In the little town of Wamego, Kansas, there is an old wild west prairie town theater, the Columbian. Built as a music hall in 1893, genuine cowboys came there for entertainment. Some years ago a group of enterprising folks restored that wonderful old building located right on the main street. They have been holding plays and musicals there ever since.
It is difficult to gather enough support for the Arts in Kansas - except for country music, the highest art form embraced here. I find it remarkable that such a small town has managed to restore the theater, stage plays and musicals, and draw an international crowd at least once a year to OZtoberFEST (every October). It is a citywide celebration of the Wizard of Oz.
I have been asked at least five hundred times "How is Dorothy?" after admitting to an out lander that I hail from Kansas. The only thing the rest of the world knows of Kansas is from the movie "The Wizard of Oz" - Dorothy and Toto and Auntie Em, all from Kansas. When someone asks me about Dorothy or Toto, I always get to say yes, I am from Kansas and even better - I have an Auntie Em, too - my mother's older sister, Emma Jean, forever called Em. It is fun.
I am not complaining that Kansas' claim to fame is a wonderful, timeless story beloved by millions. We could be known as the state that elected a school board hell bent on teaching creationism instead of evolution in our public schools in the twenty first century!
Wamego has made the Wizard of Oz into a true event. The remaining original actors who portrayed Munchkins in the movie come for the festivities. My daughter and I attended a dinner with these tiny actors one year. We met them and visited just a bit with each one. It was fun.
One of the great grandsons of L. Frank Baum, author of the original book, was there, too. Robert Baum is a tall man, with white hair, and he was dressed as Professor Tinker, the fortune teller who was also the Wizard of Oz. Mr. Baum looked so much like Professor Tinker to me that I had to stop and do the math. The actor who played the Wizard could not possibly have still been alive! I thought it remarkable that he so resembled the Wizard. (What kind of crazy karma is going on there?!)
The Wizard of Oz is performed on the stage in the Columbian each year, and it is very well done. We are not talking a Broadway production, but the acting and singing are certainly well performed, and the stage sets are ingenius and excellent. The tornado was constructed from yards of dark cloth and spun about with appropriate sound effects - it resembled a tornado in appearance and behavior - so clever. My favorite, and the very best special effect, were the genuine sparks that flew between the finger tips of the Wicked Witch and Dorothy's ruby slippers! And yes, there is a little dog Toto, too. He resembles the original Toto, and knows his cues like any professional actor worth his dog biscuits.
After six years the play has been retired, but OZtoberFEST continues. The Oz Museum is open next to the Columbian Theater, and there are many other Oz related festivities each fall. I am sure there will be something else to take the place of the play.
This year when I drove through Wamego's main street during the 'FEST, there were license plates from all over the United States: New Jersey, Florida, New York, Tennessee, Texas, California... I can not remember all the different license plates I noticed. The magic of Oz still lives in Kansas, and pilgrims come from far and wide. How much fun is that?
Visit Columbian Theater here.
There are links to the Oz museum and the OZtoberFEST, too.