Off to see the wizard

For Johnpaul Cafiero and his siblings, the annual screening of "The Wizard of Oz" meant home-baked chocolate chip cookies in front of the TV. They knew the story backward and forward. Their grandmother owned a signed first edition of the L. Frank Baum book on which the movie was based.

"She used to read it to us in broken English," Cafiero recalls of the book, which began another family tradition -- collecting anything and everything "Oz"-related. Over the years, their house became a treasure-trove stuffed with movie props (including one of the flying monkeys) and cookie jars featuring the various characters and more.

Fortunately for their fellow fans, the collection is on permanent loan to a museum that seems right at home in Kansas.

"You're driving through Kansas. What do you want to see?" muses Mercedes Michalowski, manager of the Oz Museum in Wamego. "It should be something to do with Oz."

With no film locations to visit -- Dorothy's farmhouse was, alas, fictional -- the delightful museum is an ideal alternative. The time is right too: Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the movie's premiere.

It's not the only celeb connection in Wamego -- this is the hometown of auto magnate Walter Chrysler -- but it is, not surprisingly, the Oz Museum that draws the crowds.

"I'm not allowed to go home without visiting the museum," says Heather Clymer, who has stopped with her three daughters on their way back to Michigan from Colorado. "My sister and I are big fans of 'The Wizard of Oz.' . . . We grew up watching it every year."

Through an intentionally drab door adjacent to an equally bland ticket window, the Clymers enter a kaleidoscope of bright colors, just like in the movie. They're then face to face with a life-size wax figure of Dorothy in her gingham dress and sparkling slippers. The red shoes are replicas of those created for Judy Garland, both pairs made by the Western Costume Co. of North Hollywood.

At any given time, about 5,000 items are on display at the museum, which is about 100 miles west of Kansas City, Kan. The collection is being archived, but Cafiero, who grew up on the East Coast, guesses it includes about 25,000 pieces. His grandmother's first edition of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" is among them, along with copies in 46 languages, including Hebrew and Farsi.

"People don't realize the extent of the books," Michalowski explains as we stand next to a bookcase full of "Oz" books. The first book was so popular that a total of 40 were written (and more that were inspired by), 14 of them by Baum.

The museum is open year-round, but attendance swells during Wamego's Oztoberfest, which features a stage production of "The Wizard of Oz" and appearances by four of the seven still-living Munchkins. Among them is Jerry Maren, an 89-year-old Angeleno who, as one of the "lollipop kids," handed a giant sucker to Dorothy. The festival, the first weekend in October, attracts fans from around the world.

Seven decades after the movie's debut, what's to explain the public's continued fascination? Cafiero, who's a Franciscan friar and a police chaplain, thinks it's the timeless allegories.

He points out that from the moment Dorothy stepped into those ruby slippers, she had the power to click her heels together and return to Kansas and the loving arms of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. But, he adds, she had to learn the hard way.

"Life is full of wicked witches and flying monkeys," Cafiero says. "But, along the journey, hopefully we're lucky enough to make a couple of good friends."




If you go

The Oz Museum, 511 Lincoln St., Wamego, Kan., (866) 458-8686, The museum is open seven days a week. You can view the exhibits in about 45 minutes, but many people choose to linger, viewing the movie and the several documentaries that are continually screened. Admission $7 for adults, $4 for ages 4 to 12.

The 2009 Oztoberfest ( will be Oct. 3 and 4.

Lodging: Wamego has some small motels, but a wider choice of lodging options can be found in Manhattan, 15 miles west, or in Topeka, 45 miles southeast.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World