DECADES OF ENTERTAINMENT . . . & COUNTLESS MAGICAL GUESTS

May 2018

OZ-STRAVAGANZA!

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!

 

All Things Oz & Baum by John Fricke

March 2018

by John Fricke

 

GREETINGS FROM THE BIRTHPLACE OF “THE MAN WHO INVENTED OZ”!

          Happy and heartfelt salutations to any and all Oz enthusiasts – everywhere!

The joyous smiles you see above were provided courtesy the Chittenango, NY, OZ-Stravaganza! festival in a photograph taken a few years back. The woman on the right is Margaret Pellegrini, the unforgettable “flowerpot” Munchkin from the 1939 MGM motion picture, THE WIZARD OF OZ. The gentleman on the left is Clarence Swensen, one of the Munchkin soldiers from that film. And the overwhelmed and grateful fan in the middle is yours truly. Margaret and Clarence are no longer with us, but they’re never far from the memories and emotions of any who met them — or any who saw them in the movie — or, for that matter, any who have been touched by the limitless and enduring magic of Oz.

I thought it would be appropriate to show you this “scene” to launch the blog, as The International L. Frank Baum & All Things Oz Historical Foundation of Chittenango provided the invitation that makes it possible for me to write and greet you here. This will be the first of a monthly series commemorating Oz and Baum history, plus the Ozzy activities of the upstate New York village “where Oz all began”: L. Frank Baum was, indeed, born in Chittenango in 1856. I could also formally state that it’s an honor and privilege to be associated with the Foundation in this manner – and such a declaration would be true, too, as far as it goes. But to paraphrase E. Y. “Yip” Harburg’s lyric from “Over the Rainbow,” this is basically “a dream I never even dared to dream…come true.”

Like many of you who might be reading this, I’ve been a fan (okay, a “resident”!) of Oz since childhood. I was five years old when I first saw the Judy Garland movie on television, and it was a life-altering moment. Within a couple of years, I was relentlessly searching the Milwaukee Public Library System, finding out everything I could about the Oz books. There were then thirty-nine of them, written between 1900 and 1951 by five different authors. L. Frank Baum, however, was the first of these, and the title of this month’s blog reflects that. In a 1939 newspaper article touting the premiere of the MGM film, Baum was headlined as “the man who invented Oz.” It’s undeniably true; his wondrous imagination gave us Dorothy and Toto, the trio of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion, Glinda, the Wizard, the Yellow Brick Road, the Poppy Field, the Emerald City, the Munchkins – and countless other characters and locales in his initial fourteen Oz books.

I wanted to know everything about him.

This meant that, as a preteen, I’d already read about Chittenango as his birthplace. (I then found it on a map!) My own “all things Oz and Baum” investigation continued from there and eventually led to professional work on behalf of Oz, Baum, Judy, and other related topics. What’s most important in terms of this blog, however, is that some thirty years after my childhood discovery, I was invited to visit Chittenango. In 1990, I actually became part of what was then an annual Saturday morning/afternoon Oz festival, honoring their native son. I’ve pretty much been active in it ever since, and we’ve all strived together until the event now fills the complete first weekend in June – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday — every year. Over the decades, the festival’s special guests have included members of the Baum family (including great-grandson, Oz author Roger Baum); performers and “creatives” from the major Oz movies and stage shows (including THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE WIZ, RETURN TO OZ, and OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL); the writers of such books as WICKED and the “AGES OF OZ” trilogy . . . and so many, many more.

This year’s OZ-Stravaganza! (on June 1st, 2nd, and 3rd) will be no exception, with a roster of honored guests, many of them new to Chittenango. Watch the Foundation’s site and the various Oz and Judy Garland social media groups for details which will — magically! — appear any day now.

And please join me here on the last Friday of every month to share Oz news, Oz memories, and a general Oz and L. Frank Baum celebration. He’s The Man, to be sure! And it’s the power and scope of his inspirations that started all the Ozian sharing: the laughter, glee, affection, loving tears, friendships, camaraderie, festivals . . . and a few irreplaceable nightmares. (One of these days, we’ll talk about THAT Witch and THOSE Monkeys!)

Finally, whichever observance or holiday you might be honoring this weekend, here’s another Ozzy piece of art to book-end the blog. Did you KNOW that the Easter Bunny lives – and works – in a majestic and monumental burrow, somewhere under the Munchkin Country? Authors Eloise Jarvis McGraw and Lauren Lynn McGraw gave us that news in the fortieth book of the official “Oz Series,” MERRY GO ROUND IN OZ (1963). And artist extraordinaire Dick Martin captured the moment when Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion met E. Bunny himself, as they placed an order for eggs for an Emerald City Easter egg hunt.

Many thanks for reading – and here’s to a blessed spring to all. See you next month!