Advertisement

‘It was designed to let kids have run of their imagination.’ : It May Take a Wizard to Save Oz Play Area

Times Staff Writer

One thing was clear to Rick Lowry when he stepped into the Land of Oz on Tuesday and stumbled over a couple making love. He sure wasn’t in Kansas, Toto.

Lowry, a city carpenter, was in Sherman Oaks. He was there to make emergency repairs to the Munchkins’ castle--a place of giant-sized headaches for Los Angeles parks officials.

The castle is the centerpiece of the Land of Oz, an innovative play area built 11 years ago at Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Park by San Fernando Valley business and civic leaders.

It is designed with a Wizard of Oz theme and invites children to play in the rambling, maze-like, concrete-and-plaster castle, which has tunnels, ladders and kid-sized cubicles.

Advertisement

City officials say the play area’s genuine yellow brick road was paved with good intentions by volunteers who spent 14 years raising money to build it. But the same officials contend that the Land of Oz, with its hidden passageways, has become bothersome for them and dangerous for children.

Razing Munchkinland

So on Tuesday, officials received bids to rip out Munchkinland and replace it with sandboxes and more conventional slides and swings. The demolition could begin in less than 90 days.

The move prompted praise from those worried about the play area’s condition, and outrage from those who see it as unique.

Advertisement

“To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t let my kids play here,” said carpenter Lowry, who pulled saws, hammers and other tools from his truck after he routed the amorous couple from one of the castle’s cubicles. “It’s not safe.”

A similar sentiment came from Robin Little, a Sherman Oaks parent who began lobbying two years ago for a new play area at the park.

“I’ll relax when I see the trucks and bulldozers out here,” said Little, who lives two blocks from the park and visits it frequently with her two young sons.

“The Land of Oz has broken glass in it, and it’s smelly. It was turning into a dump. It’s dangerous.”

Advertisement

Fear for Children

Pat Clustka, principal of a nearby private school, said many mothers are afraid to let their children play in the castle.

“If there are big kids hanging around, you don’t want the little kids to go in there. There are a lot of places where they can’t be seen,” Clustka said.

But the renovation, the bids for which ranged Monday from $732,000 to $772,000, was labeled a waste of money by the original builders of the Land of Oz.

Advertisement

“It’s an absolute tragedy, a terrible tragedy,” said Gerald Chapman, a Granada Hills contractor who headed the Land of Oz committee in 1970.

“It’s an imaginative play structure that could not be duplicated today for 10 times what we spent on it. It was something that could be whatever kids wanted to make of it: a castle, a fort. It was designed to let kids have a complete run of their imagination.”

Richard Paxman, a Sherman Oaks businessman who led the park group in 1971-72, said the project cost about $200,000 to build.

Persevered on Project

Advertisement

“The city Parks and Recreation Department didn’t want it from the start,” he said. “But we wouldn’t take no for an answer. This is very disappointing. A lot of people in the Valley spent a lot of hard months and years on this.”

Officials of the Van Nuys Jaycees, which spearheaded creation of the Land of Oz, said the organization has been planning to renovate Munchkinland.

“We had a picnic there last summer and had a walk-through of the Land of Oz,” said Marsha Koepke, Jaycees president. “We noticed it needed some replastering and it wasn’t lit.”

Koepke said her group recently earmarked about $1,700 for repairs and was in the process of contacting other Valley civic groups about helping upgrade the play area.

Advertisement

“I’m really devastated. We had no idea this was going to happen. I’d like to raise a little holy hell,” she said.

Community Meeting Held

City officials said Tuesday that the deteriorating condition of the Land of Oz is well known. A community meeting was held last October to discuss the situation, said Marlene Bronson, Valley aide to City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky.

“At this point, it seems to be a physical safety hazard as well as an eyesore,” Bronson said. “I’ve heard of kids getting stuck in its tunnels and transients sleeping there and hiding out.”

Advertisement

“There are so many hidden places there,” said James Ward, a maintenance supervisor for the city parks department.

“With so many muggers and crazy people around, we don’t build places the police can’t come by and shine their lights into at night.”

Ward said work crews remove broken glass bottles from Munchkinland daily. They also spray a sanitizing compound inside of it to remove the stench of urine from transients, he said.

Lawsuits Pending

Advertisement

“Quite a few lawsuits are pending on that place,” he said, because of such things as bumped heads and cuts and bruises. The assistant city attorney handling the claims was unavailable for comment.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Van Nuys Division, which patrols the area, said the Land of Oz is not a problem for police, although loud teen-agers sometimes congregate elsewhere at the 67-acre park. He said he could recall no reports of violent crimes at the play area.

Parks department spokesman Al Goldfarb said bids opened Tuesday afternoon will be reviewed by city lawyers before being submitted to the Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners for action.


Advertisement