Sunday, April 8, 2012

"The Wizard of Oz", "Sanford and Son" and Lena Horne

It's the end of Easter Sunday 2012. I generally don't write about religious topics...and this will be no exception. But Easter does seem like a good time to write about something that (marginally) has to do with "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) because there was a time when the movie's annual appearance on broadcast TV occurred in the Spring around the time of Easter (and even on Easter Sunday itself at least once, in 1978).

So what do "The Wizard of Oz", the show "Sanford and Son" and famous singer Lena Horne have in common? I would suspect that people who are big fans of "Sanford and Son" might have an idea about the last two, but where "The Wizard of Oz" fits in probably seems less obvious. So let me explain...

I remember looking forward to watching "The Wizard of Oz" on TV when I was a kid. This was back in the 1970s and 80s when the airing of movies like "The Wizard of Oz", "The Sound of Music" and holiday Specials like "Rudolph: The Red-Nosed Reindeer", "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" and The Peanuts' Halloween and Christmas shows were true events. They were only put on TV once a year, and if you weren't there to see them you literally had to wait a whole year to get another chance. It was truly "must-see TV". I'm sure that idea would seem strange to a younger person growing up in this age of instant viewing gratification, but keep in mind that when I was a kid there was no such thing as a VCR. Actually, there were VCRs--but they were huge, clunky and exorbitantly expensive. Unlike today you couldn't simply buy your own copy of the movie on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. Cable TV wasn't available in my area. And there certainly were no such things as the Internet, YouTube, DVRs TiVos or any of the multitude of other ways one can see pretty much anything they want to pretty much any time they want to today.

For all these reasons it was a special occasion when "The Wizard of Oz" would come on. I have a somewhat vague and general memory of watching it a number of times growing up. Most of the recollections of those viewings kind of run together in my mind, but one has always stood out. Because of the fact that the human memory tends to be much more faulty than one would think (our minds sometimes try to group memory bits together to make something coherent out of otherwise random moments of our past, and we are also very susceptible to the influence of suggestion on our memory), I have learned to view my own personal memories with a skeptical eye. This is the reason I've done so much painstaking and seemingly pointless research on my own past. See stories like Happy New Year 1976! and Resurrecting The Past: January 21, 1983 Part One and Part Two for more examples of my insanity.

The one "clear" memory I have always had about watching "The Wizard of Oz" wasn't really all that clear, but it had a few seemingly reliable parts to it. It seemed to come from around the very end of the 1970s or the very early 1980s. It seemed as though it was a Friday night. I remember being excited about the fact that the movie would be on that night. I don't specifically recall much about actually watching the movie itself (as that memory kind of goes along with all the generalized memories of watching it as a kid). Instead, I remember watching something else that was on before the movie while waiting for it to start later on in the evening. That something was an episode of "Sanford and Son"--though I didn't know exactly which episode it was. The other thing I clearly remember about that night was that Lena Horne was involved in some way. As well-known as Lena Horne was at the time I wasn't all that familiar with her myself. I knew the name and that she was a famous singer, but didn't really know anything about her singing. The reason I recall her having something to do with the night is that hearing her name instantly made me think of cream horns.

Lena Horne
A Cream Horn
A cream horn (for anyone not familiar with them) is a delicious, decadent, tube-shaped pastry that contains a very sweet, creamy filling inside. Even back then it was one of my favorite things to eat when I'd get the chance to lay my little hands on one. Thirty-plus years later I still consider them to be one of the greatest guilty pleasures the world has to offer.

The reason I believed that all this happened on a Friday night (besides the simple fact that my memory said so) was that I remembered "Sanford and Son" being on before the movie. I know that WLVI Channel 56 out of Boston showed episodes of "Sanford and Son" in the hour or so before the networks' prime time schedule started at 8:00 PM. I always felt that the night in question was a weekend night. Since I recall feeling the excitement of still having the weekend ahead of me it had to be either a Friday or Saturday night (as a Sunday night airing before heading back to school on Monday would have a very different feeling to it). Saturday night was pretty much ruled out too--as Channel 56 only aired episodes of old sitcoms like "Sanford and Son" in that time slot Monday through Friday.

That information was pretty much the extent of my memory up until this past week. I never actually knew if any of it was really true. Could I have imagined that I saw "Sanford and Son" before "The Wizard of Oz"? Could it have been a different night than Friday? And, what the heck did Lena Horne have to do with the whole thing? Any part of this memory (or even the whole thing itself) could have been faulty. It was time to find out the truth...

I always figured that the most likely connection between "Sanford and Son" and Lena Horne was that she had probably guest starred in an episode--and that was the episode I saw on that night. Well, a little check of quickly revealed that this was indeed the case. Ms. Horne appeared in the episode "A Visit from Lena Horne" (pretty clever title, huh?). It was the sixteenth episode of the second season of the show and originally aired on January 12, 1973.

So now I knew that my not-so-random craving for a delicious cream horn did indeed spring forth from an appearance by Lena Horne on "Sanford and Son". But how could I confirm that WLVI 56 ever aired that specific episode before one of the annual presentations of "The Wizard of Oz"? The first part of the answer came from Wikipedia. Wiki has a whole page on The Wizard of Oz on Television. A search of that article revealed a very useful listing of the dates of every broadcast showing of "The Wizard of Oz" between 1956 and 2005. While I know that Wikipedia is not an incontrovertible source of information, and that "facts" found there must be taken with a grain of salt, I had the information I needed to (hopefully) finish my research. I had to pick a year that I felt my memory was likely to have come from. 1980 sounded about right and I decided to start with that year before branching out to earlier and later years. It turns out that it was a very good guess.

Luckily my collection of old Eastern New England editions of TV Guides included the issue that contained the 1980 showing of the movie. "The Wizard of Oz" was on CBS on Friday, March 7th of that year. That means it would be in the March 1-7, 1980 issue. A look through the issue confirmed Wikipedia's information.

Here is the "This Week's Movies" section of that issue on pages A-7 and A-11

Here is the full-page ad in TV Guide for the 1980 airing of "The Wizard of Oz" from the same issue

And here is the actual listing for the movie on March 7th

Now it was time to go back just a little to see if WLVI 56 was featuring "Sanford and Son" at the time. Benny Hill was on Channel 56 at 7:30 (as can be seen in the listings above), immediately before the 8:00 start time of "The Wizard of Oz" over on CBS. A half-hour earlier, at 7:00 Channel 56 had... "Sanford and Son". Not only that, but the listing for it actually had a short description confirmed my memory once and for all: "A dream come true: Fred finagles a visit from Lena Horne."!

It's true that this really is a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but for me personally it was wonderful to know that the memory I had of that night was pretty accurate. As a bonus, I now have an exact date to put with that memory! As a final bonus, the writing of this blog gave me an excuse to go out and buy a cream horn!

That night can now be partially recreated through the magic of modern technology. I don't know exactly which commercials I might have seen that year, but a good sampling of ads from that year can be easily found on YouTube. Also, the Lena Horne episode of "Sanford and Son" can be found there. It is also available on DVD. And, of course, "The Wizard of Oz" has been available on home video for many years now (first on Beta and VHS tapes and laser disc, then later on DVD and Blu-ray). That ready availability is exactly why an airing of "The Wizard of Oz" on TV is no longer the exciting, must-see event that it once was. I love having all this stuff at my fingertips, but also really miss the old days too...

Here are some screen shots from the "A Visit from Lena Horne" episode of Sanford and Son:

Fred finds Lena Horne's dressing room while sneaking away from an NBC studio tour

And then has his first "heart attack" of the episode when Ms. Horne walks in on him checking out her room

Later, Lena visits Fred at the junkyard--inducing a second "heart attack" from him...

...As well as Lamont's very first "heart attack"!

Here's the actual episode on YouTube (in three parts):

And, here's that actual "Special Presentation" announcement that CBS made before starting "The Wizard of Oz" on March 7, 1980 (from Indianapolis rather than Boston, but still pretty great to see)

Put these together with the movie itself and a bunch of commercials from the period sprinkled throughout and you have a pretty good approximation of my memory of that night!

There's No Place Like Home!


  1. I maybe imagining it - but strange as it seems... I can recall all of what your saying. I too remember the Lena Horne S&S show. Lena Horne and cream horn...yeah, my brother can back that one up. It was and old joke between us for years. Strange.
    Not that it has anything to do with Easter, but one of my memory triggers came about with CH38 Movie Loft. Evidently someone had left the tv running on channel 38. The Film; The Deer Hunter. Being that their films (Ch38) were unedited, this was to be the first graphic violence that I had ever seen. Great film but strong shock factor, not for the faint of heart. Love to watch it over and over- but I'll never forget the first time.

    1. I guess great minds really do think (and remember) alike, huh?

      The first time seeing a film is generally the best--and even moreso when that first viewing occurred when one was a kid!

  2. This brought back some cool memories of The Wizard of Oz--my Mom hated that movie and I loved it, which led to some interesting family interaction when it was aired each year. You gave me a good idea for a future post for my blog. Thanks!

    1. Looking forward to hearing stories about your recollections of the movie Cathy! How can anyone hate The Wizard of Oz?!?

  3. Here's what I remember about that night: I was so excited, because it fell on a weekend I was spending with my dad, and my dad had a color TV. My mom and I didn't, so I had never seen the transition from B&W to color when Dorothy enters Oz. I couldn't wait, was practically vibrating with excitement. "You know what we're watching tonight?" my dad asked me when he picked me up. "The Wizard of Oz," I replied, confidently. "No!" he said, sounding disgusted. "Brave New World." The TV movie adaptation of Huxley's novel was airing on NBC at the same time. I was crushed.

    1. Oh wow, what a huge build-up to... a huge disappointment! How could your dad do that to you?

  4. Can you tell me what month The Wizard of Oz was shown on TV in 1976?