Pay attention to the man on the television screen!

By Connie Holland
Early television in wooden piece of furniture

Update: Thanks to you, our Kickstarter campaign to "Keep Them Ruby" was a success and we have the support we need to conserve and display Dorothy's Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Stay tuned for updates on the project. But our journey on the yellow brick road isn't over yet. Help us conserve Scarecrow's costume from the 1939 movie so that it can join the Ruby Slippers on display and help support a new exhibition devoted to the arts, music, sports, and entertainment. Your support will help to make this project a reality. 

The year 1939 saw two important milestones in American entertainment history. One was the release of the acclaimed motion picture The Wizard of Oz from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The other came when Radio Corporation of America (RCA) introduced electronic television, their model TRK-12, at the World's Fair. Yes, Judy Garland's Dorothy and her friends made their screen debut the same year as modern television became available to the general public. It's likely neither company expected that the two events would become so interconnected in the years to come.

Clear cabinet with light blue light eminating from inside. It includes a mirror and cone-shaped object.

Early television in wooden piece of furniture

This was not the first time people could purchase televisions. Charles Francis Jenkins's Radiovisor mechanical television had been available in the United States since the late 1920s, albeit with a very limited market. The system invented by Jenkins (and independently by John Logie Baird in England) was crude by today's standards, and expensive, but it worked. Inventors including Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin worked on more reliable electronic components leading up to the introduction by RCA at the World's Fair.

Black and white brochure feature image of family on couch watching television in living room

After World War II, development and sales of consumer television picked up and engineers began investigating color television. By 1949, the DuMont Company had developed a color television receiver, though it was not readily available on the market. One chief hurdle concerned the lack of a single standard for color television broadcasting. Consumers needed to be reassured that their new television sets would not become quickly obsolete. Congressional hearings ensued and in December 1953 the Federal Communications Commission approved the RCA system with broadcasting to begin in January 1954. Other manufacturers quickly placed products on the market.

Black and white document with some red. Image of early television.

Other challenges to color television surfaced early on. One was the cost, prohibitive for many potential consumers. Prices ranged from $420 for a Philco set to $895 for one made by RCA. (That's about $3,755 and $8,003 in modern pricing, respectively.) Since television broadcasters produced most shows in black and white, many buyers were reluctant to pay an exorbitant amount of money for a color television that would go mostly unused. Color was seen as a luxury. As a result, in the 1950s and 1960s, even movies and shows that had been produced and broadcast in color were seen by many at home on televisions that only displayed black-and-white. Even so, sales of color sets steadily rose. In 1955, there were about 15,000 color sets in households; by 1959, sales were estimated to be about 90,000 units.

In 1956, CBS bought the rights from MGM to broadcast The Wizard of Oz on television. It would be the first nationwide broadcast of a full-length Hollywood film. The movie, aired on November 3, was broadcast in color—except, of course, for the opening and closing sequences which were intended to be in black and white (or, in the original film, sepia toned). However, the low number of color sets meant that the first time many people saw The Wizard of Oz was on a black-and-white television, on which the colors did not appear. The color shifting of Dorothy's dream sequence was lost on most of the younger viewing audience. In 1959, the film was back on television, and due to its popularity was shown (mostly) annually for many years thereafter. For many families, it became an annual tradition and this is one reason the film is known and loved by so many generations of Americans. (Joe Hursey in our Archives Center fondly remembers watching the movie each year in Kansas. It would air on television at the beginning of tornado season.) 

Cover of VHS tape with characters faces' from Oz and rainbow

Today, color television is taken for granted and on-demand media is the norm. You can watch The Wizard of Oz on different formats of television (regular, digital, flat screen, high-definition), on computer monitors, or even on a smart phone (though why anyone would want to escapes me). What are your early memories of seeing the movie? No matter how you look at it, The Wizard of Oz remains a well-loved movie passed down through many generations. Click your remote three times and repeat, "There's no place like a television screen."

Graphic including Ruby Slippers and Scarecrow hat

Connie Holland works in the Office of Curatorial Affairs as a project assistant. She went off to see a stage version of The Wizard of Oz starring Mickey Rooney as The Wizard and Eartha Kitt as the Wicked Witch of the West.