Why Miss Gulch Returned
Judy Garland died on June 22, 1969, and I don't know what shocked this ten-year-old more – that Dorothy had surrendered, or that the N. Y. Times front-page photo showed a 47-year-old woman in sequins.  Dorothy – are you in there?  It dawned on me for the first time that while my two-dimensional celluloid friends cavorted annually in the merry old land of my black-and-white television set, their real, three-dimensional human counterparts had been trapped in the real world, set adrift in a hot-air balloon without knowing how it works.
Several weeks later, my prescient grandmother took me on a trip to see my future – in the form of Richard Rodgers' Lincoln Center revival of Oklahoma!  Live actors!  And not just any live actors.  The curtain rises on an old woman sitting before a 1900 Plains farmhouse; and from the second row, this ten-year-old's mind reeled once more as I realized that six feet from me sat the Wicked Witch of the West, exactly thirty years after her previous engagement as a Plains farm woman – when her little party was just beginning.
That summer, Margaret Hamilton lavished me with postcards, Oz photos, and best wishes, as was her meticulous custom with enraptured ten-year-olds who wrote her fan letters; she carelessly invited me to visit her backstage someday.  At sixteen, I slipped past the doorman to her Boston dressing room after A Little Night Music (I marched up to that door and bid it open, hoping she would find it kind of me to visit her in her loneliness).  I gave her no trouble, I can assure you.  Recognizing me as part-fan, part-future-theatrical, she generously and graciously regaled me with tales of how to melt and throw fire.
Fred Barton as The Wicked Witch of the West
(Theatre-By-The-Sea, RI, 1979)
At 20, I came to appreciate her advice, on my first professional stage in The Wizard of Oz.  The actress hired to play the Wicked Witch was liquidated, and – times being what they were – I accepted the job.  But to play the Witch and simultaneously serve as Musical Director?  These things must be done delicately:  a piano was placed directly offstage, so that seconds after playing "Over The Rainbow" for the little girl, I could jump on the bike and live the dream.  It was at this fateful moment when Gulch History was made.  The Munchkins and Monkeys would gather around to howl at the sight of offstage Miss Gulch, in full regalia, playing "Over The Rainbow" for her onstage nemesis; lightbulbs and lightning bolts!
You'd never know I had just played
"Over The Rainbow" for the girl.
(Theatre-By-The-Sea, RI, 1979)

Like all good stock theatres, Theatre-by-the-Sea in Matunuck, R.I. had a late-night cabaret where cast members would let their considerable hair down after the show.  In this cauldron of improvised insanity, Miss Gulch Returned for the first time.  I donned the costume in front of the audience, and sang a single song I had written months before, for a Harvard burlesque:  "I'm A Bitch."  The five-minute turn became a nightly sensation – then an annual one as I returned to the theatre each summer.  But when I was 22, off-Broadway called, and I packed up my songs and my wig forever. Lightly.

In 1983 I saw Margaret Hamilton for the last time.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences sponsored the last great Convocation of Oz Alumni, hosted by the MGM Oz historian Aljean Harmetz.  From Ray Bolger to producer Mervyn LeRoy to the last of the Munchkins, each veteran's entrance sent the huge audience into hysteria.  But nothing could match the fifteen minutes of pandemonium when the Wicked Witch of the West walked down the aisle to the podium.
Recovering from a stroke, Ms. Hamilton barely moved a muscle while she spoke – and neither did anyone else.  In a tiny but ever-recognizable voice, she delivered thirty of the funniest, most devastating minutes anyone present is likely to experience.
How curious, I thought, that the villainess of Oz should be the longest-lived, the most humorous, the most wise, the most philosophical, the most humanistic, and the most articulate in holding an audience in her thrall; and that she should generously dispense warm, practical advice to the young people in her presence, much as she had done for an adolescent Judy Garland backstage on the Oz set thirty-five years before.
I had spent the afternoon in Mel Brooks' office at Fox, helping a friend who was auditioning his song for an upcoming movie.  I secretly fumed, like a true showbiz pal, that I hadn't magically attracted the assignment myself – having written not a note or a word in years.  Late that night, in the dreary Hollywood motel where Janis Joplin died, the dam broke –I feverishly wrote the song I would have written if I were a functioning writer.  They wanted a double-entendre song for a Twenties moll in a men's bar; but was I a clever enough wizard to manage it?
Next morning, I found a mysterious manuscript on my desk, with the words "Pour Me A Man" scrawled in mid-page, in handwriting closely resembling mine (Janis, is that you? Couldn't have been – not her type of thing).  Similar feverish episodes followed as I moved back to New York, and within two weeks I had a sheaf of new songs.

A Star Is Born had just been
re-released with restored footage;
I did take-offs on their publicity.
A friend, a gender-illusionist par excellence, asked for "Pour Me A Man" to sing at a La Cage Aux Folles party.  What an unexpected pleasure:  lightbulbs – lightning bolts!  A man singing "Pour Me A Man?"  La Cage Aux Folles?  The Wicked Witch outlives the kid – shatters her own stereotype –
and dispenses passionate advice to the disenfranchised?  Alone in a Hollywood motel, ignored by the studio moguls?  In a flash I realized that every song I had just written was in fact a gender metaphor, a snapshot of a state of mind, and that the performance metaphor had been with me all along, biding her time.  I'd always had the power to go back to Kansas.  My old Gulch dress and hat came flying out of the lightly-packed box faster than you can say "menace to the community."  Miss Gulch Lives! opened at Palsson's Supper Club in November 1983.
In 1985, I changed the title, and posters for Miss Gulch Returns! went up all over town – hours before the N. Y. Times reported Margaret Hamilton's death.  What a world, what a world!  She had heard about the show from friends, and reportedly chuckled over the printed program – and it only took fifteen years between those two Oz obituaries for this ten-year-old to rediscover the three-dimensional message hidden behind our two-dimensional sepia-toned friends.  But maybe I never really lost it to begin with.
– Fred Barton, 
November 1999