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Hello, Yellow Brick Road: The Night the Grant Park Orchestra Played Up a Storm

A threat of severe storms dissipated the evening of July 10. Yet a cinematic tornado blew through the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park… and the band played on.

The setting was the Grant Park Music Festival’s showing of the 1939 movie classic The Wizard of Oz on the giant HD screen, with the Grant Park Orchestra playing the legendary score. The seating bowl and lawn were packed with an audience that laughed at the jokes, cheered at the heroics of Dorothy’s little dog Toto and the watery demise of the Wicked Witch of the West, and maybe mouthed the words as Judy Garland’s Dorothy sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

There were wrinkles that were new for many attendees. Few likely had experienced the score literally taking center stage as it was played by the orchestra, somehow without overwhelming the songs and dialogue on-screen. The film has not been in general release for decades, so for those whose previous acquaintance with the Land of Oz was on television, it was the first time viewing it in all its big-screen glory.

Still, why does a movie that is 80 years old — and based on a book written by L. Frank Baum, then a Chicago newspaperman, in 1900 — still feel so fresh and current? The answer to that has multiple layers that go beyond simple movie magic.

Start with the fact that this movie was so groundbreaking. I couldn’t help but think, as I watched, that my mother would have been 93 the day after the July 10 presentation, and wonder what it must have been like for her if, as likely, she first saw the movie as a 13-year-old girl.

“Talking pictures” were just a little more than a decade old when Garland, then just 17 herself, sang her way into history. Color film had only recently been perfected when Dorothy, at the end of the black-and-white Kansas sequence that opened the movie, threw open the door of her tornado-transported house into the eye-popping colors of Munchkinland and Oz.

The set designs beautifully reflect the Art Deco style that was so prominent in its era. The special effects, including the truly frightening tornado in the film’s early minutes and Glinda the Good Witch emerging seamlessly from a floating pink bubble, were extraordinary for the time.

Moreover, the characters — Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Wicked Witch, Glinda, Auntie Em, and Toto, too — and songs such as “Somewhere Over The Rainbow;” “If I Only Had a Brain;”  “Follow the Yellow Brick Road;” “We’re Off to See the Wizard;” and “Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead,” are permanently fixed in the fabric of American culture. So are the ruby slippers, the Emerald City, flying monkeys, and snippets of the movie’s dialogue like…

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”

“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.”

“Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my!”

“Surrender, Dorothy!”

“I’m melting! Oh, what a world.”

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Popular culture is peppered with references to The Wizard of Oz, whether it’s the Broadway musicals The Wiz and Wicked, or songs such as Elton John’s “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” and America’s “(Oz Never Did Give Nothing to the) Tin Man.”

Many academics who have expounded on the writings of L. Frank Baum also discern a streak of political and social satire, which is reflected in some of the humorous barbs in the movie The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy first meets the Scarecrow along the Yellow Brick Road, she is puzzled by how he can speak if he doesn’t have a brain. The Scarecrow replies, “I don’t know. But some people without brains do quite a bit of talking.”

The Wizard of Oz takes a similar tack when he presents the Scarecrow with a diploma instead of the brain he desired. “Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers,” the Wizard says. “And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have.”

And what could be more current than a story about a charlatan who gains power through a historical accident and uses technology-driven lies, bluster and misdirection to cover his ineptitude and keep his followers in his thrall? It’s almost uncannily prescient.

Finally, we may not be in Kansas anymore, but the Grant Park Music Festival consistently reminds us that Dorothy Gale was right. There’s no place like home. Especially when home is Chicago in the summer.

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