Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Captain, The Witch and The Writer

The first time I saw her, she had a green face, a long, sharp nose that looked more like a weapon, and she told Dorothy, “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too.” She was a witch and she scared me. I almost dropped my box of Jujubees. Fortunately she eventually melted into a puddle with only her pointed hat resting on top.

The next time I saw her she was sitting in a chair, sans green face and  hat, talking to Captain 11. That was in the studio of Channel 11, next door to the Chase Hotel. I worked there at some lowly  writing and producing job for $40 a week. Minimum wage. Twenty years had passed and I was meeting Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West. This was probably 1961.

I had forgotten all about this event until I came across a couple of old photos in an envelope recently, while attempting to “organize” my stuff. Hercules had an easier time with the stables. (My lone, pathetic reference to Greek mythology). Margaret was a charming, graciouis guest and still making movies, though I don't know what she was doing in St. Louis.

The Captain was Harry Fender, a former St. Louis detective and host of a late night radio show from the Steeplechase Lounge of the Chase Hotel. His claim to fame was that he had turned down an offer from Florenz Ziegfield to appear in the opening of a new musical on Broadway when he was just a boy. The show was “Showboat.” 

Now Harry wore a white wig, an ill-fitting sea-captain’s uniform, and did his best to entertain little kids on the daily TV show, which was “live” and showed old Dick and Larry cartoons, and Three Stooges shorts.

The program was “Captain 11 and JoJo,” and his partner was Joe Cuscanelli, a young man with a beautiful operatic voice who had taken the part of Captain 11’s foil just to pay his bills. He disliked children almost as much as Harry did.

Margaret, of course, held the children spellbound. As she did me and everyone else in the studio, including Harry and Joe. After all, this was one of the great villains of the day, maybe even of the century. I didn’t get her autograph; I didn’t have my picture taken with her. I just shook hands, said "hi," and stared at her, surprised at how young she was. 

Maybe I was still afraid of her awesome power, that she would turn the flying monkeys loose or strike me with a bolt of lightning. I think I would have preferred meeting the Cowardly Lion. Now he was a funny guy.


  1. I, too would have been tongue-tied. Or perhaps I would have prayed I could keep my mouth shut. Otherwise, I might have blurted out one of the lines from Wizard of Oz that she had certainly heard thousands of times before, proving what an idiot I was.

  2. What a wonderful memory. Thanks for sharing. Wow, you took me way back!

  3. "Oh we loathe, the old one.
    Oh we loathe, the old one."--guards of the Wicked Witch of the West.