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THE WIZARD OF OZ: SUMMER CINEMA MAGIC AT LEXINGTON’S KENTUCKY THEATER By RICK BALDWIN

“I’m caught in a dream so what you don’t know what I’m goin’ through,
I’m right in between so I’ll just play along with you ”—Alice Cooper

With every new chapter of one’s life, new opportunities, experiences, and sites are to be seized.  While venturing around my new town and its surrounding area within the past week, my middle son from my beloved Baldwin brood and I had the privilege of attending a screening for the Summer Classic Series hosted by the historic Kentucky Theater in Lexington, KY.  Operating since 1922, The Kentucky Theater is one of the last few gems of movie palaces in the states from yesteryear.  A night on the town to take in a picture show used to be a big deal.  Unfortunately, that sentiment has almost become extinct.  The art of filmmaking and storytelling, are not appreciated by the majority as they once were.  It’s a shame, as most youth now despise old black & white movies, need instant visual gratification, and for as much texting they do-can’t talk their way out of a wet paper bag.  Luckily, my kids are cinephiles in training and see the importance of film as a historical statement of where society was and are presently in regards to its topical commentary.

The viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief is imperative to inviting the intended movie magic to occur.  I was witness to his occurrence, when I gazed upon my six year as his inquisitive eyes gleamed when walking into the Kentucky Theater.   The old Hollywood nostalgia, the pristine marble floors, and the attention to detail lovingly crafted towards the architecture inside and out were very special for the senses to take in.  We entered the theater as an organist played, making this feel like an event rather than just a screening.  When was the last time you heard an organist entertain a waiting audience before the latest Ryan Reynolds slop?   You won’t, Hollywood just runs a cash & grab operation, and showmanship has died off years ago.  Sad state of affairs indeed.  The lights went dim, and applause from every walk of life seated in this lovely theater started to erupt, as today’s award winning feature, The Wizard of Oz (1939), proceeded to work its magic.

Welcome to Kansas!  You won’t be staying here long.  We meet farm girl, Dorothy, the tragic Judy Garland of A Star is Born (1954), and her trusty sidekick Toto.  The duo live on their Aunt Em, Clara Bandick of She-Wolf of London (1946) and Uncle Henry’s, Charley Grapewin of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), busy farm.  Dorothy, restless and absentminded like all teenagers at times, inadvertently starts a turf war with her witch of a neighbor, Miss Gulch, Margaret Hamilton of 13 Ghosts (1960), after Toto bites her.  The pooch has a good sense of character. Miss Gulch arrives on the family farm, with a sheriff’s order in tow to have Toto put down for the count due to his “viciousness.”  The witch takes Toto, before he escapes returning home to the severely distraught Dorothy.  Dorothy, scared that Miss Gulch will return for her canine companion, decides to pack up her travelling basket and the two skedaddle from home.

Early into their great escape, they meet the travelling carnie, conman Professor Marvel, Frank Morgan of The Three Musketeers (1948).  Marvel, quick to the 411 on Dorothy’s domestic situation, creates a tall tale with the help of his crystal ball, which Aunt Em is dying from a broken heart due to Dorothy’s disappearance.  Dorothy falling for Marvel’s guilt trip, decides she must get back home just as a tornado is brewing.  Dorothy races home as the twister gets closer failing to find shelter in the storm cellar where her family and three farmhands are bunkered down.  Dorothy seeks safety in her bedroom next to a giant window that becomes unhinged and pops her in the head.  The projectile of pane sends Dorothy into a Technicolor trip of strange encounters with exaggerated fantastical doppelgangers from her normal everyday life.

Dorothy awakes in her dream, with the house spinning, images from her conscious & subconscious psyche battling it out, before landing with a thump.  Dorothy, quick to assess the situation, opens her bedroom door which now leads to the colorful Munchkinland.  Upon her arrival, Dorothy is lauded a heroine due to her house landing on the Wicked Witch of the East who was apparently terrorizing our little friends.  Dorothy after much hoopla and fanfare by the Munchkin community, threats from the Wicked East of the Witch (Hamilton in green makeup and reminds me of the Alice Cooper album cover, Goes to Hell [1976]), decides she just wants to get back to Kansas after receiving guidance from Glinda the Good Witch of the North, Billie Burke of Topper (1937).

Dorothy, with her new red ruby slippers that appeared on her feet after killing the East Coast Witch, and wanted by the West Coast Witch, starts easin’ down the yellow brick road to meet the Wizard of Oz as he is the only figure in all of the land that can return her home.  Dorothy and Toto make the long journey before being accompanied by the Scarecrow in need of a brain, Ray Bolger of Babes in Toyland (1961), the Tin Man in yearning for a heart, Jack Haley of Norwood (1970), and the Cowardly Lion who is in desperate need of courage, Bert Lahr of Mister Universe (1951).

The gang skip and sing their way through Oz to the Emerald City readying themselves for their rendezvous with the Wiz, after encountering angry apple throwing trees, more threats from the Witch, and poppy fields (no comment there).  The only comment I can make is that I kept recasting the troupe in my head and I had Depp as the Scarecrow, Ray Liotta as the Tin Man, DeNiro as the Lion.  Back on track.  They arrive, are initially pampered, see the Wizard (his theatrics & effects would have looked great in my bedroom during high school) who agrees to grant their wishes when they bring him the Witch of the West’s broom.  What a bummer, and this is before Google, Spokeo, and having a GPS to track down this crazy witch.

The wacky bunch hike through the Haunted Forest enroute to the Witch’s castle.  The Witch has the first Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) feed via her crystal ball, watching their every step as she tracks their whereabouts.  The Witch sends her army/air corps of blue & well-dressed flying monkeys to capture Dorothy and ambush her friends.  At the castle, the Witch wanting the red ruby slippers that belonged to her dead sister from the East, fails to covet the fancy footwear and is zapped by some magical barrier that only be lifted upon Dot’s death, which is determined by a giant hourglass.  Toto escapes again, I guess Oz and Kansas don’t have leash laws, and leads her three friends to the castle.  After defeating three of the Witch’s Guards (who really like to sing “Frayed Ends of Sanity” from Metallica while they march), steal their uniforms, and sneak into the castle freeing Dorothy.

The gig is up, as the guards and Witch trap our heroes. The Witch, irate and tired of all this unneeded drama, sets fire to the Scarecrow and Dorothy, quick to act, splashes a bucket of water onto the flames which hits the Witch, resulting in the old battle-axe to melt. The Witch’s henchmen, so happy that the Witch is dead, rumor is their healthcare plan was dismal, rejoice their employer is now nonexistent handing over the broom to Dorothy.

That’s enough spoilers if you have been living under a rock for the past 76 years and haven’t seen this classic.  If you haven’t, you MUST view The Wizard of Oz, based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful World of Oz.  This is part of your classic cinema homework that has become the benchmark for fantasy, musicals, and ingrained in contemporary pop culture proving the point that Oz still relevant today as it was back in 1939.

The fragile state of youth becoming damaged due to environment, media, and societal shifts in values are more prevalent today than there were back in a much simpler time before our involvement in World War II.  The Kentucky Theater has helped restore the much needed bliss and innocence that is lacking at your local Sineplex full of tired superhero fare, sexual innuendoed kid’s flicks, coupled with lazy storytelling.  The Kentucky Theater’s screenings are packed houses full of kids, parents, teens (some dressing as Dorothy & the Scarecrow), seniors and film lovers. They applauded at the beginning & at ending credits, cheered at Toto’s escapes, laughed at the jokes, and were all mesmerized at the magic that surrounded them for 101 minutes of Fritz Lang’s take on Oz.

The overall experience was very nice for me as it was the first time I was lucky to see Oz on the big screen in such a special place, Oz originally appeared on CBS on my mother’s date of birth, and I got to share the reliving of innocence & joy through my son’s eyes.  Isn’t that what we all of strive for anyway?  We reach adulthood and a majority of us lose that spark of fantasy, wonder, and innocence.  When you lose your spark, it takes a longtime to find your path home, and as Dorothy simply put it, “There’s no place like home.”  The Kentucky Theater will be by new home this summer.

If you are in Lexington, please feel free to drop by The Kentucky Theater or check them out at

http://www.kentuckytheater.com/

 

 

 

 

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