EDITOR'S NOTE: As Editor Robert Stieve noted in our April issue on Sonoita-Patagonia, that region of Arizona was the filming location for the musical Oklahoma!, released in 1955. The April 1955 issue of Arizona Highways included a look at the production, along with photos from the set and an account of how Oklahoma! ended up in Arizona. Here's Allen C. Reed's story from that issue.
Just twelve years ago this month, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Oklahoma!", destined to be a fabulously successful hit, opened on Broadway. In the dozen ensuing years, "Oklahoma!" has played more than 8,000 performances to a delighted world-wide audience well over 12,000,000, with a gross of over $30,000,000. Such a record causes little wonder when taking into consideration the loved musical score that seems to have the immortal quality of never growing old: numbers like "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," "People Will Say We're in Love," and the title number.
Now the great musical "Oklahoma!" can reach a still wider audience, for the long-awaited screen version about to be released in full color is expected to smash this twelve-year record in a fraction of the time.
"Oklahoma!" is not only being filmed in CinemaScope but this production marks the introduction of a new camera, the Todd-American Optical big screen process, which uses a single strip of 65mm film and is designed to give audiences a sense of participation on the order of Cinerama.
After turning down a host of offers to film "Oklahoma!", partly to avoid outside tampering with their creation, Rodgers and Hammerstein formed their own company, leased facilities and equipment from M.G.M. and hired Arthur Hornblow as the producer. The director is Academy Award winner Fred Zinnemann, who has such top-flight pictures to his credit as "Seventh Cross," "High Noon," "From Here to Eternity," and many others.
The cast of "Oklahoma!" includes Gordon McRae as "Curley," a sparkling and capable newcomer making her film debut. Shirley Jones, as "Laurey," Charlotte Green as "Aunt Eller," Barbara Lawrence as "Gertie," Eddie Albert as "Ali Hakim," Gene Nelson as "Will Parker," Gloria Grahame as "Ado Annie," Rod Steiger as "Jud," James Whitmore as "Andy Carnes," Jay C. Flippen as "Skidmore" and Roy Barcroft as "Cord Elam."
Before the film got under way, more than 250,000 miles were logged by R.&H. officials in search of the ideal location site. An extensive survey crisscrossing the state of Oklahoma revealed that it would be rather difficult to capture the feeling of wide open spaces, that the territory was noted for 50 years ago, with an oil well or some such modern structure showing up in the background. Other drawbacks of the Sooner state were too many airplanes that would disturb the sound system and force costly delays, to say nothing of the great distance to transport tons of equipment and the 325 member cast and crew back and forth from the home studio in Culver City, California.
One day Arthur Hornblow, leafing through the pages of Arizona Highways, saw a color photograph of the spacious San Rafael Valley of Southern Arizona. When research revealed this area was noted, during the summer, for its green grass and picturesque clouds, arrangements were made to film the exterior sequences in this ideal setting 36 miles northeast of Nogales. There, in the shade of stately cottonwoods by a quiet country stream, "Aunt Eller's" farm of 1900 vintage took form, complete with two-story house, barn, silo, windmill and smoke house.
Shooting schedule called for a bearing peach orchard, a field of ripe wheat and a field of corn "as high as an elephant's eye," in July at an altitude of 5,000 feet where harvest time is normally in October. The peach orchard was purchased and transplanted. From the studio prop department came some 2,000 lush looking wax peaches, complete with fuzz, to be hung out each morning and taken in at night. The corn field, running up and down hill, presented an especially tough problem. Each stalk had to be coddled and nurtured with chemicals and a constant supply of water to yield what was doubtlessly the world's most costly corn crop: ten acres at something like $8.95 per ear. Of more than 6,000 props bought, borrowed or built, for this picture, by Irving Sindler and his prop department, the Arizona sky proved to be the most magnificent, with white thunderheads boiling up into the afternoon blue a daily occurrence.
There is nothing small time about the production of "Oklahoma!", with filming cost reported upwards from five to eight million dollars. The fine cast, the excelling abilities of director Fred Zinnemann, the outstanding capabilities of producer Arthur Hornblow, camerman Robert Surtees and of the entire hand-picked crew, along with the musical and story genius of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, are combined to give the world an entertainment experience surely worthy of all the awards and "splendiferous" adjectives that Hollywood can come up with, one in which Arizona can surely be honored and proud to have played such an important role.
To learn more about Sonoita and Patagonia, pick up a copy of our April issue, on newsstands now.