The 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz is memorable for many reasons, and one of them is certainly the presence of Dorothy’s adorable dog, Toto.
How the dog came to be cast in the starring role is a perfect Hollywood story as it involves unkind, deadbeat owners, the rescue of the little dog by a trainer and his family, and of course, it involves little Terry herself, a female Cairn Terrier, who seemed to understand that succeeding in show business brought with it a guarantee of a good home and never having to go back to her mean owners again.
In the Beginning
But let’s back up a bit to explain what happened. Terry is said to have been born in 1933 in Alta Dena, California. She was adopted by a married couple from Pasadena who had no children and evidently no patience for puppy training. Terry had a problem with wetting the rug, and the couple became very frustrated, eventually calling Carl Spitz, who was running the successful Hollywood Dog Training School which trained regular people’s pets when required but specialized in training dogs for show business.
Spitz accepted Terry, and within a relatively short time Terry was housebroken and ready to go home. When Spitz notified the owners, they had no intention of picking up Terry—or paying the bill. Spitz had acquired a new pup. Terry was an occasional guest in the house (located on the same property as the kennels), and soon she was finding laps to sit in and endearing herself to the family.
The first audition to which Spitz took Terry was one for Bright Eyes (1934) starring child star Shirley Temple. After the choice of possible dogs was narrowed down by the casting people, the final test was meeting Shirley and her own dog, a Pomeranian named Ching-Ching, and when Terry did well with Ching-Ching. Shirley turned to the adults observing the scene and gave her approval: “She’s hired.”
The Wizard of Oz
Five additional films followed for Terry before The Wizard of Oz. Carl Spitz heard that a new film of the book was to be made, and he researched the story, running Terry through all the types of training that might be necessary if Terry were cast. Ultimately, Terry was selected to play Toto.
The success of Toto in the film is to Spitz and Terry’s credit. Terry played a part involving a vast cast (think of the Munchkins, the Winkies and the Flying Monkeys) as well as major stars dressed in animal and fantasy costumes. It could not have been easy for a canine to remain cool and collected, yet Toto appears in almost all the scenes of the movie.
It was also the first time when a film was made of The Wizard of Oz that no one tried to write the dog out of the script partially or totally. Terry, however, excelled at everything from listening intently when Judy Garland sang him/her Somewhere over the Rainbow to withstanding three wind machines mimicking a tornado. There was one bad incident; a large Winkie accidentally stepped on Terry’s foot, and Terry was given a few days off to recover from the injury.
For her work, Terry was paid $125 per week—more than the Munchkins received.
Toto’s Performance Draws Mention
Toto’s performance even merited specific and detailed mention in at least one review. This appeared in American Girl Magazine in March 1940: “The hardest thing this little dog ever had to do was during the drawbridge scene in the Wizard of Oz, when she was chased by the huge Winkie guards of the Wicked Witch. Toto had to come running out of the castle and was trying to cross the drawbridge. She had almost reached the middle when the drawbridge was pulled straight up. The only safety Toto had was by clutching the edge of the bridge with her little paws and balancing herself thirty feet in the air. One of a dog’s greatest fears is the fear of falling, so it took a great deal of courage to follow her master’s orders that time.”
Terry Becomes Toto Officially
By the end of the film, everyone was calling Terry Toto, and at that point, Spitz decided the only thing to do was to officially change Terry’s name. From then on she was known as Toto.
While Toto will always be known for the Wizard of Oz, the dog went on to make seven more films. In addition, in 1942 Carl Spitz mounted a bus tour for his canine stars to perform and make “personal appearances.” In addition to Toto, Spitz took Buck (Call of the Wild), Prince Carl (Wuthering Heights), Mr. Binkie (The Light that Failed), and Musty (Swiss Family Robinson).
Toto’s last film came out in 1945 and Toto was getting ready to retire by that time. She lived comfortably in the Spitz household on Riverside Drive until the autumn of 1945 when she died. The Spitz family buried him in their backyard, never thinking that one day they would have to move.
In 1958 the Ventura Freeway being built and the Spitzes were forced to find a new location, eventually buying a kennel property that belonged to Rudd Weatherwax (trainer of Lassie)—the location on Vanowen in North Hollywood where the Hollywood Dog Training School is still located. (For more on the story of the school, click here.) The family moved, having to leave behind Toto and the remains of other dogs buried in their pet cemetery.
Today, however, there is a place to visit and remember Toto. In 2011 a memorial at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, funded by an active group of Toto fans, was unveiled in memory of Toto.
A dog’s life is not always easy to research but writer and director Willard Carroll (1955- ) was determined to track down everything he could and has put together Toto’s story by writing Toto’s autobiography in the dog’s voice. The facts are what you read above but the voice Carroll creates for the canine star is quite amusing. You might want to check out I, Toto: The Autobiography of Terry, The Dog Who Was Toto. Carroll is also thought to own the world’s largest collection of Oz memorabilia.