August 24, 2014

‘Wizard of Oz’ forever linked to Kansas’ legacy

Seventy-five years after it hit the big screen, “The Wizard of Oz” remain as much a part of Kansas as wheat, sunflowers and bison.

SCARECROW: “I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”

DOROTHY: “That is because you have no brains … No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

— Excerpt from L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz”

It has been more than a century since Dorothy first told her dog, Toto, that they weren't in Kansas anymore, but the two fictional characters remain as much a part of the state as wheat, sunflowers and bison.

The book L. Frank Baum wrote was turned into a movie in 1939 — and that, Kansas historians say, sealed our identity and would forevermore become a part of the state’s legacy and history.

“A lot of states have these kind of narrative features,” said Jay Price, department of history chair at Wichita State University.

Nebraska has Willa Cather and “My Antonia” and “O Pioneers!”

Missouri is known for Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Oklahoma has “The Grapes of Wrath.”

For better or worse, the characters from Oz are so entrenched in American culture that when Kansans go visiting elsewhere they often are asked, "How's Dorothy and her little dog, Toto?"

“We have this love-hate relationship,” Price said. “The Wizard of Oz is our default setting,” particularly when it comes to tourism.

Many of Kansas’ western-themed attractions — such as Wichita’s Old Cowtown Museum and Boot Hill in Dodge City — were created in the 1950s and 1960s, Price said, when television and movie westerns were popular.

But the Wizard of Oz — which debuted in theaters 75 years ago this month — had long before that become timeless.

“We are stuck with it the way Georgia is connected with ‘Gone with the Wind’ and Austria is connected with the ‘Sound of Music’,” Price said.

Oz origins

The 1939 movie defined much of the Kansas image more so than the book, said Thomas Averill, a Kansas historian and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka.

“It’s not always a positive image,” Averill said. “Kansas is seen in black and white. Judy Garland is sort of an emotive Dorothy, where in the book Dorothy is pretty determined and practical.”

Baum passed through Kansas in the winter of 1882 on tour as the author of the play, “The Maid of Arran.” He stopped at Olathe and Lawrence, according to the website Map of Kansas Literature. The tour was the last time he visited Kansas.

Averill wrote in a 1987 article for “Kansas History” — called “Oz and Kansas Culture” — that Baum’s experiences of Kansas during that winter trip was when the weather went from rainy to snow. Dull and gray.

Some historians suggest Kansas became the location in “Oz” after Irving, Kan., made national news on May 30, 1879, by becoming the only town hit twice by a tornado in one day. Among the 19 people killed were six members of the Gale family, Dorothy’s last name.

It is also possible, Averill said, that much of the inspiration for the story came to Baum after a visit with one of Kansas’ most famous journalists, William Allen White, editor and publisher of the Emporia Gazette. The two shared the same Chicago-based publisher.

“Baum was aware of Kansas history,” Averill said. “At the time ‘The Wizard of Oz’ came out, Kansas was a place that was a positive place to be. White claims he spoke to Baum at great length about the politics of Kansas. Politics was very alive in Kansas at that time.”

Averill would write in the “Oz and Kansas Culture” article: “Kansas is the geographical center of the contiguous United States, as the Emerald City and the Wizard are the geographical center of Oz. Kansas had prominence in the national consciousness, with its ‘Bleeding Kansas’ Civil War connection … its grasshopper invasions and legendary blizzards.”

All told, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” would become a series of 14 books for Baum. But none of the other books would ever become as popular as the first, which was published in 1900.

Averill contends what resonates most with people is the sense of innocence Dorothy has about home.

“I enjoy Dorothy's friendliness and innocence,” he said. “The ‘not in Kansas anymore’ implies that she's been sheltered, but she's come from difficult circumstances, and her innocence comes from goodness, not stupidity.

“Good overcomes evil in this book/film, and it's the innocents who do all the good.”

Tourism dollars

Nearly 15,000 tourist flock each year to Liberal in the far southwest corner of the state to see Dorothy’s House and Land of Oz. Their tourism dollars bring in $2.2 million a year, said JoAnne Mansell, director of the Seward County Historical Society, which oversees Dorothy’s House.

Liberal residents built a replica of the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy's house and a building containing several re-created items from the Land of Oz. They stage an annual fall festival called Oztoberfest.

“They come from all around the world,” Mansell said. “This is their destination. They come to find Dorothy’s House because there is no place like home.

“ It doesn’t matter if they are from Kansas or Australia, they feel a real connection with the Wizard of Oz. People are drawn to the wholesomeness of Dorothy.”

In Wamego, about 15 miles east of Manhattan, the Oz Museum annually attracts 30,000 to 35,000 visitors.

“We have people from every state and 13 different countries,” said Hollyn Smith, gift shop coordinator of the Oz Museum.

“There is a Wizard of Oz fan base. … For many of them, they come because of the emotional feelings. They remember watching the movie as a child or seeing their kids watch the movie. It brings back warm, fuzzy feelings.”

The Wizard of Oz, Smith said, promotes good worthwhile lessons.

“The morals and ethics of the movie tries to teach you to be strong and courageous,” she said. “That’s become the persona for our whole town. We are passionately living out the full legacy of what the Wizard of Oz stands for.”

The town of Sedan, about 100 miles southeast of Wichita, boasts the the longest Yellow Brick Road in the World with 11,574 bricks that line the town’s Main Street for three blocks and some of the side streets, said Sue Kill, president of the Sedan Area Chamber of Commerce.

The town has sold yellow-tinted cement bricks with people’s names inscribed on them for the past 25 years. Whoopi Goldberg has a brick, as did Elizabeth Taylor.

State tourism officials several decades ago launched the “Land of Ahs” campaign as its slogan, attempting to attract visitors to the state. It currently uses the slogan, “There is no place like Kansas.”

“It is hard to monetize the economic impact that the Wizard of Oz has had on Kansas, but it is very popular,” said Richard Smalley, marketing manager of the state’s Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

Some Kansans have questioned using Oz-themed tourism.

“We have that discussion a lot,” Smalley said. “People say why can’t we get past that — it happened such a long time ago.

“But the flip side of it is … we own it. Why not take advantage of it?”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Wizard of Oz symbolism

“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was published in 1900, soon after the rise of the Populist Party swept the nation.

The Populist movement began in Kansas at the beginning of the 1890s. Some historians contend “The Wizard of Oz” is a midwestern political allegory with Dorothy as the “every person” who joins a brainless farmer (Scarecrow), a mechanized laborer (Tin Man) and a cowardly buffoon (Lion) to get what they want out of life.

Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the East (Eastern money). She and her friends march off to the Emerald City (Washington, D.C.) to see the Wizard (the president), who turns out to be ineffective in granting their wishes and desires.

Source: Thomas Averill, Kansas historian and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka.

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