Metro Weekly

Movie Memories: Ryan Spahn on ‘The Wizard of Oz’

There was nothing Ryan Spahn's family agreed upon more than flying monkeys and technicolor

ryan spahn, wizard of oz
Photo from Ryan Spahn

A photo exists of me and my sisters, Angela and Nicole, in our childhood home. We are listening to the vinyl recording of The Wizard of Oz. We are very young. Under the age of five, collectively. In the picture, the three of us are sitting on a small, wooden bench. Beaming. A handful of years after the photo was taken, my dad would fall in love with another woman and my mom would marry another man. The image captured a time before an emotional storm wreaked havoc on what we understood as home.

In the early 1980s, which is the origin window for this photo, the movie version of The Wizard of Oz was only viewable during Easter. My mom speculates it’s because the television networks wanted choice competition for their annual airing of The Ten Commandments.

So, if one wanted to catch Oz live, you legit had to scribble the time onto the family calendar, circle it in red a gazillion times, and pray you didn’t miss it. Otherwise someone would be swimming in tears. At the time, nobody but the cool kids had VCRs. Blockbusters weren’t invented until the mid-80s. So, like, the thought of choosing when you’d watch something wasn’t folded into the zeitgeist. But — ahhh — once a year wasn’t gonna work. We were addicted. The whole fam was. There was nothing our family agreed upon more than flying monkeys and technicolor.

What to do, what to do…

Mom and Dad, wizened as they were, bought the record to satiate our overwhelming desire to have daily access to Oz. Smart move. The album truly stilled a trio of rambunctious toddlers. Even today, I hear how the record begins: crackling vinyl, swelling overture of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and squawking chickens. (Do yourself a solid and drop a needle on the album.)

Real quick… just in case… The Wizard of Oz chronicles the story of a teen named Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog Toto (Terry). They are suddenly whisked away from their family by way of a tornado. As you do. On their own in a foreign land, Dorothy and Toto meet a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). Together, on the yellow brick road, they are faced with Witches (Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton) and a Wizard (Frank Morgan). Their bravery is taken to task. Through it all, everyone learns a life lesson and Dorothy returns to where she always wanted to be in the first place. An alt plot by Rick Polito for TCM said, “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” Obsessed!

Both The Wizard of Oz film and album bonded my family. Dad would famously re-enact the Oz guard, “Who rang that bell?” Mom gifted him once with Barbie doll figurines of Dorothy and the gang, complete with a wicker basket attached to a traveling balloon. My sisters and I were countlessly the characters for Halloween. It was an obsession; a total family affair. When the divorce happened, that all went away. We didn’t watch the movie as a family anymore. We didn’t do anything as a family anymore.

Not sure what to do with the emotions tornado-ing through my body, I whisked myself to a boarding school in Northern Michigan. Upon graduation from Interlochen Arts Academy, I relocated to the golden streets of Los Angeles. While there, I met my best friend (Tessa Thompson) and adopted my first cat (Dawson). Through life’s little storms, Dawson and I found ourselves journeying to the Big Apple. It was here that we met my partner (Michael Urie) and — together — we built a home. I’m such a Dorothy.

And yet, people would ask me, “What are you doing for the holidays?” And I would answer, “I’m going home.” Which really meant I was headed back to Detroit; a place I had not lived for almost three decades. Why did I do that?

Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) didn’t see that Twister coming. Otherwise they would’ve protected Dorothy. My parents didn’t see the divorce coming. Otherwise they would have protected me. And yet, I blamed them.

While Dorothy learned to not “look any further than [her] own backyard,” she also learned to forgive her Aunt and Uncle for their part in what happened. Forgiveness. That’s my ruby red heels click. Only after I forgave my parents was I able to let go of the past and appreciate my current beautiful home.

Ryan Spahn is an actor and playwright who lives in New York. He is the director of the film Nora Highland. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanspahn.

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