How Sesame Street Made The Wicked Witch's Worst Nightmare Come True
Her greatest fear was scaring kids. Mr. Rogers helped defuse that fear until Sesame Street came along and made it all worse.
Margaret Hamilton loved kids and animals more than anything. She’d been a kindergarten teacher for ten years before the stage called her name.
She spent her life working with animal charities and urging pet owners to spay and neuter their pets, which was pretty radical in the mid 1900s. She was on the local school board and became a significant sponsor of PBS public broadcasting for children for most of her life.
She’d only had a few parts when her agent called and said MGM was interested in her auditioning for The Wizard of Oz. She was so excited. Oh my gosh, she said. I’ve loved that book since I was four years old!
“Which part?” she asked.
“Well. The witch. Of course!” he replied.
Later, she laughed about it. She knew she didn’t have classic “leading lady” looks. She was no Katherine Hepburn, but she figured she could make a decent living playing character parts.
That part almost cost Hamilton her life…
There’s a scene where the good witch is protecting Dorothy from the wicked witch, who wants the ruby slippers. The wicked witch says the famous “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too…” line and disappears in a poof of smoke and fire.
Here’s a clip. Real short, so you can see the scene…
They were shooting that scene 2 days before Christmas. It was Dec. 23, 1938 and Hamilton was a single mother with a 3 year old little boy at home.
Here’s how it was supposed to work...
She’d stand on a trap door. A poof of smoke would appear. Hidden by the smoke, she’d drop down the trap door. When she was safely off stage, flames would shoot up. When the smoke and flames were gone, the wicked witch would be gone, too. It was brilliant for an era before CG effects existed.
Except, the crew set off the flames too early. Her head and arms were still above the trapdoor.
It gets worse.
The green paint was toxic, copper-based and flammable. She was rushed to the hospital with second-degree burns on her face and third-degree burns on her hand.
Sorry, even worse. The paint had to be removed from her burned flesh with alcohol. It was insanely painful. Decades later, even as an old woman, she’d remember that as the most painful experience of her life.
It took six weeks to recover. When shooting resumed in mid-February, she had to wear tight green gloves because her hand wasn’t healed enough to put the makeup on.
The show must go on.
Her biggest fear was scaring kids, and she did…
The wicked witch of the west was a bit part in The Wizard of Oz.
She was only on screen for 12 minutes.
It didn’t start out that way. Originally, hers was a much bigger role. But producers ended up cutting 12 lines and scenes because an at initial screening, children were carried out of the theatre crying.
She said that was her biggest fear when she took the role, that she’d scare kids. She loved kids and didn’t want to frighten them. She hoped parents would explain that it wasn’t real. But scare them, she did.
The first showing did 29.7 million at the box office. In 1938. That’s like a movie doing 62 million on opening today. It was so popular, it was brought back to theatres twice by popular demand.
Then, in 1956 it hit television. The first broadcasts were at night. But in 1959, they played it at 6PM. When the Neilson ratings came in, 58% of the entire viewing audience had been tuned in to the Wizard of Oz.
Win, win. Cha-chang.
They started playing it on television every year.
Years later, as an elderly woman, she said she’d taken the part for two reasons. First, because she’d loved the book so much as a child. But also? As a single mother, she really needed the money.
Despite that she played in over 70 movies, it became the role she was defined by. Even with half her parts cut, she was still scaring kids.
It broke her heart.
Mr. Rogers to the rescue…
In 1975, Mr. Rogers heard that children were scared of the wicked witch. His show was about explaining things to kids. So he told his producer if they could get Margaret Hamilton on the show, maybe they could help.
He wrote the script himself.
You can watch the full clip on Mr. Roger’s site, or here’s a clip…
The show aired on May 14, 1975. They talked about acting and Mr. Rogers explained that his friend Margaret is a grandma and acting is just her job. He talked about dress-up, make believe and Halloween costumes.
He talked about how a “witch” is a popular Halloween costume that lots of children wear and they aren’t real witches, either. It’s just make believe. It helped kids understand that the witch in the movie is pretend.
Then she put on the witch costume on stage. Mr. Rogers asked her how she talked in the movie and she demonstrated. He imitated the witch’s evil laugh and they both laughed and told children they can try it at home.
It was truly sweet and helped defuse the fear.
By then, Hamilton was 73 years old. If that had been her last appearance as the Wicked Witch of the West, it would have been a beautiful way to wind down the role that defined her entire career. But, no. It wasn’t to be.
The Sesame Street fiasco…
I can only assume producers at Sesame Street saw the Mr. Rogers episode, because in 1976, the year after her Mr. Rogers appearance, Hamilton was contacted by Sesame Street producers.
They had a great idea.
The wicked witch would appear on Sesame Street. The episode would be about teaching problem-solving to children. The wicked witch was going to lose her broom and Sesame Street characters wouldn’t give it back because she was being rude.
Remembering her Mr. Rogers experience, she agreed.
It was a total and utter fiasco.
The script they wrote called for her to yell, scream, cackle and threaten to turn Big Bird into a feather duster. Oh sure, it ended well. Problem was, most kids didn’t make it to the end of the show.
Parent bombed PBS with so much angry mail they pulled the episode from the air immediately and said the Wicked Witch is banned from Sesame Street.
They shoved the episode in a locked vault for “banned episodes,” along with the episode where Snuffy’s parents get a divorce. There it would stay, until 2022.
Today, the wicked witch is still one of the top 5 movie villains of all time, according to the American Film Institute.
Margaret Hamilton died in her sleep in 1985. The banned Sesame Street episode was one of her last appearances as the Wicked Witch of the West.
“A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
It's very unfortunate that she got "typed" as the Witch considering that the character was nothing like who she really was. And that it completely overshadowed her extensive career as a character actor and film and television and her work as a commercial spokesperson for Maxwell House coffee ("SCTV" did a great sketch where they combined her spokesperson character with the Witch!).
A lovely article about this actress. I hadn’t been aware of her background or the accident on the set. Thank you for sharing!