Restoration Revealed: The Original Wizard of Oz Crystal Ball
Follow up to last week’s post: Actually, I do have a crystal ball
By Jay Walker, Upside Founder & CEO.
Undoubtedly the most famous crystal ball in the history of film, this hand-blown glass sphere was used by the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) to keep track of Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her companions as they traveled down the Yellow Brick Road in the MGM Technicolor classic The Wizard of Oz, a film that has become an enduring national institution.
Missing since 1939, this icon was thought lost by Oz experts after it did not turn up during MGM’s famous 1970 sale. Research has revealed that MGM never owned it. Instead, the crystal ball was the property of special effects genius Kenneth Strickfaden (Frankenstein). He not only contributed the crystal ball to the film, but also was hired to create the electrical shock effect the Wicked Witch received when she bent down to remove the Ruby Slippers from Dorothy’s feet.
Remarkably, before appearing in The Wizard of Oz, the crystal ball had appeared in other film classics involving Strickfaden, including MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu starring Boris Karloff, and Twentieth Century Fox’s Chandu the Magician starring Bela Lugosi. After Oz was filmed in 1939, the ball apparently spent most of the last 70 years stored safely inside a tiny prop house, lovingly maintained by Strickfaden. That’s where it was discovered several years ago.
Approximately 25 inches in diameter, the Oz crystal ball is made of hand-blown glass. It is not perfectly spherical in shape but very slightly egg-shaped. As with the Earth itself, this deviation from a perfect sphere is not always detectable by a casual glance, but the ball from Strickfaden’s prop collection matches original MGM photos of the Oz globe from several different angles.
The authenticity of the crystal ball was verified by Oz experts. They mapped slight imperfections (bubbles) in the hand-blown glass, then painstakingly matched them with corresponding images of the crystal ball as it appeared in the 1939 film.
In 2011, the ball became part of the collection at the Walker Library of the History of Human Imagination. When we received it, it was simply a large, transparent glass globe with an open neck at the bottom, almost like a giant light bulb. The original base seen in the film, with the winged monkeys around the perimeter, was nowhere to be found.
Michael Patterson, then with Walker Digital LLC, directed a painstaking process over many months to restore the crystal ball and provide hi-tech augmentation. Our intent was to enable the ball to perform as it did in the film, showing scenes and sounds from the movie. But where MGM’s movie used special optical effects to create this illusion, our plan was to turn the crystal ball into a one-of-a-kind projection device.
Anatoly Krishtul at ARK Restoration and Design LTD presided over the cleaning of the original crystal ball.
Mike Patterson (now with polygondropout.com) oversaw the transformation as David Rosenfeld and David Howe of Hudson Scenic Studio designed and constructed a replica of the base used in the movie, and installed a sophisticated internal Sony projection system that enables the crystal ball to display images on a translucent, balloon-like screen on the inner surface of the glass.
The fully restored ball now comes to life with sights and sounds from the 1939 movie, displaying film clips and playing soundtrack excerpts.
No longer part of the décor at the Wicked Witch’s castle — and rescued from oblivion in a dusty collection of movie props — today the Wizard of Oz crystal ball guards the entrance to the Walker Library of the History of Human Imagination.