MILWAUKEE — “The Wizard of OZ” premiered 80 years ago this month in Milwaukee. As fans the world over celebrate the anniversary, several Wisconsin cities boast an important role in the film’s 1939 release. Fourteen cities showed the film before it premiered in Hollywood, and eight of them were here in Wisconsin.
In August, Oconomowoc doubled down on its claim to be first to screen the film, August 12, 1939. John Fricke is a Milwaukee native, and the foremost expert on “The Wizard of Oz.” Fricke authored the official 50th anniversary book on OZ. At the time of the book’s writing, that was the earliest known premiere.
Fricke’s research has since turned up other, earlier screenings, including Green bay on August 10th, and Appleton, Kenosha, and Oshkosh on August 11th. Frike said Racine, Rhinelander, and Sheboygan falls also had August releases. The film did not show in Milwaukee until September 1.
How come? “Such smaller towns were considered likely locales from which MGM could gauge family and general audience reaction to OZ,” Fricke explained. “At that point, it was too late to further edit the movie for it’s looming bookings in major cities, but local reaction in the lesser venues was considered useful as a means of – if necessary – revising a movie’s ad campaign and possibly doing any other edits for the all-important (and countless) villages where OZ would play through the autumn.”
Fricke added, the studios at the time liked summer vacation spots, so audiences would return to larger cities and talk up the films they’d seen, ahead of them arriving.
The pictures included, are an image Fricke provided from the Milwaukee Journal’s September 1, 1939 edition promoting the OZ release. The other, is Fricke at a Mayfair Mall book signing with TODAY’S TMJ4’s Vince Vitrano, his brother Nick and sister Emily. Vitrano’s grandfather, John Schimenz, worked with Fricke’s father at Falk Corporation.