The Spies Report
March 22, 2021 posted by Kamden Spies

Abe Levitow and “Off to See the Wizard”

The Spies Report #7

In the history of television, there is probably no theatrical film that had greater success with television than The Wizard of Oz. In fact, from around 1959 to 1991 or so, its airing became an annual television event. Every time it aired, The Wizard of Oz was a ratings smash. In its 1966 broadcast on CBS, the film was the highest-rated and most-watched show of that week. It was even more popular that night than Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Because of its wild success (and probably because of their continuing success with Disney’s anthology series), ABC decided to take a chance on an anthology series built around the Oz characters. Because MGM owned the rights to the Wizard of Oz film, the MGM unit, then ran by Chuck Jones would produce the series. The series consisted of MGM family features with animated interstitials directed by Abe Levitow and produced by Levitow and Jones. The series only ran for an hour each week so the films would be divided in half. Some of the features shown included The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Captain Sinbad, The Glass Slipper, and Zebra in the Kitchen. The cast of the segments was Mel Blanc (The Cowardly Lion), Daws Butler (The Wizard of Oz and the Scarecrow), June Foray (The Wicked Witch and Dorothy), and Don Messick (Toto and the Tin Man). Hal Holbrook narrated the series. The series lasted only one season.

Here is an excerpt (below) from an interview with Abe Levitow as part of Bob Jones’s radio show. Bob Jones was a radio host in Cincinnati, and Levitow was a guest. The full interview is most likely nonexistent anymore, but from the little information about the radio episode available, it is presumed that Levitow was being interviewed about the animation industry in general. What survives from the episode though is excerpts from it with Levitow speaking about the Off to See the Wizard series as reprinted for a Cincinnati newspaper that week. The writer here was not the best typist but I’ve left most of the typist’s mistakes as originally published to show it to you as it was originally printed in 1967.

To See the Wizard by Martin Hogan Jr.

Abe Levitow is a cartoonist, or, if you please, an animator or an artist. There is a line of differentiation among the three. But for our purposes we’ll call him a cartoonist—a very important cartoonist. Levitow, the cartoonist for the Mr. Magoo series in addition to the Saturday morning “Roadrunner,” cartoons, is producer-director for the animation sequences of Off to See the Wizard,” a series of Friday night movies hosted by the characters from the “Wizard of Oz.”

Levitow was in Cincinnati Thursday as stop on a promotional tour for the series.

“The Only thing that is public domain are the illustrations in the original book,” he was saying. Hence there will be little if any similarity to the characters in the movie.

Instead, Off to See the Wizard will include the animated cowardly lion, Dorothy, the tin woodsman, the scarecrow and as a villain the wicked witch of the west.

“The show, in color will feature the Wizard introducing movies to Dorothy in her friends. He conjures up a magic routine and if it fails the wicked witch moves in.”

He said the movies themselves are feature films including “Lilli,” “Huck Finn,” “Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion,” and “Zebra in the Kitchen.”
“The characters from ‘Ozm’ will function as the bridge, the hosts.”

Levitow himself is a gray-thatched native of California who aspired to be a sports cartoonist for a newspaper. He is a professed sports nut who is a regular visitor to Dodge Stadium and is a week-end tennis player. He sports a Vandyke and is totally delightful and thoroughly unaffected.

“My mother was pushy,” he said. “I had an art teacher in junior high who told her I showed talent so she enrolled me in Saturday morning classes at Chouinard Academy.

“I was 13 years old when I took my first life class. I walked in and looked at the model. My eyes popped and I thought, ‘Man, the artist’s life is the life’ for me.’”

As for the wizard, Variety which should know, rated the show as the top fall entry for this year, based entirely upon description.


Here is another gem, an article written by Levitow about the series that was published in a Santa Maria newspaper

Over the Rainbow and then Along the Yellow Brick Road by Abe Levitow

The inimitable Huckleberry Finn of Mark Twain’s Childhood memories, and Alexander the Great, the Macedon ruler who undertook what was to be the greatest conquest of ancient times when he was only 22 years old…

These are among the “stars” of Off to See the Wizard ABC-TV’s new weekly series of all-family entertainment which will air Fridays, 7:30-8:30 p.m. starting Sept. 8.

To host these hour-long programs, we’re drawing upon a very special group of animated characters – the Wonderful Wizard and his Emerald City friends: Dorothy and her dog Toto, the Tin Woodsman, the Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow. And because children love villains, the Wicked Witch of the West, a delightful creature who’s tickled with her own wickedness will be on hand.

To our “Oscar” – winning executive producer, Chuck Jones, it seemed logical to use animated hosts for this family-style show. And we have discovered that people don’t lose their allegiance to, or interest in, an animated character as they do with a live host.

Another plus was the fact that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the production studio, owned the rights to the films. Among them are “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Lilli,” “Clarence and the Cross-Eye Lion,” “Island of the Lost,” “Flipper,” “Cinderella’s Glass Slipper,” Alexander the Great,” “Zebra in the Kitchen,” “Gypsy Colt,” “Rhino,” and “Mike and the Mermaid.”

Some of these will be offered in two parts to fit the series’ hour-long format.

In planning the overall concept, our aim was to come up with a series that would appeal to the young-at-heart of any age. We believe we have succeeded.

And finally, a rare sponsor’s message from the show, a commercial for Curad Band-Aids:

Special thanks to the Chuck Jones Gallery and the Levitow family (and the Abe Levitow Website) for lending me photos for this post.

26 Comments

  • Some of the animated bumpers from “Off to See the Wizard” were included as a special feature on the Wizard of Oz DVD. Very appealing design and voice work.

    “Off to See the Wizard” aired a lot of Ivan Tors animal films, which were very popular in the late ’60s. It was also where I first saw Leslie Caron in “Lili”, which is a great film but, despite the puppets and songs, pretty heavy stuff for family fare. The final ballet where the puppets come to life and dance scared the crap out of me.

    “Off to See the Wizard” also aired the premiere of “Alexander the Great”, a failed TV pilot from 1963 starring William Shatner as the Macedonian conqueror, with Adam West in another major role. By 1967 Shatner and West were both starring in popular TV series, so ABC decided to dust off “Alexander” in order to capitalise on their current fame. (Star Trek, in fact, aired immediately after “Off to See the Wizard”, on NBC.)

  • The characters were everywhere. They were on Jiffy Pop Popcorn, laundry detergent, jack-in-the-boxes, a Colorforms set, Oz Kins toys, there was even a puppet theatre. If the show did not perform well in the ratings, it was not for lack of effort, and it was not because people didn’t know it was on. One of the most heavily promoted shows in television history, I believe.

    Notice in some of the later season episodes of Bewitched that Tabitha has an Off to See the Wizard jack-in-the-box. (She had the coolest toys overall of just about any TV kid.)

    It was not clear to me until I watched it that the Oz characters were only there to introduce the movie of the week, and that otherwise it was essentially like Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, in that movies were divided up over multiple weeks. So the first time I watched I was a little disappointed, because I had hoped for a full hour of Oz. But once I got over that disappointment, I steadfastly tuned in week after week. Several of the movies were a little over my head, but I still watched.

    Note that Daws Butler’s Wizard voice also was used when he portrayed the Wizard of Oz on the HBR Snagglepuss record album. Since the cover art did not include the Wizard himself, it’s easy to picture the Chuck Jones version of the Wizard when listening to the recording.

    • Our antique store has a Wizard jack in the box..I remember those,too..as I say below, I was 7m and remember it..Daws butler is in this, but MEL does the lion, DAWS’s character….?:)

  • I remember it as tho it were yesterday. I also remember its timeslot: Fri., 6:30, ABC, CST. I also remember how disappointed that they were only the…. interstitials!!

  • Sponsored by Curad “band-aids.” So… The Wizard of Gauze, maybe?

    • Ouchless my Aunt Fanny. The pad might not have stuck to the cut, but that adhesive hurt like the dickens, especially on arm and leg hairs! 🙂

  • Great stuff, Kamden. I was 9 or 10 when this aired, but, I have no memory of watching it. And I was a TV watchin’ kid! Thanks.

    • 7 when it was on, I remember it..!

  • Bob Jones hosted a show called “Kaleidoscope” afternoons on WKRC radio from roughly 1963 – 1968. WKRC-TV was the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati in those days, and aired “Wizard.” WKRC was the flagship of the Taft Broadcasting Company, and located in the same building with the corporate offices on Highland Avenue near the time when the Hanna-Barbara acquisition was under way. One can only imagine the possibilities.

  • Clarence the cross-eyed lion?! That was a character on Daktari. Were they using clips from other shows as filler?

    • “Daktari” was spun off from the “Clarence” film.

    • “Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion” was a feature film released in 1965. The TV series “Daktari”, based on it and using most of the same cast, debuted a year later. Likewise “Flipper” was a movie before it was a TV show, and both films were shown on “Off to See the Wizard”.

      • Interesting, thanks folks!

  • Being a big fan of Rawhide, I only know this series as the one lead actor Eric Fleming was killed on while filming an episode that was never shown.

  • Just thought it would be worth noting that 7 years later, Filmation would produce their own Wizard Of Oz made-for-TV feature. In that feature, Ray Bolger would reprise his role as the scarecrow, and Liza Minelli would star in the same role her mother, Judy Garland, played in the original motion picture version. And there’s a common thread between this series and the Filmation feature: both feature animation by Disney animator Don Towsley.

    • “Journey Back to Oz” did feature Minelli, but not Bolger (Mickey Rooney ultimately voiced the Scarecrow). The film was in production over the course of several years. When it finally came out as a theatrical release Minelli was a bit upset. Back when she recorded her part she talked and sang almost exactly like her mother Judy Garland, but by that time she was a big name with a much different sound. There was an attempt to make it an annual TV tradition, with Bill Cosby as the Wizard hosting from his balloon. There’s a DVD with commentary and bonus content, if you can find it.

      • This story I have told numerous times, but to repeat in a nutshell…JOURNEY BACK TO OZ was begun in 1962, and finished nearly a decade later due to delays owing to financial difficulties. Finally theatrically released between 1972-74, and found its greatest audience on TV in 1976 with the Cosby interstitials. To correct Greg’s statement—ABC ran the extended TV cut first before SFM ran it in syndication, so it was after ABC, not before.

        The original elements were trashed, the whereabouts of the master to the TV cut are unknown. Universal owns what’s left of the film.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_Back_to_Oz is where you can learn more.

        • I can only assess that those elements, specifically the interstitials featuring Cosby, were disposed of just recently, in light of Cosby’s recent fall from grace, in understandable fear of anyone discovering that he had anything to do with the feature.

  • Funny, I don’t remember this at all. Dorothy looks pretty fancy for a Kansas farmgirl. I’d love to see the Witch (it should have been Witch Hazel).

  • UPDATE: Scratch that. The Witch is in the Curad commercial; it almost is Witch Hazel!

  • I barely remember this from my grade school days. The bit that I remember was the Wizard tried to conjure a horse under the main characters. It was heading the wrong way. The Wizard tried to fix it but ended up with a horse with a head on both ends. Freaky deaky! What made it a little more creepy was that both heads hated each other.

  • I just noticed that the Wizard is genuinely magical in these, instead of being a conman using technology to do illusions.

  • Thanks for writing this, Kamden, it is wonderful. Like Frederick, I have fond memories of this series when it was broadcast, but I too was disappointed that it was not simply a full show about Oz rather than an anthology with the framing segments around some movies, mostly made by Ivan Tors.

    Back then, Ivan Tors was often touted as a nouveau-Walt of sorts (especially by Florida touts), producing family-friendly comedies and animal dramas either on location or based at his studio complex in Miami.

    In the mid-sixties, Jackie Gleason and Ivan Tors were the show business kings of the southeast, between Gleason’s hit variety show on CBS Saturdays and Tors’ Flipper, Sea Hunt, Daktari, Maya and Gentle Ben series. You could even go to the Miami Seaquarium (“Home of Flipper”) and see the exterior home set of the Ricks family. It was all a very big deal back then. Today it’s called Greenwich Studios, on Ivan Tors Blvd. This is a vintage promo for prospective filmmakers to use the facilities:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ukYKAk2mAY&pbjreload=101

    “Journey Back to Oz” is the backbone in the history of Filmation. Production began with the partnership of Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott. Production began in 1962, when the voices and music were recorded (though Peter Lawford was replaced by Mickey Rooney). Liza Minelli who was so young her mother cosigned the contract. It was done in fits and starts over the ensuing years but was not finished until “The Archie Show” became a hit and helped finance it. It was completed in the early seventies.

    “Journey Back to Oz” was released to theaters on a limited basis in 1974. The SFM Holiday Network ran it very successfully in syndication for a few years before ABC broadcast the Cosby version. I wrote about the soundtrack album here:

    https://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/filmations-journey-back-to-oz-1974-on-records/

    • Correction…the ABC airing of the Cosby version of JBTO came before it went into syndication.

  • I have both parts of the two part episode, Island of the Lost, on 16mm. I posted the opening on You Tube back in 2007 (as seen above).

  • Minor minor point: Disney’s first TV show “Disneyland” was broadcast on ABC in the 1950s, but when NBC became the “All-Color” network, Disney switched networks and “Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” was produced for NBC start in 1961. Great article and great archival material!

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