Walt's Journey to Oz

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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Samuel Goldwyn acquired the rights to make a film version of The Wizard of Oz in January 1934 for approximately $60,000. He was planning it as a vehicle for his popular comic actor Eddie Cantor. Basically, Cantor would “dream” his way to the merry old land of Oz and participate in some lively modern musical numbers and comedy.

Then, the film world was turned upside down in 1938.

Walt Disney’s gamble on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released December 1937, paid off big with $8.5 million dollars that first year, making it the highest-grossing Hollywood film of all time. That record breaking gross would be broken two years later with the release of Gone With the Wind.

Anticipating the film’s success, Walt had already tried to negotiate for the rights to properties like the Uncle Remus stories, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. He was not necessarily looking for his next film project but to keep these stories out of the hands of competitors. He had earlier opened discussions with Baum’s widow, Maud, concerning the copyright status of the stories and the possibility of obtaining the rights.

It was Louis B. Mayer at MGM who later bought the rights from Goldwyn for $75,000. There was a discussion about bringing in Walt Disney as a consultant on the classic film. It was the success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that influenced the legendary MGM movie The Wizard of Oz being made as Hollywood studios rushed to option similar musical fantasies and enjoy a similar big box office bonanza.

In the late 1930s, Ruth Plumly Thompson, who went on to write 21 more novels about Oz after the death of Baum, worked at the same time as an editor at the David McKay Company, ghost writing some of the Disney-related hardcover books, including one where she received a writing credit: Peculiar Penguins (1934). Reportedly, Thompson contacted Roy O. Disney about the possibility of the Disney Studios adapting some of her Oz stories as animated cartoons, but Mrs. Baum did not support this proposal.

Walt kept thinking about the many possibilities of the rich characters and settings of the land of Oz. On November 16, 1954, he purchased the rights to 11 of the 14 Oz books from L. Frank Baum’s son Robert S. Baum (who was in charge of the estate of his mother, Maud Gage Baum, who had died in 1953).

These books included Ozma of Oz, The Road to Oz, The Emerald City of Oz, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, Tik-Tok of Oz, The Scarecrow of Oz, Rinkitink in Oz, The Lost Princess of Oz, The Tin Woodman of Oz, The Magic of Oz and Glinda of Oz.

It was a timely purchase for Walt, since the classic MGM film The Wizard of Oz was first broadcast on CBS television two years later on November 3, 1956, stirring up new interest in the film and the world of Oz. More than 44 million viewers enjoyed that televised showing. The first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz entered into public domain in 1956 sparking many new editions from a variety of publishers.

Also in 1956, Disney released the live-action feature Westward Ho the Wagons! that featured several of Disney's Mouseketeers (Karen Pendleton, Cubby O'Brien, Doreen Tracy, and Tommy Cole) in small supporting roles in the lackluster Western. Walt started to look at another film project where he might use the talents of some of the Mouseketeers. The marvelous land of Oz and its many colorful characters seemed to be a viable option.

Walt acquired the rights to another of the Baum books, Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz from Lippert Pictures (that produced films like Rocketship X-M and King Dinosaur) in 1956 at a cost that nearly equaled the purchase price of the other 11 book titles combined. Walt wanted to prevent another studio from rushing into production a low-budget film that might hurt Walt’s plans for an Oz film.

Walt’s original intention was to produce the Oz film as a two-part episode for his weekly television show and then combine the two parts for a theatrical release. Walt developed other projects, like Johnny Tremain (1957), in the same manner that allowed him to justify increased production costs.

In April 1957, Dorothy Cooper was hired by the Disney Studios to write a story outline for the two-part television show to be titled Dorothy Returns To Oz utilizing material from the Oz books. This assignment evolved into a full screenplay titled The Rainbow Road to Oz, based primarily on the book The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Cooper finished the screenplay in August 1957.

Cooper (along with fellow screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley) wrote her first screenplay, the MGM musical A Date With Judy, in 1948, followed by four more MGM musicals. In the 1950s, Cooper began to write for television, including the pilot script and many award-winning episodes for Father Knows Best in 1954, three years before the Disney project.

In October 1956, she married Dr. Robert Foote, so technically she was Dorothy Cooper Foote. (The University of South Dakota has all her papers from her long career if anyone wants to try to do further research to see if they include any more information on her work on The Rainbow Road to Oz. She passed away in 2004.)

Even as Cooper was writing the screenplay, Walt realized that in order to truly do justice to the material, it had to be expanded from just a television project and upgraded to a feature film, just as he had done with Johnny Tremain. Officially, the Disney Studios made the announcement to the newspapers on July 24, 1957 that it would be Walt Disney’s first multimillion dollar live action musical feature film. Filming was scheduled to begin in November.

Boxoffice Magazine for September 14, 1957, listed the planned Buena Vista releases for 1957 including: “The Rainbow Road to Oz, Disney’s first live-action musical with an all-star cast, including the most popular of the talented and famous Mouseketeers.”

Walt intended to cast Mickey Mouse Club performers Annette Funicello, Darlene Gillespie, Bobby Burgess, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Tim Considine and Jimmie Dodd to play key roles in the finished film, according to a newspaper column where he was interviewed by Hollywood reporter Louella Parsons.

Since the film was to be a vehicle for the Mouseketeers, Walt assigned the staff of the Mickey Mouse Club to work on the film. Bill Walsh would produce and Sid Miller would direct just as they did those same tasks for the television series.

Lillie Hayward, who would later collaborate with Walsh on co-writing some famous Disney live-action films, was given an opportunity to revise the script. Hayward had written the screenplays for four popular Mickey Mouse Club serials, including just finishing work on one of them, "Annette." When her revision still didn’t meet Walt’s expectations, it was given to Walsh.

Walsh, a good writer who had already done some writing on the Davy Crockett series and would later write Disney live-action films like The Shaggy Dog, The Absent Minded Professor, Mary Poppins and The Love Bug, was tasked with rewriting the screenplay. There is a 115-page copy that exists credited to Walsh dated October 15, 1957.

Always a master showman and publicist, Walt decided to generate some interest in the project by featuring a short segment on his weekly television show. The September 11, 1957 episode was titled "The Fourth Anniversary Show" and the premise was a celebration for being on television for four years.

The second part of the show has the Mouseketeers clamoring for information about Walt’s plans for future shows. Walt enthusiastically introduces characters like Andy Burnett and Zorro.

On behalf of the Mouseketeers, Darlene Gillespie gives Walt a large book with the title The Rainbow Road to Oz emblazoned on the entire front cover.

“It’s actually more of a shooting script,” she says with a smile.

“Now, I am going to make a picture out of the Oz stories but I always figured to make it as a cartoon,” Walt states.

Cubby innocently counters with “but it takes you seven or eight years to make a cartoon feature, doesn’t it?” Cubby is probably referring to the still-in-production Sleeping Beauty that dragged on for years.

To help convince Walt, the Mouseketeers have prepared a few informal sample sequences. When Walt opens the book, he finds model sketches for the Scarecrow (“Remember the problem he had getting a set of brains? Well, in our story he has trouble keeping them,” Darlene says), the Patchwork Girl, Ozma the Lost Princess of Oz looking a lot like Annette, Dorothy looking a lot like Darlene and a sketch of the Cowardly Lion done by legendary storyman Bill Peet.

Peet and his good friend, fellow Disney storyman Joe Rinaldi, produced hundreds of character and story sketches for the proposed film project. Other sketches exist, including one of a full-figured, elegantly gowned Ozma with a crown and an Oz headband standing on a balcony with a unique Ozian wand. The notation on the drawing states: “Ozma on balcony with Dorothy waves wand—wand glows.”

In the first scene, the Scarecrow (performed by Bobby Burgess but reportedly voiced by Bobby Van and Doodles Weaver) and Patches the Patchwork Girl (played by Doreen Tracy and voiced by Gloria Wood) meet for the first time. Color photos from the time show the Patchwork Girl costume composed of red, blue, yellow, and green with some patterned material also in those colors. It was obviously inspired by artist John R. Neill’s original illustrations and coloring scheme for the character from the 1913 novel.

The Patchwork Girl twirls merrily and apparently thoughtlessly down the Yellow Brick road, stopping to pick a patch hanging off a nearby tree filled with patches and adding it to her dress. The Scarecrow drooped over the fence wakes up when he hears her sing and hops over the fence to join in. After the song, they do a little dance and both end up on the ground.

The song they sing is titled Patches, with lyrics by Tom Adair and music by Buddy Baker and it was originally written in June 1957. Adair was a writer and lyricist for the Mickey Mouse Club television show and Baker was the musical director: “Corduroy, poplin and percale. Looks like a walking rummage sale. Rags and tags and ribbons so bright and gay. With laughter and song, she’ll go dancing along her happy little patchwork way.”

In the next sequence, the Cowardly Lion has become the King of Oz, but a mysterious magic spell had turned him into a cruel and conceited monarch. The Scarecrow, the Patchwork Girl, Dorothy, Ozma, farmhand Zeb (Lonnie Burr), Cubby O’Brien as another farmhand and Karen Pendleton, as another princess, try to break the spell by performing The Oz-Kan Hop, a lively song-and-dance number that is “part Kansas and part Oz”: "Take the beat, beat, beat of a Kansas rain when it taps out a rhythm on your window pane. Then from Oz get a tune that just won’t stop. Mix them up and then you’ve got the Oz-Kan Hop.”

As Dorothy sings, she offers other mix combinations so that it is part Kansas square dance and part Oz quadrille (a dance performed by four couples in a square formation).

Dorothy and Zeb dance, followed by the more comic eccentric dancing of the Scarecrow and the Patchwork Girl and finally an almost balletic solo by Ozma where everyone except the still uninterested lion wearing his long red robe joins in for the big finish.

When Walt finally agrees that he will make the film, the iconic Mickey Mouse Club curtains part to reveal a huge birthday cake for the celebration. The costumed performers interspersed with other Mouseketeers dance around the rainbow colored cake and up a ramp to the top where there are enormous candles while singing the title song, The Rainbow Road to Oz.

“Up we go, the rainbow covered skyway. Up we go, the rainbow road to Oz. See it glow, the quilty-colored highway. Up we go, to reach the land of Oz.”

This song was written June 11, 1957 with lyrics by Sid Miller and Tom Adair and music by Buddy Baker. More than a dozen songs were written for the film, with some like Why Don’t They Believe? (Miller/Adair with music by Baker) and The Lost Princess Waltz (Adair with music by Baker) being written as late as December 1957.

Two other songs from the proposed film, The Oz-phabet and The Pup Pup Puppet Polka (both by Adair and Baker) appear on the 1969 Disneyland Records release "The Cowardly Lion of Oz" along with four other songs by Adair and Baker that may have also been intended in some form for the film. (Livin’ a Lovely Life, Trouble in Oz, Just Call Smarmy, and If You’ll Just Believe).

As noted Disney musicologist Greg Ehrbar wrote, “There is no evidence that the story on this record has any relationship to the screenplay of Rainbow Road, nor does it resemble the Ruth Plumly Thompson book of that title, even though the album covers credits the book as the source.”

The total budget for the three sets came to about $6,000. Art direction was credited to Bruce Bushman and set decoration by Emile Kuri. A tree with colorful patches hanging from its branches and another tree with brightly colored helium balloons instead of leaves, as well as a simple wooden fence and 120 feet of Yellow Brick road were all that was needed for the first number.

The Cowardly Lion’s throne room was just a standard throne (with the carved word “Oz” on its back almost completely obscured because the lion never got up to reveal it) and some minimal decorated poles and generic landscaping along the side of the set. The final song was performed on a giant decorated wooden cake prop, approximately 20 feet in diameter and 7-feet, 9-inches high.

“We were so excited. What child wouldn’t be thrilled to be ‘working’ in Oz?” wrote Annette Funicello in her autobiography. “I was to play the part of Ozma, complete with a beautiful gown and glittering crown and scepter. For me, the best part was that I got to wear a long, flowing fall. I’d always dreamed of having long hair and I so loved the feel of it against my neck that I begged the hairdresser to please, please, please let me wear the wig home. At first, she said ‘no,’ citing studio rules, but I wouldn’t stop begging, and so she relented. I remember sleeping in the wig that night, twirling long strands in my fingers as I drifted off to sleep.”

“Everyone had high hopes for our film," Annette recalled. "We had no idea then that this [the television show samples] was all of The Rainbow Road to Oz the public would ever see. For various reasons, about which we can only speculate, the Oz film was not completed despite Mr. Disney’s deep and enduring interest in the concept. By the time we learned that The Rainbow Road to Oz had met a dead end, there was other shocking news: The Mickey Mouse Club was closing its doors.”

While it had been announced that filming on The Rainbow Road to Oz was to begin in November 1957, things kept dragging on so that by February 1958, rumors began circulating that Disney had killed the project.

However, contrary to other printed sources, the project was not dead. I recently unearthed the following announcement from the "Passing Picture Scene" column by A.H. Weiler from the New York Times (December 3, 1961),: “The indefatigable Walt Disney, who will be represented on the Music Hall’s screen on December 14 with Babes in Toyland is in association with his studio staff, working on a feature film that he does not expect to release before 1963. This is The Rainbow Road to Oz and it will involve not only ‘a multimillion dollar budget’, a spokesman for the for the producer said ‘but also months of writing, technical preparation and casting’. 'The Rainbow Road to Oz,' our informant added in explanation ‘will be a live-action feature which takes up where The Wizard of Oz left off. Dorothy will return to the land of Oz and she’ll be involved with a variety of characters, such as the nephew of the Wicked Witch. No casting as yet. In the meantime, Disney is also in the midst of filming The Sword in the Stone. This too, is due in 1963.'"

While an official reason for the cancellation of the project was never given, there are several factors that probably combined to doom Walt’s journey to Oz. The remaining Oz books would start entering public domain in 1960 and surely generate low-budget film projects from competitors. The inevitable comparison with the classic MGM film would not be a good thing as neither the performances nor the songs in the Disney version could match that beloved and memorable cinema milestone.

The popularity of the Mickey Mouse Club was starting to drop with the show being canceled in 1959, so there was no longer a need to showcase the Mouseketeers prominently in the film. The inclusion of the Mouseketeers in the earlier Westward Ho the Wagons! had not helped that film at the box office and that was when the talented children were at their peak of popularity.

Most importantly, Walt was not completely happy with the screenplay and realized it would be an expensive investment as projected production costs soared ever higher. Walt was not emotionally invested in the project, and was distracted by the creation of the upcoming first “E” Ticket attractions at Disneyland and the release of Sleeping Beauty.

Perhaps it was a good thing that the film was shelved. Walt’s first attempt at a live-action musical, Babes in Toyland, (1961) just a few years later was not well received (even with the charming Annette) although the lessons learned in the process of making that film helped years later in the making of Mary Poppins (1964). Actually, Babes in Toyland had been announced as early as October 1956 in Hollywood trade publications with Mickey Mouse Club director Sid Miller announced to handle those same duties for the film.

Walt searched for a way to use the Oz properties he owned, including finding a way to incorporate them into Disneyland. In 1959, he considered developing a related project called the Rock Candy Mountain. It would be built as the big finale for the Storybook Land attraction that had opened in Summer 1956.

This approximately six-story-tall multileveled structure would have the Casey Jr. tracks navigate around the outside ledge of the over-sized candy decorated mountain. The Storybook Land boats would cruise inside the mountain into a watery grotto filled with several scenes from Oz.

The storyline was that it was Dorothy Gale’s surprise birthday party and the boat would glide past several scenes of the various lands of Oz (like the Tin Woodsman’s castle) as they prepared to go to the birthday party that was the final scene. There were even suggestions that costumes and props for the planned feature film would be incorporated into the scenes. It might have been the first Disneyland attraction to feature simple Audio-Animatronics figures if it had progressed any further into actuality.

Imagineer Claude Coats was the lead on the project. Coats remembered that there were plans for a password that had to be shouted before the boat would be allowed to view the scenes inside.

Imagineer Joe Rinaldi built 22 scale models based on character designs by Coats. These models ranged from a somewhat bashful Cowardly Lion to a humorous Wicked Witch (who bore some resemblance to Disney’s Witch Hazel bouncing along on her flying broomstick) to a spoon man and Tik-Tok. Some of these maquettes and concept artwork for the attraction still survive.

The original plan was to make it a transparent rock candy mountain, so that it would look more like a crystal palace but that premise evolved so that it included licorice, peanut brittle, fudge, lollipops, gumdrops, candy canes, gumballs and more—including some ribbon taffy that Walt had specially made for the project.

Imagineer Harriet Burns worked on the three-dimensional model gluing dozens of hard candies and candy canes to it. Jack Ferges worked on the exterior and bought hundreds of hard candies and gumballs. As he glued them on, he supposedly said “one for the mountain, one for me” so that both the mountain and Ferges were well filled in a short period of time. Burns used to joke that she worried Ferges would become a diabetic if he worked on the project any longer.

Rolly Crump’s first assignment at WED was to work on this project. He helped building some of the models, but was also assigned to create colorful propeller spinning flowers for the entrance to the attraction. It was Crump's hobby of making mobiles and propellers that first peaked Walt’s interest in moving him from animation to WED.

Like the movie, the attraction was shelved as well. In later years, Imagineer John Hench claimed that it was felt the exterior of the attraction would not have been pleasing to guests. Too much candy would have been too much of a good thing and it would have sickened guests after prolonged exposure.

“This is all dessert. It’s too much,” Hench reportedly said. Walt agreed and stopped the project.

The model was later dragged outside into the WED (Imagineering) parking lot where it became a huge temporary bird feeder offering sweet treats to the local fowl fellows and their friends. Primarily, the birds pried the nuts out from the candies. Some of the candies were specialties from around the world. One of the earlier preliminary models came home with Burns. Her daughter Pam still has it along with the memory of her mom bringing home some rock candy that wasn’t used.

Somewhere over the rainbow, Walt’s dreams for the land of Oz await a new visitor with a sense of fun and imagination to bring them to life.