Kansas in the Movies, Oz is (Still) Everywhere Article
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Oz Is (Still) Everywhere

Article Written by: Thomas Fox Averill

     The Wizard of Oz continues as a reliable and durable popular cultural icon in both Kansas literature and in film.  Whether outsiders or Kansans are writing in the literary tradition, or whether scriptwriters and directors are referencing classic films, elements of Oz find their way into contemporary novels and movies.

     Some recent sightings from literature include Wylene Dunbar’s My Life With Corpses (Harcourt, 2004), set in contemporary Kansas.  Dunbar’s narrator, nicknamed Oz, tells about a Kansas university whose new library wing is a memorial for an “aviation manufacturer’s son.”  There, she finds
     “. . . the Emerald City, a room . . . that contained the Gottshall’s collection of books, documents, and other      items pertaining to The Wizard of Oz. . . .  In the center of the room stood a polished wood replica of one of      the apple-throwing trees in the magic forest, encircled by a padded bench and containing in its crotch the prize      of the Gottshall collection–one of the five pairs of ruby slippers Judy Garland wore as Dorothy, the shoes      safely sealed in a Plexiglass box.” (pp. 127-128)
There, she is asked, “Oz in Oz?”

     In the novel, Oz has returned home to find home, or at least what’s left of her growing up among the dead.  Anyone who has read the opening of Baum’s novel knows the territory.  Of Aunt Em:  “The sun and the wind . . . had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober grey; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips and they were grey also.  She was thin and gaunt and never smiled now.”  And Uncle Henry: “ . . . stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.” (Dover edition, pp. 12-13)  Not corpses, maybe, but close.

     In Richard Jennings’ young adult novel, The Great Whale of Kansas (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), when a young man discovers a corpse–fossilized, in this case–he is prepared.  After all, he collects odd postcards from Kansas, and has become “something of an authority on the peculiarities of Kansas.  What other state points with so much pride to wheat, tornadoes, and the bizarre inhabitants of Oz?” (p. 23)

     In Laura Moriarty’s The Center of Everything (Hyperion, 2003), the narrator/protagonist, Evelyn, refuses to watch The Wizard of Oz.
     I’m sick of it.  It’s on every year, and I’ve seen it so many times that I can say the lines right along with the      movie, from “Auntie Em, Auntie Em” to “I’ll get you, my little pretty,” down the yellow brick road and back      again to the scary flying monkeys who turn out to be people and then back off to see the Wizard who is really      just an old man who is very nice but not exactly dependable to “You had the answer inside you all the time,      Dorothy, just click your heels three times.”  My mother said, “Okay, Evelyn, you’ve seen it before.  I get the      picture.”
Evelyn escapes with a friend, whose mother is also participating in the Spring ritual on television.  Evelyn says, “Mrs. Rowley doesn’t like my mother, and my mother doesn’t like her; they won’t speak to each other face-to-face.  But I like the idea of them watching the same movie in different houses, both of them so wrapped up in the same old story they won’t even notice we’re gone.” (p. 70)

     Recent films tell us that everyone is watching the same movie, and paying homage to this quintessential film.  In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Paramount, 2004, released on DVD in January 2005), writer-director Kerry Conran draws on all kinds of film iconography, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Flash Gordon, from Jules Verne to King Kong, from Lost Horizon to The Wizard of Oz, all with a good dose of Buck Rogers and Indiana Jones.  Sky Captain even includes a scene from The Wizard of Oz, playing at Radio City Music Hall, which one source says the film never did in real life.  Most important, the movie relies on an Oz-ian plot twist at the end: the man behind the curtain is finally revealed, but he’s been dead for years.

     The just-released Robots pays even more obvious tribute.  A young, inventive robot, Rodney Copperbottom, with a big heart and unrestrained ambition, goes to Robot City hoping to meet and work for his hero, Big Weld.  Upon his arrival, he marches up to the gates of Big Weld Industries and runs into a gatekeeper straight out of The Wizard of Oz.  Rejected at the gates, Rodney wanders the city.  He spots the Tin Man, who makes an obligatory cameo.  A mechanical Toto is there, as well.  When Rodney finds out that Big Weld is no longer in charge, he gathers a seemingly hapless group of outmoted robots to find their hero and thwart an evil plot.  They restore Big Weld to power and Robot City to order in exactly the same way Dorothy and her allies revolutionize and restore Oz from the control of the Wicked Witches.  The plot, the characters and the allusions, as in Sky Captain, seem perennial.

     If Kansas is associated with Oz in literature and film, Kansas has also made itself the home of Oz in various forms.  Liberal created Dorothy’s House years ago, although not without some confusion.  A hand-carved wooden sign says that Dorothy’s House was built in 1907, and has been restored as much as possible to that year, the same year Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz.  The book, however, was published in 1900.  The sign further claims that the house is a replica of the house used in the film of The Wizard of Oz.  A house built in 1907 would hardly seem a good candidate to be a replica of a house built for a 1939 Hollywood movie. 

     In 1988, Sedan began promoting itself with a yellow brick road, what they call the “Golden Sidewalk.”  By recent count, 10,700 golden bricks line Sedan’s sidewalks, imprinted with donor’s names from all 50 United States and 28 foreign countries.  Bob Hope and Elizabeth Taylor have bricks.  Liberal has a yellow brick road, too, and among the imprints are the names of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. 

     More recently, Wamego has become an Oz center.  The Oz Museum, with a wide-ranging and valuable collection of Oz memorabilia, saw 12,000 visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day of 2004 (the museum opened its doors in the spring; hours are M-S 10-5, Sunday 12-5).  Many visitors approach Wamego from I-70, then north on U.S. 99, which is now designated the “Road to Oz.”  The downtown museum was fitted to house the collection of Wamego native Tod Mauchlin.  Over 2000 items are on display, dating from 1900 to the present.  The Oz Museum is impressive in its depth of collection.  Naturally, the majority of any Oz collection will be based on Oz as film rather than on the Oz books, though the 14 Baum books and all the sequels by other authors are represented.  Still, only the first two display cases (of around 12) treat Baum and Oz–the pre-film world from 1900 to 1939.  The walk through the museum is Dorothy’s adventure in the film Oz (in the book she goes South, into the land of the Quadlings and the China people and Glinda).  The journey through, winding through the space, makes the museum seem even bigger than appears from the storefront.

      Display ignage is sometimes hard to find, and sometimes hard to read.  And though the objects are impressively displayed, they might be more impressively interpreted.  For example, nowhere is there any speculation on why Baum chose Kansas–obviously a huge question given the many discussions of what Baum's decision has meant to the image of Kansas.  Oz has also been a commercial product for over a century, and an American icon for nearly 50 years, and some discussion of its value, its many avid collectors (like Tod Mauchlin himself) and its overall worth would be worth interpretation.  So would the meaning of Oz in contemporary culture, whether it’s the synchronicity of The Wizard with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, or the various manifestations of Oz in comic bookss, or the 1995 novel Wicked, by Gregory Maguire, recently adapted to a Broadway musical.  Finally, there is nothing to evidence the literature and film recently connected to Oz (as in this article), nor the fascination of Oz and Judy Garland by the male homosexual community (see Was, by Geoff Ryman), nor the sleazy side of Oz (look for cards in any adult novelty store).

     Perhaps all those explorations are too much to expect from a museum that received a major grant from the State of Kansas.  Though the brochure promises a dedication to “ALL things OZ,” there is room for more.  One staff member said they are interested, where possible, in continuing to collect and to interpret.  For now, the collection contains rare and remarkable artifacts that bear witness to the many facets of Oz, from the books to the first Broadway production to the early silent films.  Kansas is lucky to be home to this kind of collection, and more analysis can be the purview of the scholars of popular culture.

     Kansas is lucky, in fact, to be home to all of Oz, in all of its manifestations.  The Wizard of Oz is about finding a home.  Dorothy accomplishes that.  The Wizard of Oz is finding a home in a huge range of films.  Now Kansas is making a home for Oz, both in exhibits and in a rich and allusive literature.

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