CHITTENANGO’S YELLOW BRICK ROAD . . .TAKING BETTY ANN BRUNO VERY MUCH TO HEART!
By John Fricke
[A BRIEF, PRELIMINARY NOTE FROM JOHN: The rough draft and art selection attendant to this “All Things OZ” Blog were basically wrapped up nearly two months ago. Then I was hit with sciatica, and everything went on hold here, as I figuratively “tread water,” did weeks of physical therapy, and recovered. (Blessedly, I’m just fine now, and I sincerely apologize for the delay in this posting.) In the midst of that, however, all of us very unexpectedly and even more sorrowfully heard the news of the passing of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer “MunchKid” Betty Ann Bruno.
She was so very much more than a seven-year-old child dancer, of course. Her work in MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ motion picture in 1938 took scarcely two months in a life that spanned almost ninety-two years. Across those decades, Betty Ann was evermore and immeasurably active, productive, professional, and extremely accomplished.
Naturally, there’s scattered commentary about her throughout this OZ-Stravaganza! 2023 blog; she was — to be sure AND for the second consecutive year! — Our Headliner. 😊 Further new material has now (the third week in August) also been added at the conclusion of this entry, but I’m leaving the original text, prior to that afterword, exactly as it was in late June. This seems to be a fitting way to celebrate yet another Bruno triumph, as every recollection of the time she shared is both happy and glorious. These are the events as they blithely and joyously happened in Chittenango in June 2023.]
How to describe OZ-Stravaganza! 2023 . . . .
Remember Jack Webb on the 1951-1970 TV series, DRAGNET? Per Wikipedia, it remains “the most famous and influential police procedural crime drama in American media history,” and every week, detective Joe Friday would invariably ask witnesses for the “facts . . . just the facts.” Well, the 2023 OZ-Strav! facts can be summarized as three days of gorgeous weather and nonstop Ozzy activities; press, TV and radio promotion, presence and coverage; a thrilling parade; and the gleefully permeating presence and ebullience of special guest Betty Ann Bruno.
This brought us a final attendance tally ranging up to 30,000 people!
Or — if you prefer — the festival might also be best measured on a popular/populace level and summarized as the very best kind of family reunion. Everyone was out, about, mingling, talking, eating, performing, exulting, and unifying in honor of Chittenango native L. Frank Baum: his history, creations, illustrators, and official Oz coauthors and coproducers.
Need it be added that every moment was relished by his fans and adherents of absolutely all ages?
Or I can herald this summer’s jubilee in a personal manner, although I’ll state up-front that I’m not in any sense unbiased. Chittenango’s annual commemoration dates back to 1978, and I was first invited to attend and speak in 1990. Including that year – and through 2023 — I’ve been privileged to serve “in person” thirty-one times: participating, emceeing, lecturing, and presenting. (The pandemic forced us all to skip 2020, and we went virtual in 2021; conflicting work commitments kept me on the West Coast for two years in the mid-1990s.)
I think it’s best, though, to forego the usual two thousand (plus!) Fricke words here and instead tell this year’s saga in a handful of great images. For starters and just below, you’ll see one of two Chittenango locales that serves as “Oz Central” across the dates of OZ-Strav! weekend. (Throughout the rest of the year, it’s “Oz Central” all on its own!)
This is the frontage of the All Things OZ Museum and Gift Shop, 219 Genesee Street, (315) 687-7772. There’s always a cheery stock of Oz-related souvenirs for purchase, but the building is best described as a remarkable gallery of thousands of rare, collectible, colorful objects that trace the history of Baum and the diversity of the Oz franchise: books, movies, stage shows, toys, games, ad infinitum. Recently refurbished, the gallery boasts glistening glass and shining wood presentation cases — each of them surrounded by lively patrons throughout OZ-Strav! Nearly six hundred people wandered through, wide-eyed, as they viewed the treasures and listened to entertaining anecdotes and factoids provided by the well-informed and comfortably personable Museum docents.
As a sampling of the All Things OZ holdings, here are three new Museum images from this year. The first shows items just donated to Chittenango’s archive: an autographed photo and personal postcard and letter written by MGM’s “Wicked Witch of the West” to uber-Oz fan Paul Miles Schneider of New York, Los Angeles, and Kansas. Maggie – as she preferred to be called — sent them to him decades back when he was given a second grade school assignment to find a pen-pal out-of-state. Paul has since become the successful author of modern-day Oz books of his own (SILVER SHOES, THE POWDER OF LIFE, and THE MAGIC BELT, all of which are perfect for today’s young readers); as a frequent special guest in Chittenango, he gifted his valuable Hamilton pieces to All Things OZ earlier this year:
Next: For some time now, the Museum has very graciously honored me with the case shown just below, commemorating our ongoing work together, as well as some of the Oz and Judy Garland-related projects with which I’ve been professionally involved across the past thirty-eight years. 2023-24 marks the twentieth anniversary of the PBS-TV “American Masters” program, JUDY GARLAND: BY MYSELF, for which I served as coproducer and received a second Emmy Award. All Things OZ asked if I would loan it to them for the occasion, and they placed it in an assemblage including four of the eight Fricke books, the medallion I received as a Grammy Award nominee for the CD booklet, JUDY GARLAND: 25th ANNIVERSARY RETROSPECTIVE (the CD itself is shown just to the left of the pendant), and two photographs from the Museum’s own collection of what we gently term my “first communion” pictures:
Finally, we’ve saved the very best and most exciting of the Museum’s latest acquisitions for last: one of the “Madame Morrible” costumes from the extraordinary musical stage success, WICKED (which also celebrates its twentieth anniversary on Broadway this year). This glamorous gown was worn by Academy Award-winning actress Patty Duke, who portrayed Morrible in one of the national companies of the production; the ensemble was donated to All Things OZ for their permanent collection by the WICKED company. (Such generosity is a remarkable tribute to the esteem won for the Museum by Chittenango’s volunteers and participants in the ILFB&ATOHF — or International L. Frank Baum & All Things Oz Historical Foundation!) With design complexity, beauty, and workmanship like this now available for close scrutiny, it’s easy to see why designer Susan Hilferty won the Tony Award for her work for WICKED:
Moving on! The annual costume contest and Oz Parade seemed to be standout, special successes this year. There were many entrants in the former, and in the case of the latter, literally thousands lined up, whether side-by-side or (in the most popular viewing spots) “stacked” up in standing room behind those sitting on curbs, cushions, or chairs.
In terms of competitive costumes, there are literally hundreds of book, stage, and screen Ozians who might suggest winning (award and otherwise) garb to OZ-Strav! visitors. Here are three views of some of Saturday’s jovial morning partakers: an MGM-styled Lullaby Leaguer (with what appears to be a little Dorothy in the left background); three gleefully committed-to-the-“c’oz” adults: a Munchkin, a representative of the Poppy Field, and the unique title character from Frank Baum’s seventh Oz book, THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ; and an empty box that was one of the hits of OZ Park. It had a cleverly stenciled label on its side that suggested several winged monkeys had been shipped to Chittenango in it — and escaped. Three surrogates here happily took their place:
Regarding the parade, we’ll take just a quick glimpse, below, of a supremely unrequested moment. I’m now — as referenced above and by the grace of God and the members of the ILFB&ATOHF – at the onset of my fourth decade of association with Chittenango. They’ve been very kindly asking me to serve as Grand Marshal of the OZ-Strav! parade for nearly thirty years of that time; I’ve always said, “Thank you; no, thank you.” (There have always been many more worthy and most definitely better-known and famous people for that colossal accolade.) I demurred in the same fashion when I received their gracious invitation in early 2023, but for this go-round, the Foundation pretty much corralled me. The photo below offers the “result” – and thank goodness for Rhonda Rueger Fibiger and her John Fricke Memorial Rainbow Umbrella (it’s sheltered me during any number of parades) and for Michael Keville and his classy car: glossy transportation, indeed! The latter at least made me LOOK important, although I still had to deal with totally mystified glances from thousands along the route of the cavalcade. (I just kept calling out, “Betty Ann Bruno is coming along right behind me!”)
A very important P.S. to this photo. One of the first people I met in Chittenango in May 1990 was Terry Shaler, and we happily (laughingly, teasingly, kiddingly, fondly) reunited year after year. When the dodgy May weather eventually caused organizers to switch the annual festival from the weekend nearest Baum’s birthday (May 15th, as mentioned above), it then always fell on the June weekend of – or nearest – Terry’s birthday. This was coincidence, of course, but it eventually became my treat to lead the singing on many occasions, up through 2022. Terry was frail but THERE last year, and (true to her tradition) ever ready to beam back at “her” chorale. God bless that girl; we lost her in September, but in a lovely happenstance of somebody-up-there-definitely-likes-her, the fates saw to it that her car was sold to Mike Keville. Thus, as was written in the preceding paragraph, I got the benefit of being Grand Marshall in “the Terry Mobile!” (Or to put it more completely, “with” her along for the ride. 😊 )
Per tradition, there were two different and very Ozzy programs on both Friday and Saturday nights, where we were once again welcomed by the First Presbyterian Church to use their chancel. Audiences filled the pews each evening, and the first presentation got off to a magically endorsed beginning when a greeting was read from Robert Baum, great-grandson of the “Royal Historian of Oz.” The advocacy and approval of Bob and his wife have always resonated in Chittenango, and such backing did once again – this year from afar: “I wish Clare and I were going to be there. Hope all goes well and say hello to all for us; we are there in spirit! Have an OZ-some time! The Baums.”
Beyond that, of course, the highlights of the special programming were the entertainments offered by Betty Ann Bruno and Gabriel (AGES OF OZ, THE ART OF OZ) Gale. Betty Ann, though making only her second OZ-Strav! appearance, was preeminent in her appeal, personality, and bond with one and all. Her Oz, professional, and personal sagas garnered everything from uproarious laughter to entranced silence; the Bruno level of charisma is suitably beyond Richter Scale measurement. (It’s definitely an understatement to say so, but it must be noted – for the historical record — that no one wanted the woman to leave the stage!) During his own turn, longtime favorite Gabriel Gale created and illustrated (on the spot and via audience suggestions) a new Oz creature. He was then interviewed, so as to bring the fans up to date on his own Oz project developments and his trip to London earlier this spring. There he sat in on the ongoing production of the film of Broadway’s WICKED: visiting soundstages, touring the outdoor location sets-in-progress for Munchkinland and the Emerald City, and enjoying a recording session. (Below: Betty Ann is ever tolerant of the customary Fricke inquisition; Gabe reveals his “instant” Ozian creation!)
[The other offerings during the evening sessions: 1) A bountifully illustrated recounting of the assemblage of the first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book. This highlighted the masterwork imaginations of Baum and illustrator W. W. Denslow; the latter’s incomparable, innovative design and color pictorials did much to make the original volume a sensation. And 2) A Gabe-Interviews-John discussion about the omnipresent, ridiculous, and running rampant rumors about Oz, Baum, the MGM film, and etc. Social media has a LOT for which to answer, and the audience had many questions to pose regarding these topics, as well.]
Among other constant activities (all weekend!), Sunday morning paid specific homage to the winners of the OZ-Strav! coloring and writing contests. The outstanding highlight of the early afternoon, however, came when Betty Ann again took stage to demonstrate and dance the hula, to sing the original song she’d written about Chittenango and the festival, and to dragoon her cherished friends, Gail & Becky, into teaching the basic steps and gestures with her. (The two women made the trek from California to “experience” OZ 2023 after Betty’s raves about the time she’d relished here last year.) Dozens of viewers then leapt up to join the trio as they moved through some of the traditional Hawaiian choreography; Betty is shown here at the opening of her act:
The informal “Grand Finale” traditionally wraps up OZ-Strav! around 3:30 or 4 p.m. on Sunday. This year, there were the customary gratitudes, good-byes, and Ozzy exaltations, but there was also a genuine surprise that brought elation, ecstasy, and euphoria to the finish of the festival. Thanks to Gabe, the assembled farewell-ers enjoyed a live, virtual video appearance from London by Stephen Schwartz, whose songs have provided infinite magic to the scores of many stage and film productions; WICKED is currently both! Several years ago, Stephen performed as a majorly special guest at OZ-Strav!, both on his own and teaming with Michael McCorry Rose and Tiffany Haas, past cast members of WICKED (who had respectively appeared as Fiyero and Glinda on Broadway). Given this earlier association with Chittenango and his friendship with Gabe, Stephen was willing to spend time answering – via laptop — several questions from the assembled OZ-Strav! throng. (An outdoors-in-broad-daylight photo capture of his onscreen visage wasn’t possible, but his gracious participation must be included and jubilantly acknowledged. So here’s Stephen! 🙂
It doesn’t get any more magical OR Ozzy than that! 😊
There was so much more activity — there were so many more activities – that made possible and comprised OZ-Stravaganza! 2023. This report is barely a taste or a touch. It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s true: You just have to be there when everybody makes it happen.
And you know . . . NEXT year might be a great time to make the trek! It’ll be the eighty-fifth anniversary of the MGM film. The 120th anniversary of the second Oz book, THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ (introducing Jack Pumpkinhead, the Sawhorse, the Woggle-Bug, Mombi the Witch, and Princess Ozma). The 110th anniversary of Baum’s own Oz Film Manufacturing Company. The ninetieth anniversary of the NBC network radio WIZARD OF OZ series (sponsored by Jell-O!). The sixtieth anniversary of the Rankin-Bass NBC color TV special, RETURN TO OZ (with Socrates Strawman, Rusty Tin Man, Dandy Lion, and the return of the Wicked With of the West, debuting her flying alligators – or was it crocodiles?). The fiftieth anniversary of the JOURNEY BACK TO OZ feature-length cartoon (with the voices of Liza Minnelli, Ethel Merman, Paul Lynde, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Milton Berle, and Rise Stevens).
Once again and as always: Where Oz is concerned, there’s a LOT to celebrate!
In conclusion, I want to offer my thanks to those whose photographs made possible this Blog: Lindsay, Leah, Eilis, Ron, Cara Marie . . . and any whom I’ve inadvertently missed in the scramble through the postings of those who generously share on social media. As someone who has NEVER been able to “work” a camera (and whose cellphone is ONLY a phone, not a camera, a video-maker, a texter, a breakfast-cooker, et al), I’m much indebted to all of you for making it possible for me to “tell” some of this year’s story.
Warmly, affectionately, and gratefully!
An Afterword . . .
It goes without saying that this Blog is dedicated (as we all are) to Betty Ann Bruno.
I woke to the news of what had happened on Saturday, July 30th very early the following morning. As I wrote then and have experienced ever since, the sadness just keeps coming in recurrent waves, and I think it must be like that for everyone who’s ever known her.
Yet that’s all I’ll emphasize about the sorrow and loss felt by her husband Craig, Betty’s three sons, and the countless rest of her family, friends, admirers, and fans . . . because I just can’t imagine that any of us have ever known — or ever will know – anyone else who’d ultimately and more want to be remembered in joy, laughter, appreciation, and grateful love than would Betty Ann.
Moreover, it would all be reciprocal. We’d receive every bit of heart and soul and humor and emotion in return. And her hips and arms and hands and feet and head would be simultaneously swaying besides!
She was a continual blessing for these many decades, and such memories are ever there to be summoned. The inimitable radiance of her presence, wisdom, and delight – while once more on the road to Oz, of all places, in 2022 and 2023 — is a benediction none can forget. Whether in the parade, during her autograph sessions and interviews, or as she went into (and always shared) her literal and figurative dance of life — the tens of thousands of people who saw her in Chittenango certainly possess new and indelible gifts. And as was the case at MGM in 1938, those of Betty Ann’s OZ-Stravaganza! encounters encompass but a handful of days of the outreach she offered ceaselessly across her lifetime.
Typically, she just recently told a reporter from the Sonoma, CA, INDEX-TRIBUNE, “I am still processing the fact that all these accolades, all the fan mail, all the fuss, really have nothing to do with me personally. They aren’t about the life I have had, or the things I have accomplished. I just happen to be the icon, if you will, of the most beloved picture on the planet.”
Icon, yes. But that woman was “most beloved” on her own — far, far beyond any single “credential.”
So . . . GOD bless, keep, and go with Craig, her family, and all of you who knew her best and loved her most.
HIS care for Betty, meanwhile, has long since been guaranteed.
And we love her, always.