On the broadsheet front page of the Aug. 11, 1939, Oconomowoc Enterprise, sandwiched between stories on golf semifinals and a tax bill in the Legislature, are two paragraphs announcing the "first world showing of 'The Wizard of Oz' at the Strand Theatre," a five-day run beginning that night.
Not Hollywood. Not New York City. Not Chicago. Oconomowoc.
The article glows about the "stupendous" adaptation from L. Frank Baum's children's book and grandly concludes, "It is difficult to see how this story could possibly have been made without all of the perfection in color, sound, music, etc. of 1939."
In the back pages of the newspaper, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) advertisement for the movie brags, "Everything you have heard is true. It is the greatest magic film ever to be made."
Seventy years later, as the classic film's opening credits put it, "Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion."
Oconomowoc is marking the anniversary of the premiere on Thursday, Aug. 13, with an outdoor showing of "The Wizard of Oz" on a 40-foot inflatable screen on Wisconsin Avenue, next to the parking lot where the Strand used to be. Locally run Moonlit Movies is organizing the block party, complete with a Wicked Witch dunk tank, a Toto look-alike contest and many other attractions along the main drag of this town of 14,000 about an hour east of Madison.
Oconomowoc's Strand Theatre was one of three small-town movie theaters across the country where "Oz" premiered in the days prior to its official Hollywood opening on Aug. 15, 1939.
"It was called a soft-market test," said Craig Pruscha, the main promoter behind Moonlit Movies. MGM execs had thrown an enormous $2.7 million into the production and, worried that they had a flop on their hands, sought to test its profitability among mainstream American audiences. Oconomowoc wasn't an entirely random choice: Meinhardt Raabe, coroner of Munchkinland, graduated from nearby Watertown High School, and composer Herbert Stothart, who won an Oscar for his "Oz" score, grew up in Milwaukee.
It's possible that one of the other two test sites - Kenosha and a town in Massachusetts - screened the film a day earlier, but Oconomowoc is the only one to lay claim and embrace the world premiere as its own.
To commemorate the historical significance, the town is unveiling a granite pedestal designed by local illustrator Justin Hutter. Pruscha has many downtown businesses involved in Thursday's event, as well. He hopes it will be a shot in the arm to the city, which recently suffered economically due to a mandatory construction project that tore up most of the downtown - hurting local businesses.
Nancy Rentmeester was 21 years old and working in Milwaukee in the summer of '39, but came home to Oconomowoc on weekends and remembers going to see "Oz" at the Strand on one of those hot August nights 70 years ago.
Now 91, Rentmeester still was able to describe the event during a recent interview in her living room in Oconomowoc.
The theater was decorated specially for "Oz" with flag pennants and "big pictures of the stars," she said. After shows at the Strand, she and her date would usually go across the street to a drug store for a "Tin Roof" - a chocolate sundae with peanuts sprinkled on top.
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Baum's "Oz" series were her favorite books growing up and she loved seeing the Cowardly Lion and other characters brought to life on the big screen. Although she's watched it again and again over the years on television, she's not sure it translates for each passing generation.
"I don't know if my grandchildren would watch it. I don't know if it's cool enough for them. Maybe my great-grandchildren will," she said, gesturing to their toys on her coffee table. "Maybe they'll read the 'Oz' books."
The Oconomowoc she remembers is not the sleepy, backward town she says many people today imagine it to have been. Even though it was small, the Blatz and Pabst families lived nearby, and rich Chicagoans vacationed in the area.
"We were quite cosmopolitan," she said.
It was certainly up-to-date when it came to films.
"Oconomowoc was a plum as far as movies. We would open, for the most part, day and date with Milwaukee," Ruthie Huebner said in a 1993 interview with history aficionado Chuck Herro. Huebner, whose family owned the Strand until television and changing movie-going habits forced it to close in the 1950s, has since passed away. Her mother-in-law played the organ between screenings at the Strand.
Herro still has the interview on tape. In his late 80s and still practicing law in downtown Oconomowoc, he's another one of the few residents who attended the 1939 "Oz" premiere. But being an "ancient lawyer of a cynical nature," he says the hoopla surrounding the 70th anniversary of "The Wizard of Oz" is overblown, at least from a historical perspective.
A fresh high school graduate in '39, he enjoyed "Oz" but said the politics of the time were more important. The Great Depression still had many in its grip, and the United States' entry into World War II loomed only a few months off.
"Oz" took people's minds off all of that for a couple of hours.
"Virtually everyone came to see it. We spread from the kids in grade school to people in their 80s. Everybody was whistling 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,'" he said.
To the generation after Herro and Rentmeester, "Oz" is simply a magical movie.
Pruscha, the Moonlit Movies organizer, said the "big climactic moment" in the film that sticks with him is when Dorothy steps out of sepia-colored Kansas into the Technicolor Land of Oz. Even kids today, who might think they were watching "a nasty mom and grandma movie," suddenly light up.
"I've watched it every year. It's a family tradition," Pruscha said. "I probably know the movie by heart. It has staying power."