[Above: If ever there was an opportunity to approximate the king-size feeling of awe at entering the gates of Oz – with nary an emerald or stage-set in sight – it might well have come at the 2019 San Diego Country Fair!]
I know all of its fans, staff, docents, and volunteers are delighted by the fact that The OZ Museum was able to reopen its doors on May 28th. Wamego’s extraordinary venue, with its countless artifacts and collectibles, has already attracted visitors from all over the world. So here’s a fervent hope that such passionate parades of aficionados will continue to discover --right there in Kansas -- the ongoing magic of the Oz books, films, stage shows, cartoons, toys, games, and all.
Of course, many other – and larger -- venues across the United States have not yet been so fortunate, and countless events across the country have had to be canceled for the safety of all concerned. One of the largest of these is the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar, CA; their annual celebration generally runs from the first weekend in June through July 4th or 5th, and their 2020 theme, HEROES, UNITE! (built around legendary superheroes) has been postponed to 2021.
Why raise that topic here? Well, both Wamego’s OZ Museum and I have a remarkable connection to the San Diego festivities. Their last year’s theme was “OZ-SOME!” and while it tied in (to a certain extent) with the eightieth anniversary of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film, THE WIZARD OF OZ, the accompanying displays, programming, and historical placards at the fairgrounds traced the complete 120-year history of all-things-Oz.
This Southern California association all began for me twenty-three months ago. With their Ozzy premise in mind, the Deputy General Manager of the Fair first reached out via email the day before the 2018 festivities concluded. (They believe in planning ahead!) Through correspondence and phone calls, I got acquainted with several of the SDFC organizers and creative staff, and eventually it was decided that four of their representatives would come to Kansas that October to spend the day at OZtoberFest. In the process, they saw The OZ Museum, heard some of the presentations, and – the day after the Fest – spent several hours discussing “pOZibilities” for their twenty-seven-day, 2019 celebration with Clint Stueve (executive director of The OZ Museum/Columbian Theatre) and me.
[Above: Back home again in Wamego! These two costume pieces were designed by Adrian, worn during the filming of the Munchkinland segment of MGM’s OZ film in December 1938, and then purchased for The OZ Museum at the Bonhams movie memorabilia auction in New York City in November 2014. The yellow and green jacket at right was worn in the film by a Munchkin soldier; the red-and-white outfit at left was loaned by the museum for exhibition at the San Diego County Fair in 2019.]
In the process, tentative agreements were reached with Clint for the loan of several items from the holdings of The OZ Museum for display in Del Mar the following summer. These eventually included several collectible figurines, toys, a music box, and a cookie jar. Best of all, in terms of the subsequent show of interest by Fair attendees, were the hardcover copies of all fourteen of the L. Frank Baum Oz books (several in first edition) and one of the original 1939 MGM movie costumes. The red/orange-and-white striped tailcoat/jacket was worn by Eugene David as one of the “five little fiddlers” who serenaded/escorted Judy Garland’s “Dorothy” to the border of Munchkinland in the film.
It’s no exaggeration to state that Wamego’s generosity most assuredly enhanced the fulsome Ozziness of the California event!
In turn, I was contracted by the SDCF to make two trips to San Diego across the course of the Fair, appearing each time for four days of presentations. These included “Over the Rainbow to OZ” (an illustrated talk about the making of the MGM film) and “The Wonderful World of Oz” (detailing the all-pervasive emotional impact of Oz on every-day pop culture since 1900). As June 2019 marked Judy Garland’s ninety-seventh birthday anniversary – and exactly five decades since her passing – we additionally offered “So Much More Than Dorothy,” which included five excerpts from her non-OZ film performances dating from 1938-1962.
Perhaps most importantly (as it eventually turned out), the Fair representatives requested that I tell the history of Oz in timelines, captions, and pictures. This material was then enlarged and artfully emblazoned on several dozen huge placards, scattered throughout the exhibition hall to explain to attendees the extraordinary story of what was wrought by Baum, his imagination, his associates, and his adherents since 1900.
[Above: Each day, for twenty-seven days, thousands of Fair visitors got caught up in the images and legends of Oz -- in all their permutations. These placards are among those that specifically offered the back story of the MGM film, “Behind the Scenes and On the Set.”]
In addition to the billboards, memorabilia, and twenty Fricke lectures, the SDCF created its own Ozian magic. Fairgoers could walk a Yellow Brick Road, pose for selfies in front of (or with) recognizable Oz vistas and characters, hear the Flying Monkey Electronic DJ, visit with a Dorothy “story-lady,” revel in Baum/Oz-related skits from an imaginative troupe of young actors, hear diverse Oz-related songs from live, madcap musicians (the “Wizards of Song”), and attend a daily “Ask the Wizard” show. The latter featured the recreated Great Head of Oz, with local entertainment stalwart Jerry Hager as “the man behind the curtain,” fielding queries from children of all ages. Of course, there were also acres and acres of standard “Fair fare”: food, stage shows, animals, flowers, rides, cars, and crafts.
Speaking personally, my eight months of work from afar – and eight days in person – were their own wonderland, steeped as I was in the topics I’d more and more adored, virtually daily, from the time I was five years old. It was especially gratifying that all the lectures drew audiences that not only filled the fifty or sixty spots on the benches in the presentation “corner” of the hall but often spread out to a spectrum of jam-packed standing room. Viewers seemed magnetized (or Ozified!) and drawn in by the projected video and slide images, the sound of the Garland voice as it reverberated around the space , and the undeniably contagious enthusiasm that Oz generates – in (as ever) all ages, all the time. More than a dozen enthusiasts came back several days in a row, to experience the same material multiple times.
[Above: The scene of the crime! I gratefully posed with one of the Oz timeline placards I’d been asked to create – this one detailing the ascent of Ruth Plumly Thompson to the post of “Royal Historian” (note the cover of her 1922 KABUMPO IN OZ), the 1925 WIZARD OF OZ silent film, the 1933 Ted Eshbaugh Oz cartoon short, and the 1933-34 NBC/Jell-O Oz radio program. On the barely visible left-hand billboard, the uber-observant Oz fan might glimpse images of the title page of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book (1900), a poster for the 1903 WIZARD OF OZ Broadway musical, sheet music for THE WOGGLE-BUG and THE TIK-TOK MAN OF OZ stage plays (1905 and 1913, respectively), the cover of THE ROAD TO OZ (1909), and an advertisement for Baum’s 1908 multi-media touring show, THE FAIRYLOGUE AND RADIO-PLAYS.]
According to multiple officials and longtime employees, this combination of attendance/attention was very unusual for such Fair presentations. An even more surprising situation (in terms of eventual crowd fascination) came with the enormous placards, which – over and over --- stopped casually wandering attendees in their tracks. People were attracted by the images, stayed to read the brief anecdotes or factoids, and intently followed the hoztory from area to area. The SDCF executives repeatedly commented on this, as well, noting that similar informational fonts had been present at (and tied to) the differing annual themes for past years. But these generally garnered only cursory glances before being bypassed; Oz, however, enticed, intrigued, and enchanted ’em!
(Is anyone reading here surprised to hear such a thing? 😊 )
Bringing this month’s blog full circle – and back to The OZ Museum -- I’d like to quote Clint Stueve, who flew out from Kansas last June to both see the Fair and enjoy Wamego’s museum pieces in their temporary home. He recently wrote, “At the close of the Fair, [the representatives] were incredibly generous. They sent us most of the printed material that created the amazing Oz atmosphere . . . [particularly] the panels with the Oz history content. We set some of the panels up for OZtoberFest [in 2019], and we plan to cycle them through our festivals and potential other events.”
So, that’s why this month’s blog looks back on the glee of exactly one year ago – with awe at (and appreciation for) the to-and-fro cooperation and generosity extended by The OZ Museum and the San Diego County Fair. I don’t think there’s any exaggeration when I note the gratitude that also flows in both directions . . . and most certainly from me, as well. May I add, too, please that the couple of dozen SDFC staff people with whom I worked or interacted were professional, pleasant, and dedicated to the max. They performed their disparate tasks in exemplary fashion, and it surely paid off to the delight of the fairgoers. So, here’s to all of them getting back to work and back on schedule in 2021!
[Above: A slightly different view of the 2019 San Diego County Fair entryway.]We end as we began: with an unforgettable image of last year’s once-in-a-lifetime entrance to Oz. May many more such portals – of any dimensions – occur in many places in the months, decades, and centuries ahead!
Article by John Fricke