‘Wizard of Oz’ collections grow

75 years only increase love of memorabilia.

08/08/2014 7:00 AM

08/13/2014 12:34 PM

Swinging open the doors to Melodie Foreman’s spare bedroom in Independence, Mo., feels like that moment Dorothy Gale steps out of her black-and-white world.

Foreman’s “Wizard of Oz” collection floods the room with color, floor to ceiling.

What to look at first? The Oz-character Barbies, Hallmark ornaments, souvenir plates, autographed Munchkin photos, framed albums or the Dorothy costumes hanging from the closet door?

Look out! It’s a six-pack of Flying Monkey beer.

Next to the bed, glittering under the light from an emerald-green floor lamp, is Foreman’s prized possession: a replica pair of hand-sequined ruby slippers, size 5, just like the ones a teenage Judy Garland wore in the 1939 MGM movie. They were a retirement gift — much here was gifted — from colleagues after Foreman’s 31 years at AT&T.

Now if only it didn’t take her and her husband, Greg, two days to dust all that stuff. “It’s a freakin’ nightmare,” said the longtime Oz fan.

(So was the cleanup after one of her bottles of Oz-themed red wine blew its cork.)

Foreman jokingly calls the collecting an “illness,” but in the world of Oz enthusiasts, there are those more seriously afflicted.

More than 800 collectors belong to the International Wizard of Oz Club, which gives fans an annual excuse to wear their red-sequined Converse shoes and buy each other’s stuff.

As you read this, someone is stalking Oz cookie jars, refrigerator magnets, books and figurines on eBay, where more than 39,000 Oz items are for sale.

In the United States, the wizard of Oz collecting is Willard Carroll, a movie writer/director/producer who lives in Maine and is turning his thousands of collectibles into the National Oz Museum.

Carroll owns the Wicked Witch’s hourglass from the 1939 movie. He paid $80,000 for it a couple of decades ago, outbidding a rather famous Oz devotee — Michael Jackson.

Vice president of the International Oz Club, Jane Albright is Kansas City’s most noted reaper of the Yellow Brick Road. She shares her harvest, most recently in exhibits at Crown Center and the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas.

Albright moved into a bigger Kansas City house, just two doors down, so she could pull her overflow memorabilia out from closets and under beds and display everything properly — on the entire third floor.

Her newest acquisition — “He’s just spectacular” — is a costume of a Winkie, one of the Wicked Witch’s henchmen. It was displayed at Macy’s in New York’s Herald Square for the movie’s 50th anniversary.

The Winkie guards Albright’s rarest, most prized finds — including soaps in the shape of Oz characters, samples of Oz wallpaper and a 1939 board game from England.

Albright vacuums up everything — books, ornaments, dolls, board games, posters, prints, cookie cutters, coffee mugs, snow globes and clocks.

Others specialize. Bibliophiles, for example, buy the L. Frank Baum and Baum-inspired books; art lovers, the Oz illustrations and fine-art pieces. Doll collectors grab the Madame Alexanders.

Some specialize in items from the 1939 film and/or all the Oz-themed movies and stage productions since, each opening a fresh hunting ground.

Take Disney’s widely panned 1985 “Return to Oz.” A replica of the key to Oz in the movie is selling for $30 on eBay.

“Right now there are some massive ‘Wicked’ collections,” said Albright.

‘This nice little granny lady’

Of the 25,000 pieces in Johnpaul Cafiero’s hoard now displayed in Wamego, Kan., five have a story that begs to be told.

Some years back, a friend working at a closing Warner Bros. store in New York called Cafiero to ask his interest in five plush Oz figures from the inventory. Cafiero gave her a credit card number and a mailing address.

That conversation took place Aug. 27, 2001. The shop was in the World Trade Center.

Later calling to find his friend was safe, Cafiero didn’t ask if she had mailed the figures. They arrived a few days later, to have their story told later at the Oz Museum in Kansas.

Cafiero, a Franciscan friar who lives on the north side of Chicago, had the bulk of his family’s Oz stuff packed away in 486 fifty-gallon Rubbermaid totes. When the storage place went under, he put out the word that he wanted to put the collection on loan.

Wamego answered the call.

The museum is inventorying the stockpile, which includes: the last passport of Ray Bolger, who portrayed the Scarecrow; a rubber monkey from the 1939 movie; ruby slipper replicas made of Swarovski crystals; and rare drinking glasses decorated with the film’s main characters — Toto, too.

It’s all insured for about $2 million, Cafiero said.

Certainly, rarer items are beyond most collectors’ wallets. Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion costume, for instance, has been for sale a number of times, with an opening bid in the $2 million ballpark.

When Garland’s blue-and-white dresses go up for sale, starting prices are usually north of $200,000.

It would be hard to put a price on what Lawrence author Paul Miles Schneider owns: handwritten missives from the Wicked Witch herself, Margaret Hamilton.

Schneider has written three books with Oz themes; “Silver Shoes,” also the name of his blog, was a Kansas Notable Book winner in 2010.

Schneider is often asked to speak at big Oz gatherings, such as the annual Oz-Stravaganza! in Chittenango, N.Y., which was Baum’s birthplace.

“As a kid growing up in Kansas, my attachment to Oz started really early,” said Schneider, who works for the University of Kansas. “I tell people there was Christmas, my birthday and the the annual showing of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”

Although he grew up in Lawrence, he was born in New York City into an entertainment family: His mom was an actress; his dad had been a cameraman on “The Patty Duke Show.”

While on a vacation to New York, his family went to see Hamilton in a stage production of “Oklahoma!” After the show, he scored a private audience in Hamilton’s dressing room.

There he was, a 7-year-old face-to-face with the Wicked Witch, who turned out to be “this nice little granny lady.” After politely answering his questions about the movie, Hamilton looked at him and said, “You still don’t believe I’m the witch, do you?” So …

“She did the cackle, the witch laugh, for me. Still to this day I can hear it. She just pulled her head back and let it go.”

Later his pen pal for a school project, Hamilton sent him photos and postcards that are the heart of his modest Oz pile today.

And now, as it happens, the ruby slipper is on the other foot.

Schneider’s Oz-themed books are being collected, too.

GETTING STARTED

Oz collector extraordinaire Jane Albright offers this advice for starting an Oz collection:

Buy a guide: Try “100 Years of Oz: A Century of Classic Images” by John Fricke and Willard Carroll, or Fricke’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: An Illustrated History of The American Classic.”

Choose a specialty: It makes the hunting easier if, say, you only look for merchandise tied to the 50th anniversary of the movie.

Visit eBay: “There’s so much on eBay, it’s staggering.”

Join a club: The International Wizard of Oz Club and the Wizard of Oz Collectors United are two.

Attend an Oz event: Check out OZtoberFest in Wamego, Kan., Sept. 26-27, sponsored by the Oz Museum.

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