THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE L. FRANK BAUM’S HOMETOWN! 22,000 GREET THE RETURN OF OZ-STRAVAGANZA! (AND “MUNCHKID”/NEWBIE BETTY ANN BRUNO) DESPITE THREE-YEAR “INTERMISSION”

By: John Fricke

[Above: Betty Ann Bruno — a “MunchKid” from the original cast of the 1939 MGM motion picture, THE WIZARD OF OZ – made her first visit to Chittenango in June. Her indefatigable zoom, her amazingly diverse career, and her eternal embrace of life made her an instant favorite of all ages. She was Grand Marshal of the 2022 OZ-Stravaganza! parade, and the crowds figuratively embraced her . . . until they could, later on in the weekend, meet her socially, one-on-one – which was best of all!]

With jubilant multitudes at every turn – and Ozzy, family, and festival enthusiasm throughout all three days of activities and merriment – the annual OZ-Stravaganza! roared to its latest success from June 3-5, in Chittenango, NY. Birthplace of Oz discoverer/chronicler (and first “Royal Historian”) L. Frank Baum, the quiet village of less than 5,000 citizens played host to more than four times that many people during festival weekend 2022. And the joy of fellowship, Oz-founded and otherwise, never abated; it was easy to see that the enforced three year hiatus caused by Covid didn’t dampen spirits or energies. Rather, they’d been pent up and building up since June 2019.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, June’s blog (honoring supreme Ozian illustrator Dick Martin) appeared just a couple of weeks back, but it was actually written a week or so after OZ-Stravaganza! I’d planned the July entry as a personal recap of some fest highlights, and though now not as topical as such a report might have been closer to the event, these intervening weeks have given me more time to mull the magic. Not surprisingly, and as palpable as the excitement was at the time, it’s only compounded in my memory since!

(Above: Year after year, the costumed characters are an absolute favorite “draw” at OZ-Strav!, and in their glorious Shawn Ryan costumes, the 2022 troupe surpassed all expectations. They somehow managed to be everywhere – and a three-dimensional enchantment for all ages.]

This isn’t intended as a moment-by-moment description of the weekend. First of all, that would run for thousands of words – and second, I missed a lot of it because of being “on duty” and at work myself. Some very good friends, however – among them Lindsay Arnold-Morgan and Katie Kearns – managed to capture photographs of a number of special moments, and I’m grateful to be able to share them here. (You’ll find even more on the “Oz-Stravaganza in Chittenango, NY” Facebook page!)

At the top of this blog, you saw a picture of (and read a little bit about) Betty Ann Bruno, but there’s no question that her first-time appearance this year provided immeasurable happiness. First of all, there are today only a handful of surviving cast members from MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ, which was filmed more than eighty-three years ago. Thus, Betty Ann’s presence was the tiptop thrill of the event for countless adherents, and her limitless glee and genuine personality never stopped shining – whether our ninety-year-old “MunchKid” was riding in the parade, signing copies of her new autobiography in the “Celebrity Tent,” reminiscing in an on-stage interview, or dynamically demonstrating and teaching the hula.

[Above top: A Sunday highlight of the 2022 OZ-Stravaganza! was Betty Ann’s hula demonstration and class. Scores of people lined up in front of the stage, and she encouraged, praised, and joking cajoled them into an activity that was both new and fulfilling. (Scores more watched from the bleachers in the background.)
Above bottom: Reading Betty Ann’s book was one of the most joyous “preps” I’d ever had in some thirty-three years of Oz festival work, and as you can see here, she was just as entertaining off the page as on it.]

An amazing woman, Betty Ann has enjoyed a major career in investigative journalism, television, and broadcasting; worked for the CIA; founded her own dance company . . . and she continues to dance and teach today. Her new memoir — THE MUNCHKIN DIARY: MY PERSONAL YELLOW BRICK ROAD– sold out of the many copies she brought to Chittenango, but it can be ordered on amazon.com and wholeheartedly recommended to anyone who wants to “travel along” through a rich, rewarding, and challenging life story.

Among other emcee and presentation duties, I also got to “take stage” one evening with Oz conceptualizer/author/producer Gabriel Gale. This year’s Chittenango event marked a special occasion for the two of us: It was exactly fifteen years to the weekend that he’d first come to Chittenango to “check me out”! He’d taken it upon himself to see if I was a complete Oz historian (i.e., involved in Frank Baum, the books, the other authors, the illustrators, the “Borderland of Oz” stories, etc.) or ONLY a fan of the MGM movie. 😊 Well, we’ve been pals ever since and most recently have begun to work together on a number of Oz-specific projects. Last season’s book, THE ART OF OZ, was one such Gale/Fricke presentation, and onstage at the festival, we touted that, our past and shared Ozzy madness, and some thoughts for the future. The photo below is among the least attractive ever taken of either of us, but I selected to show here as it demonstrates the irreverence, kidding, and laughter it’s been a privilege to share with Gabe for a decade and a half.

Definitely a euphoric, surprise moment came on the first evening of OZ-Strav! when I glanced into the audience and saw Ruby Rakos, who’d come up for NYC for the pure pleasure of the weekend. Any who attended the June 2019 OZ-Strav! (or who have seen Ruby in regional theaters as the young Judy Garland in the glorious stage musical, CHASING RAINBOWS: THE ROAD TO OZ) knows that her onstage dynamism and one-of-a-kind singing voice are unforgettable and unique. She provided great, good support and camaraderie throughout the fest; her mom, Katie Kearns, grabbed this shot on the Oz Park Grounds a few moments after Betty Ann and I had come offstage. (I had just been bombarded by dozens of audience members’ voices: “Ruby’s here!” “Did you see Ruby?!” “This is so great!” I think my equal elation is reasonably apparent in this image!)

SO much else to tell: The writing contest and the coloring contest. Seeing all the youngsters come out once again for the cOZtume contest – and garbed as everything from MGM Munchkins to Baum’s heroine of his seventh Oz book, Scraps, THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ. The food, the rides, the parade route with thousands waving and cheering on either side of Genesee Street. The newly refurbished, redesigned, reconfigured All Things Oz Museum and Gift Shop, telling the history of countless Oz book, art, film, stage, and musical achievements, projects, and products. (Where many smaller-town museums throughout New York State were regrettably forced to permanently close their doors during the pandemic, All Things Oz was not only refreshed but has already played host to eleven thousand visitors during the past calendar year. And as bus tours are only now revving up again, that total was primarily realized by individual patrons, drawn by the singular and ongoing magic of Oz.)

[Above: Many spanking new and protective cases are a happy feature throughout the All Things Oz Museum; a couple of them celebrate the record-breaking success of the stage musical, WICKED. That show reaches the nineteenth anniversary of its Broadway opening this October.]

I’d be amiss if I didn’t reference – in awe and gratitude – the shock I received at Sunday evening’s “wrap party” when Chittenango Mayor Elizabeth Bough Martin asked me to step to the front of the hall and receive “the key to the Village.” I was completely unaware (which was, I’m sure, the intention) but also nonplussed; in fact, I’ve been hesitant about watching the video, as I have NO idea if I made any sense – or was able to convey the honor I felt and emotional depth at hand. Please let me say here, then, that I fell in love with Chittenango, NY, when I was seven years old, some thirty-two years before I ever saw the town “for real.” It was, however, the birthplace of one of the five or six most influential and inspiring people in my life; that was more than enough to know. And I now accept “the key” in homage to L. Frank Baum – and all that he accomplished – and in esteem of the masses of local citizens I’ve been blessed to meet since my first visit in 1990. God keep you all; Godspeed all your efforts on his behalf. Your “companioning” with him is forever cherished in my heart.

I’ll leave you with the final image above. It was taken some time after the 2022 Oz Parade, looking into Oz Park. You’ll see people who have hunkered down early to get optimum seats in front of the outdoor stage where nonstop musical and other entertainments are annually presented — free. You’ll see contented costumed kids. You’ll see the tops of dozens of vendor tents and craft tents and souvenir and food tents. Out of view is the large Celebrity Tent, where the Oz-specific authors, illustrators, merchandisers, and special guests do meet-and-greet autograph and photo sessions across all three festival afternoons – and where there are three different MASTERFUL silent auctions of rarities and goodies and antiques and collectibles: one each day.

What else can I say? Thank God for glorious weather – and for all the devotees of Oz and Chittenango who found their way (whether for the first or forty-“somethingth” time) to OZ-Stravaganza! We hope that on the first weekend in June 2023, they’ll all be back – and that you’ll be inspired to join them. It becomes a family reunion, even for those who are making their initial visit!

In other words, you’re all cordially and delightedly invited to become a member of The Oz Family. 😊

Many thanks for reading!