On a wall in the projection booth at the Dundee Theatre, scrawled in longhand, is a bit of Omaha movie history that’s never been painted over:
Longest movie run ever
2 years 3 months 1 week
1,316 performances of “The Sound of Music” in 70mm
4-5-1965 to 7-13-1967
The Dundee, which had “The Sound of Music” exclusively in Omaha (typical for the pre-multiplex era), hosted its second-longest run in the United States. The Loma in San Diego ran it 133 weeks.
Today and Wednesday, “The Sound of Music” will play in five Omaha theaters and one in Lincoln to mark the 50th anniversary of the film’s release. Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne will give a special filmed introduction.
Omaha was never alone in its love of “The Sound of Music.” The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which opened to mixed reviews on Broadway in 1959 and again as a movie in 1965, was an instant smash hit with audiences.
It’s the story of a postulant nun sent to be governess to a wealthy Austrian widower’s seven children. She teaches them to sing together, leads their emotionally distant father to show his love for them, and then edges out a baroness to marry him. Together the family escapes Austria when the Nazis annex it in 1938.
“It’s got all your elements,” said Lara Marsh, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan company manager who is a huge fan of the movie. “Your love story, of course. Everything you can relate to, as far as family. Action. Conflict. Romance. Singing children. Nazis. And nuns. It’s multilayered, which is why it’s stood the test of time.”
Loosely based on the real von Trapp family, it’s also G-rated, drenched in beautiful scenery and unabashedly sentimental. That last fact didn’t sit well with some movie critics. The public simply outvoted them.
“We might be nostalgic for this sort of sweeping, innocent corniness,” said Robert Dornsife, who teaches film and modern culture courses at Creighton University. “The scenes of Maria atop the Bavarian mountains are still grand and gorgeous.”
These days, he said, it’s hard to picture a G-rated family film that would include all the elements this one does.
“The Sound of Music” was the first movie to take in $100 million at the box office, a harder thing to do back when tickets averaged about $2. When it finally left movie theaters in 1969, after 4½ years, it had become the highest grossing movie ever — a record held by “Gone With the Wind” since 1939.
Its eventual worldwide gross of $286 million, adjusted for inflation to 2014 prices, would be $2.36 billion, good enough for third on the all-time list behind “Gone With the Wind” (it took the lead back with a re-release) and “Star Wars.”
Nominated for 10 Oscars, it won five, including best picture. It’s made a mint off the soundtrack album (15 million sold in the first decade), video rentals, multiple TV airings and a sing-along version to which cultish fans come costumed, a la “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The stage musical remains popular in community theaters and schools.
Salzburg, Austria, where most of the movie was filmed, has built a sustained industry out of showing tourists the movie’s landmarks, playing its music and even creating a marionette theater to echo a puppet segment in the movie.
NBC aired a new live version starring Carrie Underwood in late 2013, a ratings hit. Lady Gaga saluted the 50th anniversary on this year’s Oscars telecast, then got a hug from surprise guest Julie Andrews, who starred in the movie.
In fact, “The Sound of Music” has never gone out of the public consciousness since its release, a fact carefully documented in “The Sound of Music FAQ.” The new book by Barry Monush (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books) lists scores of movies and television shows that have spoofed, quoted or otherwise referenced “The Sound of Music” over the past 50 years.
Generations of schoolchildren have learned how a musical octave works by singing “Do Re Mi.” Other hits from the score — “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Every Mountain,” “16, Going on 17” and the title song — are also widely sung and quoted.
“The Sound of Music” went from smash hit to overexposure to being widely mocked for what some saw as goopy sentiment and a lack of realism. And now?
“It’s broken into being genuinely cool, in a weird way,” said Omaha filmmaker Mark Hoeger of Oberon Entertainment. “It’s formulaic in one sense, but they did that formula so well, it seems evergreen and fresh.”
Hoeger said Rodgers and Hammerstein were masters of combining troubled or forbidden romance and personal stories with larger social and political issues. They did that in “Oklahoma,” “The King and I,” “Carousel” and “South Pacific,” but never better than in “The Sound of Music,” he said.
“I think even though on the surface it was frothy and even silly, they always tapped into deeper roots that resonated,” he said. He noted that the movie came out just 20 years — one generation — after World War II, and its Nazi subplot resonated with millions whose lives had been touched by the war.
Hoeger said the equivalent today might be making a frothy musical that also touched on the first Gulf War or 9/11 — not an easy thing to pull off. “They put a patina of sugar on top so it would make the medicine go down,” he said.
Scott Glasser, who teaches theater and film at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, agreed.
“Musicals can allow us to see harsh things in an entertaining way,” he said. “The music brings out the humanity in us. But it also struck a nerve.”
Susan Baer Collins, who directed “The Sound of Music” at the Omaha Community Playhouse in 2003, said the sense of danger created by the family’s escape from the Nazis is key to how well the movie works. “I don’t know anybody who can’t sing at least the first phrase of those iconic songs,” she said. “I think as a world and a country, we were smitten. Julie Andrews is definitive in that role.”
And director Robert Wise was no slouch either, Hoeger said.
“It combined great craftsmanship, great talent and tapping into deeper, emotionally significant connections,” he said.
“Mock it all you will, it still works.”
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The Sound of Music
Cast: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker, Charmian Carr, Richard Haydn, Peggy Wood
Director: Robert Wise
Running time: 2 hours, 54 minutes
Special re-release: Today and Wednesday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. only
Theaters: Aksarben, Bluffs 17, Oakview, Twin Creek, Village Pointe and at the Grand in Lincoln