Ask almost anyone about "The Wizard of Oz" and they immediately recount their favorite scene or the first time they watched it during childhood. I remember seeing the movie year after year with my mom and my two sisters in Brooklyn, New York, always eagerly anticipating my favorite scene when Dorothy clicks the heels of her fabulous ruby red slippers and says, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home."
Of course, like millions, the Wicked Witch gave me nightmares. But did you know, trivia lovers, that the witch was originally cast as a beautiful sequined siren played by actress Gale Sondergaard? When it was ultimately decided the character needed to be an ugly witch, Sondergaard stepped out and Margaret Hamilton stepped in.
At a celebration at New York's Tavern on the Green which was transformed into Emerald City, I had the true privilege of interviewing three surviving munchkins and Judy Garland's daughter, singer and actress Lorna Luft.
Remember the members of the Lollipop Guild who present Dorothy with an enormous lollipop, singing, "We wish to welcome you to munchkinland"? One of those munchkins, 89-year-old Jerry Maren, said he was blown away his first day on the set. "I had never seen a little person before and my God, I was in my glory, meeting eye to eye to everybody," he told us before walking the yellow brick carpet outside Tavern on the Green.
Margaret Pelligrini, who recently turned 86, had two roles, as one of the munchkins with a flowerpot on her head, and as one of the sleepyheads who sings, "Wake up the wicked witch is dead." She remembers how Garland was so excited to have her own dressing trailer that she invited all 124 munchkins inside and ultimately gave every munchkin an 8 x 10 photo of herself. "Mine says, 'to Margaret, from your pal Judy.' I still have it today," she told producer Matt Lombardi and myself.
94-year-old Meinhardt Raabe had one of the most famous lines in the movie, announcing the death of the Wicked Witch. "She's not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead," he said, repeating his line from the movie which the Library of Congress declared to be the most watched film of all time.
About that Wicked Witch, Luft says her mom had a hard time pretending to be afraid of Margaret Hamilton. "Because Margaret Hamilton was such a lovely woman and she was so nice and so sweet and they would try and have tea on the set and Margaret's green makeup would fall in the tea and it all became sort of a disaster," she told us.
Luft revealed another little known behind-the-scenes nugget but I was hesitating to reveal it, fearing it might spoil the beloved movie for some of you.
So, how about this? First, a disclosure. If you don't want to know the little fun fact, stop reading now and come back to "Couric & Co." very soon.
But if you want to know, move on to the next paragraph. It concerns the beloved dog, Toto, according to Luft.
"It's sort of sad but she did happen to tell me that the dog did have a problem with its breath and that the dog did need an altoid every once in awhile," Luft said as she started to laugh. "And when the dog would be in her face, it was sort of hard because her eyes would water so we would laugh at that."
In honor of the 70th anniversary of the movie billed as the greatest fantasy film of all time, Warner Brothers pulled out the old negatives and created a higher resolution, higher definition version so now you can see the actual freckles on Dorothy's face, the burlap in the scarecrow's costume and the rivets in the tin man's costume.
"The finite detail in the costumes and the scenery, most of that was lost," said Ned Price, Vice President of Technical Operations for Warner Brothers. "So we get a much cleaner, sharper and much better color imagery."
Happy Anniversary "Wizard of Oz!"
As a mom with two little girls three and under, I can't wait to watch them experience "The Wizard of Oz" for the very first time and see once again how the timeless appeal of Dorothy and her merry friends from Oz, which delighted past generations, will delight generations still to come.