DECADES OF ENTERTAINMENT . . . & COUNTLESS MAGICAL GUESTS
by John Fricke
A week from today, on Friday, June 1, Chittenango launches its forty-first annual celebration of native son, L. Frank Baum — the genius (yes, that’s right!) who created the wonderful world of Oz, its inhabitants, its geography, and its legends. When local librarian Clara Houck launched all of this more than four decades ago, the “festival” consisted of a children’s costume parade around a parking lot — with ice cream to follow. Now, OZ-Stravaganza! (as it’s come to be known) offers a full three-day weekend for tens of thousands of fans, and with international celebrities as its honored attendees.
Certainly, this year’s special-guest roster is an unprecedented amalgam of extraordinary talents, ceremoniously topped by Stephen Schwartz, the Oscar and Grammy Award-winning stage and screen songwriter. His Oz-themed musical, WICKED, achieves its fifteenth anniversary on Broadway in 2018. Appearing both separately and with Mr. Schwartz will be two of the New York stars of that show, Tiffany Haas, who played Glinda, and Michael McCorry Rose, who played Fiyero. (Tiffany is shown above, with one of her Elphabas, Anne Brumel.) Additionally, Baum’s great-granddaughter, Dr. Gita Dorothy Morena and her nephew Austin Mantele, will recall their famous ancestor and his accomplishments. Steve Margoshes, another musical luminary, will discuss his burgeoning list of Oz compositions and introduce a new one, aided by students from Manlius High School. Gabriel Gale, the new “Royal Historian,” debuts the second volume of his AGES OF OZ book trilogy, published by Simon & Schuster, and costume designer Shawn Ryan offers recreations of famous wardrobe as first seen in Oz stage musicals from 1903 to the present day.
There’s more information about OZ-Stravaganza! and its 2018 participants in last month’s blog and at the fest website: Oz-stravaganza
But, in a reminiscent mood, I think this is also a perfect opportunity to point out that the star power of the festival harks back to the late 1980s, when Chittenango first played host to the one-and-only “Munchkin Coroner” of the famous 1939 WIZARD OF OZ movie, Meinhardt Raabe. So much did he enjoy Frank Baum’s birthplace that Meinhardt paved the (yellow brick . . .) way for local organizers to invite the participation of such other MGM Munchkins as Jerry Maren, center member of the “Lollipop Guild” trio, and Margaret Pellegrini, the “Flowerpot Hat” Dancer and “Sleepyhead.” Shown below are (foreground, from left:) Jerry and his wife, Elizabeth; Margaret; and Meinhardt and his wife, Marie. Oz collector Michael Mikicel (left) and I “stand guard”; this photo was taken circa 1991.
Numerous additional Munchkins made their way to Chittenango across the 1990s and into the new millennium: dancing townswomen Fern Formica and Ruth Duccini, soldiers Clarence Swensen (with wife Myrna) and Lewis Croft (with wife Eva), first trumpeter Karl Slover, and fiddler Mickey Carroll. Caren Marsh Doll, a notable Hollywood dancer in screen musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, was also a regular for several years. Caren served as one of Judy Garland’s OZ stand-ins on the MGM movie set while lights were focused, camera angles adjusted, and wind machines tested. Christiana Rickard, niece of MGM Scarecrow, Ray Bolger, shared memories of her beloved relative on a couple of occasions, and just last year, OZ-Stravaganza! saluted Jane Lahr, whose legendary father, Bert Lahr, played the Cowardly Lion in the OZ film. (As an Ozzy treat, here’s a photo of Jane at Bonhams in New York City; her father’s original costume was auctioned there for more than three million dollars in 2014.)
Of course, THE WIZARD OF OZ was a world-renowned book almost four decades before MGM transferred it to the screen, and in addition to Dr. Morena, many of Frank Baum’s other family members have come to Chittenango to honor their magical forebearer. His niece, Cynthia Tassini, was a happy participant; Baum’s classic 1910 book, THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ, was dedicated to her. Granddaughters Ozma Baum Mantele (dedicatee and namesake of 1917’s THE LOST PRINCESS OF OZ) and Janet Baum Donaldson both attended, as did great-grandsons Robert Baum (with wife Clare) and Roger Baum (with wife Charlene). In addition to their festival work, Bob and Clare traveled to area schools and service organizations to depict Frank and his wife, Maud, in charming playlets. Roger — for almost forty years — has followed in the storytelling footsteps of his great-grandfather, enchanting children with his own new Oz books and movies.
From more recent OZ motion pictures, Chittenango has hosted actors and creative team members from OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL and AFTER THE WIZARD. Bringing OZ-Stravaganza! full circle, there were also past occasions when this year’s theme, BROADWAY COMES TO OZ, was implemented in other ways. Perhaps Bronson Pinchot will always be best remembered as “Balki” on the hit television sitcom, PERFECT STRANGERS. But to theatergoers, he’s also a Broadway musical star – besides being a lifelong Oz fan. For fest-goers, Bronson looked back at an Ozzy passion that began when he was a child. Felicia Ricci, a national touring Elphaba from WICKED, sang here one year, and author Gregory Maguire, author of the WICKED book series, thrilled a festival audience with a look-back at his triumphant writing career.
The list goes on and on; certainly not everyone can be re-celebrated in one blog. But the final nod for now must be given to two cast members from THE WIZ. That phenomenal 1970s Broadway smash was remembered here by one of its Cowardly Lion replacement actors, Ken Page (whose later credits include the voicing of Mr. Oogie-Boogie for Tim Burton’s animated triumph, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS). Very memorably, no less than THE WIZ himself also graced the festival stage: Andre De Shields, the originator of the musical’s title role. (Below, Andre poses with International L. Frank Baum and All Things Oz Historical Foundation trustee Marc Baum and his wife, Jennifer.)
I think it’s safe to say that that Chittenango has long since proved to be a wondrous, enchanting “Land of Oz” all on its own – a statement underscored by the many exceptional people who have joyously accepted invitations to visit and celebrate L. Frank Baum. To be sure, he’s the mystically-powered originator who put both OZ-Stravaganza! and the Emerald City on the map!