Following The Yellow Brick Road with Author/Historian John Fricke
by Jack Pearson
In 1939 one of the most beloved motion pictures of all time, “The Wizard of Oz,” was created. Based on a children’s book by L. Frank Baum, the movie made a superstar out of a chubby, 16-year-old whose name had just been changed from Frances Gumm to Judy Garland.

Some years later, a young boy in Milwaukee saw the movie and became entranced with the whole story (and especially Garland) that he bought the book and read it over and over. His name is John Fricke. Today, he is the world’s premier author/historian on anything and everything having to do with “The Wizard of Oz” and Judy Garland; and among an unbelievable array of activities, he has written five excellent books on them, with a sixth on the way.

Fricke, who has lived in New York for 37 years, returns home to Milwaukee on a regular basis, primarily to be with and care for his mother, Dorothy.

I was introduced to Fricke during his most recent visit by a mutual friend, Paul Schramka. Paul knew John’s father, the late Wally Fricke, very well. Wally was a star athlete at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, earning a total of 10 letters in three sports: basketball, football and track. Later, Wally and Paul were teammates in the old Milwaukee Industrial Baseball League.

Dorothy Fricke now lives in the San Camillo senior living apartments in Milwaukee. “That brings up another commendable quality John has,” Schramka noted. “Despite his very busy schedule and living so far away, he comes back to Milwaukee regularly, almost every month of the year, to visit and help care for his mother.”

“Besides those five books and the one on the way,” Schramka says, “John has been involved in a multitude of Broadway, Hollywood and television projects about the movie and Judy Garland. There are four huge Oz festivals conducted every year throughout the country, and John is either a consultant and/or featured speaker at each of them. And all the fame he has attained hasn’t changed him a bit. He’s just as nice a guy now as he was as a kid back here in Milwaukee.”

Fricke was the recipient of a 2004 Emmy Award for serving as the co-producer of the two hour PBS American Masters program, “Judy Garland: By Myself.” It was his second recognition by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He won similar honors in 1997 as co-producer and writer of the Arts and Entertainment special, “Judy: Beyond the Rainbow,” which was based on his book, Judy Garland: World’s Greatest Entertainer.

His most recent book about her, Judy Garland: A Portrait in Art and Anecdote, was published in 2003 and includes a forward by Judy’s daughter, Lorna Luft. Although there have been more than 40 books written about Judy Garland by a host of writers, this was the only time that either of her daughters, Luft or Liza Minnelli, had ever participated in any of them. Fricke is also the author of the acclaimed centennial summation of the entire Oz phenomenon, 100 Years of Oz, as well as the book, The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History. For the 70th year of the movie’s issuance, in 2009, he co-authored The Wizard of Oz, and wrote its coffee table book introduction. Two years ago, he was a part of the production team that produced the sold out Boston Pops event, “Judy Garland in Concert.” The show is now booked internationally.

These are just a few of the almost countless Broadway and Hollywood productions as well as television and record industry salutes to Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz that Fricke has participated in. In addition to his five books, he has written many articles in top national publications.

Added to all this, he served for many years as president of the huge Wizard of Oz Club, and contributed regularly to its magazine, “The Baum Bugle.”

Besides his involvement with the memory of Judy Garland and the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” John has also had a long and successful career as a singer.

“Long, yes, I’ll go along with that,” he said with a little chuckle. “I just turned 60, and would you believe I’ve been singing before the public ever since I was two years old? It’s true. But successful? Not wildly successful, to be sure. I’ve never attained anywhere near the fame as have any of the big names. But it’s been a career that has been very good and rewarding to me. I’ve sung basically where and when I wanted; I’ve seen a good portion of the world aboard the finest luxury liners afloat; I’ve met and known some truly wonderful people; and I’ve always had a great time. What more could anyone ask for?”

Fricke has been a featured performer on many of Cunard’s premier ocean liners, including the Queen Elizabeth 2. He has been a headliner at the Rainbow Room and the Town Hall in New York City, as well as many other top cabaret venues there and elsewhere. He has sung at the posh MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and he has been a hit in countless one-man pop concerts across the country.

John verified that statement he had made earlier about being only two when he first sung before the public. “Originally we lived in a small apartment near a grocery store,” he said. “Even as a two-year-old I loved to watch and listen to television, and especially the commercials. I’d try to sing along with them. Then when my mother went food shopping at that store, she’d always take me along. The store manager knew us, and he’d take me by the hand and walk down the aisles, pointing out different products that had appeared in commercials, and I’d burst into song. From what I’ve been told later, the other customers always gave me a big hand.”

After graduation from John Marshall HS, John got a job working at the old Melody Top Theater in Milwaukee in its advertising department. “I knew even then that I wanted to be in theatrical work,” he said. He had already earned a scholarship to attend Northwestern University in Evanston. His major there was in journalism. “My parents, Dottie and Wally, had a hand in that. They told me I might not always get the work or the part I wanted, but that if I could write, I’d always be wanted. They knew what they were talking about.”

John spoke about the time when he met his idol, Judy Garland. “I was still in my teens,” he said. “She was performing at a theater in Chicago, and we met backstage. She was as gracious and warm as I had imagined. I’d always read that she was that way with all her fans, with the stage hands, the cleaning staff, everyone. She was a unique, exceptional individual.” but by the time John had started writing about her, he could no longer interview her. She was gone. Judy Garland died in 1969. One of the world’s greatest entertainers was dead at age 47. I asked John if he thought Garland had gone back to Oz. He smiled. “To paraphrase Hemingway, ‘wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.’”

John Fricke is full of vitality and enthusiasm, and offers wonderful stories about Broadway and Hollywood, and especially about “The Wizard of Oz” and Judy Garland. Usually when I conduct an interview, I feel I’ve gathered enough material after a half hour or so and am ready to be on my way. Not so with Fricke; I could have chatted with him for hours.

Here are some of the trivia, and some of the myths we talked about:

Trivia item number one: Frank Morgan played five different roles in “The Wizard of Oz;” six, if you count two separate roles in portraying the Wizard.

Trivia item number two: Dorothy’s three pals in the movie, the scarecrow, the tin man and the cowardly lion, were played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr. Bolger was originally supposed to play the tin man, and Buddy Ebsen was originally supposed to play the scarecrow. Bolger asked to play the scarecrow instead, and the two then switched. But when Ebsen got violently sick breathing in the aluminum dust in his tinman makeup and had to be hospitalized, Jack Haley replaced him. Later in the movie when the three of them were singing, it was Ebsen’s voice that was used for the tin man, not Haley’s.

Trivia item number three: The wonderful song, “Over the Rainbow,” was nearly cut out of the movie. The movie when it was originally shot ran for over two hours, and some studio heads thought this was too long. So they looked over parts to cut out. One excellent dance number with Bolger and Garland was chopped out, and then the part where Garland sings the song. Wiser heads eventually prevailed, and it was restored. What a huge mistake it could have been. “Over the Rainbow” has since been voted as the greatest song from a motion picture, from any era.

Myth number one: Residents of Oconomowoc, and especially its Chamber of Commerce, like to say that the World Premiere of “The Wizard of Oz” took place in Oconomowoc on August 12, 1939. “A premiere took place there on that date, but it was not the only one and it was not the first,” Fricke said. It seems that the MGM’s promotion department decided that instead of having a giant World Premiere for the movie out in Hollywood, they would instead have several premieres in small cities across the country, all on August 11 and 12. Since the Oconomowoc premiere was on the 12th, several others preceded it. “Actually, I’m just as guilty as anyone on this issue,” Fricke said. “In my first book I had written about the world premiere of the movie as being in Oconomowoc. I should have included the other premieres as well. I guess I was misinformed, as Bogie said in “Casablanca.”

Myth number two: Little Shirley Temple was the first choice to play the lead in “The Wizard of Oz,” not Judy Garland. “This is also a tale that has been warped through the passage of time,” Fricke said. “Judy Garland was always the number one choice for the role of Dorothy in the movie. At one point, before actual work on the picture had begun, some studio exec had suggested that they should consider Shirley Temple for the part, since she was then the number one box office attraction in the US and thus could help popularize the picture. That suggestion, I won’t call it idiotic even though it was, was quickly shot down when it was pointed out that Shirley wasn’t a singer. Can you imagine anyone other than Judy Garland in the role? It would be akin to having someone other than Clark Gable play the role of Rhett Butler in ‘Gone With the Wind.’”

So now, the next time you see a re-run of “The Wizard of Oz,” check how many different parts Frank Morgan plays. Or try to imagine Shirley Temple singing “Over the Rainbow.” But of course to truly appreciate it, you’d have to see it through the eyes of John Fricke, which obviously you can’t do. However, you can read his books, which will give you a very good insight.
© 2011