Great Moments in Pop Culture – I’m Not a Real Witch

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Sometime in the late 80s, my mum found me loitering in the kitchen. The last she’d seen of me, I’d been happily sat in the living room, watching The Wizard of Oz.

“Are you hiding out here because you’re afraid of the witch?” she asked, with the giveaway sound of cackling coming from the other room. Of course, she was right. For many generations of children, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West was their very first monster. She’s every child’s idea of what a witch even is; green skin, a pointed hat and pointier nose, threatening to turn you into a frog, and filling the sky with cackles as she zooms around on a broomstick.

Of course, unlike movies where Nic Cage plays a saucer-eyed lunatic sniffing people’s faces and shrieking like he’s caught in a bear trap, followed by red carpet interviews where he behaves exactly the same, Margaret Hamilton wasn’t really a witch. In fact, the iconic role became something of a double-edged sword, with the real-life Hamilton a kindly, charitable woman who adored children, but found herself the object of their terror, being recognised from their nightmares, even many decades after the film was released.

The picture made a terrible impression of some kind on them,” she said, “sometimes a ghastly impression, but most of them got over it, I guess.”

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This is why, 36 years after Oz first hit theatres, Margaret Hamilton made an appearance, as herself, on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There are so many things to love about the meeting between one of cinema’s most frightening villains, and television’s purest soul. Any story about the kindness of Fred Rogers has me crying every cubic mm of fluid out of my body. There’s a famous tale of him receiving a letter from a little blind girl who worried about Rogers’ onscreen pet fish, unable see whether or not they were being fed. From then on, he made a point to always tell viewers that he was feeding the fish, so that the girl, and any similarly blind children, wouldn’t get upset (Note: I’m sobbing just typing that out, although as a disclaimer, I am deeply emotionally broken). That kind of inclusiveness was at the heart of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Rogers’ greatest strength was his ability to connect directly with the young audience. Guests would be personally introduced to the viewer, “my television friend,” straight into the lens with a hello, as was Margaret Hamilton for her 1975 appearance.

Hamilton cuts a grandmotherly figure, now aged 72, and wearing a colourful stripy dress and string of pearls, wishing the viewer a cheery “how do you do?” unfitting with the figure who had so many of us screaming ourselves awake. As was Rogers’ style, what’s great is the lack of just flatly saying “she’s not a real witch, so don’t be afraid,” rather, he credits the audience the intelligence to figure it out themselves, first, through a chat about the experience of playing a witch, and then in having Hamilton put on the costume.

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As they talk, Hamilton even allows children, for the first time, to empathise with the Witch, suggesting that, while the things she does are mean and bad, they may be born of her unhappiness and frustration. Bit by bit, they break down the steps between Hamilton and her alter-ego, as she discusses the problems of eating on-set lunch with green make-up on your hands, how she likes to play other parts, and the grandchildren that she loves very much. Even when confessing to her sadness over children being afraid of her, she demystifies this persona as “just pretend; everyone can do it, you can do it,” with Rogers remarking how fun it must be to talk in a witchy voice. “You can,” she says, “they can all do it too.” And that’s all it is; dress-up; nothing to hide in the kitchen from, and then, with that classic Fred Rogers inclusiveness, the pair make note of how girls and boys can both play at being witches.

In putting on the Witch’s outfit, it’s incredibly sweet to watch Rogers help the elderly Hamilton play dress-up, with the viewers seeing “a real lady, who got dressed up to play this part” transforming, piece by piece, from grandmother into the Wicked Witch. Rogers points out the zipper on the back of the dress, “just like the zipper on my sweater,” and she twirls with the cape like she’s glad, for once, to be back inside it. Metamorphosis complete with the famous hat, as Hamilton warmly remarks “there’s your old friend, the Wicked Witch of the West,” any watching child has surely gone from hating that scary Witch to wishing Margaret Hamilton was their grandma.

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It speaks to The Wizard of Oz‘s evergreen appeal, that this was even necessary some 36 years after release. To put it into context, imagine one of the Nazis from Raiders of the Lost Ark going on TV today, having to explain that his head didn’t really melt. There’s a funny parallel between Hamilton’s appearance and that of Sarah Greene in 1992, stopping by the CBBC broom cupboard the Monday after Ghostwatch, to pointedly refer to its special effects and show kids that she hadn’t really been killed by a paedo poltergeist.

Perhaps buoyed by the success of her Mister Rogers spot, and feeling she could once again interact with America’s kids without having them mess themselves, a few months later, Hamilton guest starred on that other great institution of children’s television, Sesame Street, this time reprising her role as the Wicked Witch. This did not go as well, and watching children were so frightened, the episode inspired a flood of complaints, and following its initial airing, it was permanently pulled from repeats, effectively banned. Though most letters were from angry parents, there was at least one from a Wiccan, unhappy with the portrayal of witches with a “negative stereotype.”

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Unseen since 1976, Episode 847 of Sesame Street has subsequently taken on a mythical status, putting it up there with other lost media, like Jerry Lewis’ concentration camp movie, The Day the Clown Cried, with swirling titbits of information and false-memories giving it the air of a Candle Cove-type Creepypasta. Here’s what we know. It starts with the Witch flying over Sesame Street on her broomstick, until she falls off and drops it. With Big Bird using the broom to sweep the street, she spends the episode trying to get it back through various means, from disguising herself as a harmless old lady, to threatening to turn Big Bird into a feather duster and to make it rain inside Mr. Hooper’s store. She gets on okay with Oscar the Grouch, who crushes on her a little, while Big Bird grows to like her too, and is sad when it’s time for her to leave. Various internet discussions suggest other scenes, like the Witch plucking out Big Bird’s tail feathers, electrocuting Maria, and in what appears to be the misremembering of another episode, cursing Oscar with a human nose. But until someone gets a tape, who can really say?

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Backstage at Sesame Street with Caroll ‘Big Bird’ Spinney

The Children’s Television Workshop held a bunch of test screenings the following month, to assess their decision, but results were clouded by the audience, used to their black and white home televisions, being overly fascinated with the Witch’s lurid green face. Even now, over forty years later, like the power of her scares to endless generations of children, the allure of this lost episode remains intact. Early in 2018, it was referenced in an episode of The Goldbergs, as a bootleg VHS with “Sesame Street episode 847” written on the spine. Likewise, the CTW are still unwilling to subject 21st century children to its potential horrors, allowing for paid, private viewings of their back catalogue for research purposes, but denying requests for that specific episode. At least Hamilton’s appearance made it to air. A 1992 episode, centring on Snuffy and his baby sister having to cope with their parents’ divorce, resulted in a horrific series of test screenings, with the distressed audience of 3-year-olds failing to grasp the intended message. Many interpreted the scenes as Snuffy’s parents — and accordingly, their parents — arguing because they didn’t love their children, and consequently, it never saw the light of day.

The Sesame Street incident wasn’t quite the Witch’s last hurrah, with Margaret Hamilton reprising the role onscreen once more, alongside H.R. Pufnstuf‘s Witchiepoo and KISS on Paul Lynde’s 1976 Halloween special. Still, there’s something a little sad about the sweet, kindly Hamilton, all those years after Oz, so successfully reassuring children she wasn’t scary that she ventured onto Sesame Street, only to be found so terrifying, what happened that day could never be seen again.

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~ by Stuart on May 5, 2018.

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