Story and photos by James P. Hughes
Community pride surfaces in many ways and for many reasons. That’s evident in Chittenango with the village’s yellow brick sidewalks, a visit to an enchanting museum, and the welcome of brightly colored signs proclaiming “Birthplace of L. Frank Baum Author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
The honoring of Baum, a prolific writer and renowned creator of the Oz series, peaks each year during the first weekend of June when Chittenango presents “Oz-Stravaganza.” The imaginative and lively celebration, now into its fourth decade, is the village’s annual tip of the hat to its “favorite son.”
The Genesis of Oz
Along with many siblings, Lyman Frank Baum (1856 – 1919) spent his early years in the family home at the edge of Chittenango village, and the latter part of his youth at Rose Lawn, an estate-like property just to the north of Syracuse. The young man, often accused of “daydreaming,” showed an ability and interest in writing, even printing a journal with a younger brother to distribute among family and friends.
Never question the truth of what you fail to understand, for the world is filled with wonders. ~ L. Frank Baum
Baum, who preferred Frank to Lyman, met Miss Maud Gage at a social gathering and in 1882 they married. Maud was the daughter of the noted Matilda Joslyn Gage, who wrote and spoke eloquently in support of women’s suffrage and other matters. Both Maud and Matilda encouraged Frank to write, and so he did. It’s said that Matilda Gage was friendly and respected by the neighborhood children, who often addressed her as “Auntie M” – “Auntie Em!” Hmm…sound familiar?
With a flair for fantasy and an ability to create enchanting characters, Baum authored 14 novels in the Oz series, becoming the best-selling author of children’s books in the country. “In all this world there is nothing so beautiful as a happy child,” he once wrote. Over a long career he penned scores of other novels, short stories, poems, and scripts. But with the release and continual screenings of the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, Baum’s name and fame became widespread and everlasting.
A simple local event led to Chittenango’s now traditional Oz-Stravaganza, celebrating with mirth and merriment its 42nd year in 2019. In 1978, village historian Clara Houck decided to honor the birthday of L. Frank Baum with a party for a gathering of local children at the village library. There, along with plenty of ice cream and cake, she described the history of Baum’s village connections and his notable career. The children, many dressed in Oz costumes, then sang a hearty “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Baum.
The event sparked plans to continue the festivities as a yearly community event. It would be an opportunity to celebrate and spread the Baum legacy to those who grew up with a love of the Oz stories and the classic film…and who didn’t? Originally dubbed Oz-Fest, the festival quickly drew hundreds of visitors and, over its long run, has grown to delight thousands as the present three-day Oz-Stravaganza.
What can a first-timer expect? The folks in Chittenango state it simply – “All Things Oz.” Expect to see the familiar – magic inspired by the classic Wizard of Oz film with all its colorful characters from Dorothy to the Wicked Witch to the Wizard himself. But it doesn’t stop there.
Since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900, Oz-inspired adaptations of Baum’s work have appeared again and again through film, books, television, and on stage. That sweeping history is on display as Oz-related writers, artists, actors, and descendants of Mr. Baum have time and again visited the festivities. Caren Marsh-Doll, dance stand-in for Judy Garland’s Dorothy in the film, has journeyed to Chittenango, once serving as parade Grand Marshall. In recent times, health and age issues kept the Munchkins from an annual Chittenango stopover, but for years devoted members of that spirited group were festival fixtures and crowd favorites. Sadly, that era ended just a year ago with the death at 98 of Jerry Maren, proud member of the Lollipop Guild and the last surviving Munchkin guest.
Just as The Wizard of Oz film and Oz stories have reached across generations, Oz-Stravaganza offers ongoing activity for families and folks of all ages …in short, something for everyone. Each year there are coloring, costume, and writing contests. Souvenirs and memorabilia abound, as well as opportunities to meet with special guests, all approachable and willing to chat. Of course, there will always be food, vendors, live entertainment, rides, and much more. People line Chittenango’s main street to enjoy the color and commotion of a Saturday afternoon parade which seems to grow with each passing year.
The latest Oz-Stravaganza will honor the 100th anniversary of both L. Frank Baum’s death and publication of his 1919 children’s novel, The Magic of Oz. Also recognized will be 1939’s unforgettable film The Wizard of Oz – it first appeared on movie screens exactly eight decades ago. Organizers are ready and waiting to “celebrate the Oz universe” once again in 2019 … so just “follow the yellow brick road!”
Get Ready to Enjoy
May 31st – June 2nd
For all information and a full schedule of events visit:
Want even more Oz?
All Things Oz Museum
219 Genesee Street Chittenango, NY 13037
Thousands of Oz items on exhibit: rare collectibles, memorabilia, fascinating facts.