(Disclaimer: Any opinion contained in this column belongs to its author. Photo of Ron Baxley Jr., courtesy Marc Baum)
CHITTENANGO, N.Y. — At June’s Oz-Stravaganza, a festival celebrating Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, we often pitch the phrase “There’s no place like Oz” much like the evil apple trees did their own fruit in the 1939 classic film.
However, we bear other fruit, a love of Oz and each other. And we intentionally change the original quote from the movie.
The late Clara Houck, the village librarian who started the ever-growing festival in the town of Baum’s birth with some small activities and eventually a parade, would have wanted everybody to feel included and loved, I am sure. Baum himself would have wanted those of varying perspectives and even the oddballs like his characters in his 14 Oz books to feel at home. Speaking of oddballs…
Since 2011, I have been a guest author for eight non-consecutive years in the Author and Artist Alley of Oz-Stravaganza, including this year. Marc Baum, who is on the Board, first invited me to attend there when he saw that I had put a book I first published in 1999, The Talking City of Oz, online for free. Many of my other projects would follow through the years and would be brought there. This year, I premiered an anthology, Tales on the Yellow Brick Road 2023, in which I had six Oz and non-Oz pieces and in which works from authors from all over the U.S. and Canada were vetted by YBR Publishing of Ridgeland, S.C. for inclusion.
Through the years as a guest author there, I have met visual artists with varying styles and authors who write traditional Oz books to those with various spins. This year included comic-book and graphic novel author Tom Hutchison, self-help author Julienne La Fleur, dark fantasy romance novelist Kris Silva and artist Jim Coon.
I’ve met and had meals with Munchkin actors from the icons M.G.M. Oz film in past years. Many have since passed away.
I heard feisty special guest Margaret Pellegrini, The Flower Pot Munchkin, say in response to special guest and the number one Judy Garland and Oz scholar in the country John Fricke asking her about whether or not Terry, the female cairn terrier who played Toto, was paid more than the Munchkin actors: “Yes, well, we’re alive, and Toto’s dead!” The audience, including me, roared.
I also heard the late Munchkin actor Karl Slover talk about being able to leave Europe before the Nazis took over and people like him were killed, and I wept with the audience. I also met the late Munchkin-by-marriage Myrna Swensen among others.
This year, I had breakfast with special guest Betty Ann Bruno, who played a Munchkin. The Hawaiian born Bruno teaches hula dancing and did so at the festival.
She spent her career as a reporter. She told me, with a sparkle in her eyes, that she likes hard news and chasing down stories where political or corporate corruption is revealed. I’ve always liked writing features and people stories.
Also, Bruno has published a book, The Munchkin Diary: My Personal Yellow Brick Road, which reveals the ins and outs of her being a child actor and more.
Next, one evening, illustrator and Ages of Oz series special guest author Gabriel Gale took suggestions from the audience when trying to create a new kind of kalidah – a creature composed of different other creature parts in Oz. He also did the art for a coffee-table book, The Art of Oz, in which prolific author Fricke took the perspectives of different Ozian characters.
During an evening presentation, Fricke, as emcee, prompted Gale with questions about the film version of the Broadway musical Wicked. Gale, who had recently visited the film set and locations in England, said he could not reveal a lot about the film version. But, in summary, he said it will be extraordinary and will exceed expectations.
Chittenango is home to the All Things Oz Museum with its director and Dorothy cos-player Allison Lehr. During a members-only event the Thursday before Oz-Stravaganza weekend, the costume that Patty Duke wore as Madame Morrible in Wicked was unveiled as a permanent exhibit. Also premiered was a display case to honor Fricke with his Emmy and his Grammy nominee medallion. He won the Emmy in 2004 as co-producer of the two-hour, PBS-TV American Masters program, Judy Garland: By Myself and he was a Grammy nominee for ‘Best Album Notes’ for the compact disc, Judy Garland: 25th Anniversary Retrospective (1996), which he produced for Capitol Records. Yet another new display case honored Bruno and the authors and artists who attended the festival.
Next, for the festival’s annual parade, via a face-painting vendor, I had my face painted a Nikko the Flying Monkey blue and made some make-shift wings with items bought from vendors. I even wore a Flying Monkey squadron blue T-shirt. During the parade, on my chauffeured “gator”, for fun, I screamed out for kids and parents to do their best flying monkey screech, and I yelled out with some examples. And the parade had many entries including floats with Ozian scenes, local marching bands and celebrities atop and in cars. Fricke was the Grand Marshal.
This year, at the Oz-Stravaganza after party at the village’s VFW, I was able to donate a hand-wood-burned piece by Gwendolyn Tennille, an artist and long-time dear friend who has also been formally invited to the festival for many years. This hand-wood-burned, intentionally folksy piece was photographed for the cover of my book, O.Z. Diggs Himself Out, my first satirical Southern Oz book in a series put out by YBR Publishing in Ridgeland, S.C.
As I parted with the piece, I knew it would be in good hands — hands that treasure Baumian relics and modern Oz-zy art as well as nick-nacks, benevolent hands welcoming people from all over to the little village outside of Syracuse, N.Y. to celebrate their fantastical native son. They accept the oddballs. And I gladly clasp hands with them or fist-bump them year after year. After all, there’s no place like Oz.
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