IF EVER – OH, EVER! – A “STRAV!” THERE WOZ,
“OZ-STRAV!” OF ’18 IS ONE, BECOZ . . . .
I’d wanted to visit Chittenango from the time I was seven or eight years old – ever since I knew it was the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, the “Royal Historian of Oz.” Decades later, in May 1990, I finally made it, as an invited guest of the annual Oz Festival.
Their celebration had actually begun very informally a dozen years earlier, when librarian/ historian (and visionary!) Clara Houck encouraged local children to dress up as Oz characters and parade around the local library parking lot. After their Ozzy march — in May 1978 — the kids moved inside for cake and a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to You”; the month marked Baum’s 122nd birthday anniversary. Over the next decade, Clara’s event expanded to a full Saturday morning and afternoon and featured a much larger “main street” parade; meanwhile, her own research led to ever-more-excellent exhibitions of Oz and Baum material at the library.
When I was first approached to participate in 1990, I suggested adding an evening program about Chittenango’s native son and his extraordinary magical characters and land – to take place in the high school auditorium the night before the parade. The organizers agreed to this, and gradually (given the ongoing and world-wide passion for Oz), the festival grew into a full weekend event by the late 1990s. It’s now the longest-running and biggest WIZARD OF OZ-related fête anywhere and has brought to Chittenango as special guests (among many others) numerous members of Baum’s family; a selection of those who participated in the 1939 MGM WIZARD OF OZ movie, Broadway’s THE WIZ and WICKED, Disney’s RETURN TO OZ and OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL; and other OZ-associated entertainers and entertainments.
Such attractions have meant that the crowds (for what is now officially titled “OZ-Stravaganza!”) have commensurately grown, as well. But the heights hit earlier this month were INDEED a new peak of activity, attraction, and attendance — and what a thrill! But, as Jack Webb used to put it on the police-detective TV series, DRAGNET: “Just the facts . . . just the facts”:
* An estimated twelve thousand people lined this year’s parade route – applauding, cheering, and enthusing over the more than eighty units that rolled by. At the emotional center of the procession: Grand Marshal DR. GITA DOROTHY MORENA, great-granddaughter of L. Frank Baum, and AUSTIN MANTELE, his great-great-grandson.
* Total attendance for OZ-Stravaganza! 2018 was set at more than thirty thousand people by local media.
* Well over one thousand people toured the All Things Oz Museum & Gift Shop across the Friday through Sunday arc of the festival – with revenue topping that of every preceding year.
* Nearly four hundred people swarmed into the Chittenango High School auditorium for Saturday evening’s two-hour-plus presentation — more than had ever before attended any past Oz programming (even when the guest list was highlighted by a number of the original Munchkin actors from MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ film). This year, the audience of all ages reveled in the 2018 festival theme, “BROADWAY COMES TO OZ,” and heard onstage interviews with multiple Oscar and Grammy Award-winning songwriter STEPHEN SCHWARTZ and two of the Broadway stars of his musical, WICKED: TIFFANY HAAS (Glinda) and MICHAEL McCORRY ROSE (Fiyero). STEPHEN was greeted by a prolonged standing ovation, an audience response repeated at the end of his extraordinarily generous performance. It was his suggestion that he, TIFFANY, and MICHAEL not only speak but entertain as well. As a result, STEPHEN sang portions of two songs he wrote for a specific sequence in WICKED, both of which were dropped in favor of “The Wizard and I” — which he then offered in its entirety. TIFFANY and MICHAEL sang their brief Glinda/Fiyero duet from the production and then did individual, SCHWARTZ-arranged medleys that blended numbers from WICKED and two Harold Arlen/E. Y. “Yip” Harburg standards from the MGM OZ film. After STEPHEN concluded the evening with a heartfelt rendition of the WICKED theme, “For Good,” there was no containing the joy in the theater, and the three stars had to slip out a back entrance to avoid being mobbed.
[Above: Stephen Schwartz’s credits include – among others — the songs (music and lyrics) for WICKED, GODSPELL, PIPPIN, THE MAGIC SHOW, and THE BAKER’S WIFE; lyrics for the Leonard Bernstein MASS, as well as RAGS, POCAHONTAS, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and ENCHANTED; three Oscars, three Grammys, a special Tony, and four Drama Desk awards. His appearance at OZ-Stravaganza! 2018 outdrew all previous special guests in terms of audience attendance. Shown here with emcee/interviewer John Fricke, Stephen entertained by telling a score of anecdotes about the creation of WICKED and then went on to sing, play, and accompany Ms. Haas and Mr. Rose in selections from that score and the 1939 MGM WIZARD OF OZ.]
However, neither STEPHEN, TIFFANY, or MICHAEL neglected one-on-one time with festgoers. The two Broadway performers did meet-and-greet events in Oz Park on Friday and Saturday afternoons, autographing and selling photos, on request, to scores of fans. (In what I believe was an unprecedented move, the actors then donated the proceeds of their sales and sessions to the All Things Oz Museum.) On Sunday morning, STEPHEN offered a ninety-minute meet-and-greet at the Museum itself, and more than one-hundred-fifty people began lining up before 8 a.m. for his 10 a.m. autographing appearance.
* The other special guests on this year’s roster were equally munificent with their time and talents. Commissioned by All Things Oz to recreate for their collection the Dorothy dress worn by Stephanie Mills in the original 1975 Broadway production of THE WIZ, designer SHAWN RYAN not only fulfilled that contract but then donated two more of his “recreations” to the museum: one of the Dorothy costumes as sported by actress Anna Laughlin in the first New York stage presentation of THE WIZARD OF OZ (1903) and a “magically” reversible Dorothy blouse and jumper from the recent Andrew Lloyd Webber WIZARD. (The latter instantly morphs from blue-and-white-checks to green-and-white-checks – a transition effected in the Emerald City “Wash & Brush-Up Co.” sequence of the musical.)
* Broadway’s STEVE MARGOSHES brought a special magic to Friday night’s OZ-Stravaganza! programming by recounting his diverse careers as theatrical composer, lyricist, orchestrator, and arranger. Special emphasis was placed on his recent Oz-related songs; he demonstrated one, “Lovely, Lovely Oz,” in a format that welcomed (at STEVE’S request) interjections from the emcee – me! – and the audience, as we called out the names of many Oz Book characters and locations referenced by the MARGOSHES lyric. Topping that, STEVE welcomed to the stage an octet of students from Fayetteville-Manlius High School, who (with barely one day’s rehearsal) performed his latest composition, “The Emerald” – inspired by the Princess Ozma and L. Frank Baum declaration in Baum’s TIK-TOK OF OZ (1914) that “Our Land of Oz is a Land of Love.” The singers did both musical and dramatic justice to melody and theme; they included
MATTHEW BAUM, ILIANNA COHEN, SARAH DUNTLEY, IRELAND FERNANDEZ-COSGROVE, NICHOLAS HOALCRAFT, EMERY SCHRAMM, SAMANTHA SIBERT, and KATIE TONGUE.
* Concluding Friday’s presentation was a panel discussion rich in the reason(s) for it all: an illustrated recollection in anecdote and art of Frank Baum from DR. DOROTHY GITA MORENA. Her years as a transpersonal psychotherapist, lecturer, and author enabled her to link – in a warmly personal manner — the history and worlds of her great-grandfather with the basic and “everyman” human condition. She was aided in this by contributing comments from her nephew, AUSTIN MANTELE, a first-time OZ-Strav! attendee, who later admitted to being delighted and dazzled by the love and excitement generated by his great-great-grandfather’s innovations. Further underscoring the ongoing appeal and power of Baum’s world, GABRIEL GALE discussed the just-published, Simon & Schuster second volume, A DARK DESCENT, of his “Ages of Oz” Trilogy, firmly founded on the original Ozian philosophies and concepts of entertainment story-telling.
All of this . . . plus the award-winners of the Writing, Coloring, Costume, and EMERALD CITY IDOL competitions; the presence and participation of the Authors & Artists’ Alley contributors; the vendors; the food servers; the carnival-ride operators; and the tens of thousands of Oz fans.
By now, you get the idea: It was a record-breaking, nonstop, and jubilant pinnacle in OZ-Stravaganza! history. For those who attended, I hope this accounting brings back joyous memories. For those who weren’t able to be there, please look ahead and mark your calendars for Friday-Sunday, May 31st-June 2nd, 2019. Right now, there’s no telling what surprises will be in store. But next year DOES mark the eightieth anniversary of the MGM WIZARD OF OZ film; the centennial of L. Frank Baum’s book, THE MAGIC OF OZ (and Baum’s own passing) . . . and the anniversaries of the first “Oz dolls,” the JELL-O/NBC Oz radio show, the long-in-print Evelyn Copelman-illustrated edition of THE WIZARD OF OZ, the most happily-acclaimed early Oz puppet/marionette production – and so much more.
Please join us!
Meanwhile: Here’s a majestic gratitude to all who created, participated in, volunteered for, and (especially!) “underwrote” and/or attended OZ-Stravaganza! 2018. You made an all-time sensation of the weekend – and that’s a “Land of Oz/Land of Love” achievement, to be sure!
Many thanks for reading!