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The Wicked Witch of Oz : A Connecticut Connection

March is woman's history month — an appropriate time to remember one of the most memorable characters from the 1939 classic film, Salisbury's Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West.

Filming for the Hollywood classic movie "The Wizard Of Oz" ended in early March of 1939 — 74 years ago this week. Based on the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the fantasy adventure film remains one of the most popular of all time.

Prior to the movie's release on VHS in 1980 — one of the very first movies to be transferred to such a format — generations of children had a chance to see the film on TV only once a year. That was a special experience for many kids, in part because it was the first TV movie ever shown without being interrupted by advertisements.

Though there are many memorable characters in the film, certainly one of the most memorable was the Wicked Witch of the West, a character played by former Salisbury, CT, resident Margaret Hamilton.

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Born on Dec. 9, 1902, in Cleveland, Ohio, Hamilton first came to New England to attend Wheelock College in Boston following her high school graduation. Trained to be a kindergarten teacher, Hamilton remained devoted to public education for her whole life, even after she had quit teaching for an acting career.

Hardly possessing the good looks of a Hollywood glamour girl, Hamilton earned her niche in Hollywood as a character actor, often playing no-nonsense, serious characters who were sometimes mean. She had appeared in seven films by the time "The Wizard of Oz" came out in 1939.

Hamilton was actually not the first casting choice for the role as the Wicked Witch of the West. Actress Gale Sondergaard — the first ever recipient for an Oscar in the category of Best Supporting Actress in 1936 — was the first choice; however, when it became clear that the role involved being a mean, ugly witch, Sondegaard declined the role and Hamilton picked it up. It became Hamilton's most memorable role.

Here are some of the most interesting facts regarding Margaret Hamilton's career:

  • Her famous line in "Oz" : "I'll get you my pretty! And your little dog too!" is ranked 99th on the list of the Top 100 Movie Quotes. "There's no place like home!" was ranked 11th.
  • Hamilton was burned severely during the filming of her exit from Munchkinland. It took her six weeks to recover. Her stand-in, Betty Danko, was also burned during the sky-writing scene. Danko suffered permanent damage to her legs.
  • Ironically, Hamilton, who scared generations of children to death, actually loved children, supported public education vigorously, served on the Beverly Hills Board of Education, and taught Sunday School!
  • Hamilton played two other roles in the film as well: Almira Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the East.
  • Hamilton admired Frank Morgan, who played the Wizard, and later said that whenever she saw the scene in which Morgan bestows gifts from his black bag she got teary-eyed, as she knew Morgan was a very generous man by nature.
  • Margaret Hamilton's favorite book since age 4 had been Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She was ecstatic about being in the film.
  • Several of Hamilton's scenes as the Wicked Witch were deleted. They were thought to be too frightening for children!
  • Several pairs of the famous ruby slippers were used in the film, including a pair seen on Hamilton's feet during one scene. The ruby slippers are considered the "holy grail" of Hollwood collectors. Their estimated auction value is $1.5 million! Dorothy's slippers are in the Smithsonian. (As a side note, a Naugatuck native created the slippers!)
  • When fire strikes the Wicked Witch's hands as she tries to take off the ruby slippers, the "fire" is actually dark apple juice being shot up out of the slippers. Special effects give it the appearance of fire.
  • Margaret Hamilton appeared on an early episode of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" in her witch costume to allay the fears of children.

Margaret Hamilton continued to act on both radio and television through 1982, living mainly in California and New York. In her later years, she made her home in beautiful Salisbury, CT, where she lived out the rest of her life. She died on May 16, 1985, at age 82 of the effects of a heart attack.

(Incidentally, A 3-D version of the Oz movie is set to be released by March 13th.)

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