead of the big red carpet treatment in Tinseltown.

"Oconomowoc was one of three locations that was selected to be a soft marketing launch for the world premiere in 1939," explained Pruscha. Kenosha was another soft launch site chosen.

Craig Pruscha on 620WTMJ's "Wisconsin's Morning News"

Moonlit Movies

"Of course, 1939 was the golden era of movies. We were up against Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din, Hunchback of Notre Dame, a whole bunch of great movies came out that year. In MGM's opinion, after investing $2.7 million into the Wizard of Oz, that it might be a failure, so they were looking to do a few soft launches a few days prior to showing it at the Grauman Theater in L.A., and in New York City, so it's something we take a lot of pride in."

MGM movie makers took pride, however, in the fact this was a groundbreaking film in using color, and that helped sell the movie to the public.

"When she opened the door and she was in the land of Oz, that's something that impacted the world at that time," said Craig. "That probably was what instilled it to be one of the classic movies of all time."

It helped Oconomowoc's cause to be come the host that not only was it near major cities like Milwaukee and Chicago, but two major players in the movie called the area home.

"Meinhart Raabe, obviously, the munchkin that played the coroner in the Wizard of Oz, declaring the Witch was dead, he's right from outside of Oconomowoc. Herbert Stothart (the writer of the Academy Award-winning score) was from Milwaukee and had a lake home in Okauchee."

People who attended the first showing seventy years ago tell Craig they remember what it was like the first time.

"We have some people in Oconomowoc that were actually there, remember going to the movie. Obviously, the movie instilled all sorts of awe, especially when it went from black and white to color, and the Technicolor hits the screen. I think they realized at that point they had something."

Now, to celebrate the event, Moonlit Movies is holding a special re-showing of the film.

They'll hold it by using an inflatable 40-foot screen at Oconomowoc's City Hall with the movie beginning at 8:30 p.m.

Before then, starting at 5:30 p.m., is a festival surrounding the film with free activities, live music, a yellow brick road interactive area, and even a dunk tank with the Wicked Witch of the West.

The event will benefit the Oconomowoc Fire Department and the Oconomowoc Food Pantry.