35 years ago this week, two very different movies had their theatrical premieres. One is Halloween, a movie you all know and love and which surprisingly has very few clips available to view online. The other is The Wiz, a movie you may have never seen, heard is terrible and which fortunately has a number of scenes uploaded in order that I might illustrate and defend its worth. I might be the only one who likes The Wiz more than Halloween and very likely the only one who finds one particular scene in the all-black version of The Wizard of Oz scarier than anything in John Carpenter’s slasher classic. But I can’t be the only person with an appreciation for The Wiz.
One thing about the movie that’s rarely celebrated is the fact it’s directed by Sidney Lumet. NYC’s Film Forum didn’t even include the musical in its otherwise exhaustive retrospective of his work a few years back. It is weird a white filmmaker was at the helm for this, though his relevance as a very New York-centric director makes some sense (who else should have done it? Scorsese? Woody Allen? Hmm, maybe Gordon Parks?). The Wiz is indeed a New York movie, featuring the most fantastical representations of the city’s landmarks since the 1933 King Kong. That’s a big part of why I love it so much.
Join me below as I highlight some of the best of these location-transforming scenes.
New York State Pavilion at Flushing Meadows – Corona Park
Dorothy (Diana Ross) and Toto are transported to Oz via blizzard, and their first stop is this leftover World’s Fair construction, which serves as Munchkinland. She lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, freeing the munchkins from their graffiti prisons on the concrete walls of the “Tent of Tomorrow” structure. Along comes Miss One, the Good Witch of the North (Thelma Carpenter), who apparently runs a gambling racket. Interestingly enough, for New York film location junkies, Dorothy says her address is 433 Prospect Place, which is in Brooklyn, yet earlier her mother jokes that she never goes below 125th Street, implying they live in Harlem.
The Chrysler Building
After Dorothy meets the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) in one of the less distinguishable set pieces, the two (plus Toto) “Ease on Down the Road” following the yellow bricks over an unidentified bridge — probably nonexistent and built in the studio — towards way too many Chrysler Buildings (if there were that many the architectural masterpiece wouldn’t be so exceptional) and what turns out to be the Cyclone in the way background. It’s an interesting moment for really bringing in replicas of recognizable NYC landmarks rather than using real famous landmarks and trying to sort of disguise (or at least alter) them with crazy, yet awesome, production design. It’s also the musical number you’re all most familiar with.
They do end up in what’s clearly Coney Island, complete with a major cameo appearance from the actual Cyclone. Here they recruit the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell), a mechanical man carnival barker. How this guy isn’t a steampunk icon, I don’t know. Maybe because he retrospectively looks like Bicentennial Man? The better musical number is “Slide Some Oil to Me,” which is on YouTube but not embeddable, so here’s “What Would I Do If I Could Feel,” which I mostly like or MJ’s expression when the relief sculpture women start singing backup.
New York Public Library Main Branch
Best remembered for its role in Ghostbusters, this building is known for its stone lions adorning the front steps. So, obviously it was perfect for the spot where Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man meet the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross). He even breaks free from the sculpture in a way that might make you think of another part of Ghostbusters, near the end. In case you can’t tell, the NYPL building is not actually employed for this scene, which would have been too difficult to manage. Instead it’s one of the many wonderful sets built at the newly reopened Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens.
Hoyt-Schermerhorn Subway Station
This is the scene I find scarier than anything in Halloween. A homeless man selling puppets in the Brooklyn station (which has been commonly used for film shoots — Michael Jackson would return a decade later in fact for his “Bad” music video) turns his wares into the creepiest thing you’ll ever see at an NYC subway stop, which is saying a lot. Also, the trash cans and support column walls attack, too.
World Trade Center
What better place than the Financial District to play the part of Emerald City, and what better specific landmark than the Twin Towers to serve as its main buildings? That’s the Austin J. Tobin Plaza between the towers repurposed as, I guess, the Emerald City plaza, and the central orb featuring the OZ letters is the Great Spherical Caryatid sculpture (aka The Sphere), which mostly survived the 9/11 attack and now stands in Battery Park as a memorial. The plaza was also known for being a bit of a wind tunnel and that disrupted the production, so the scene wasn’t as complete as intended since The Port Authority wouldn’t allow reshoots.
Another major location from the film that no longer exists, this former home of the New York Mets has been destroyed and replaced by Citi Field. At least we’ll always have this movie to show us what it looked like as a place for people to get chased around by winged biker monkeys. I guess I should make a joke about the baseball team, but I can’t think of a good one. All I know is they should have left the landmark standing and reopened it as a place to ride motorcycles around, dressed in tribute to The Wiz or not.