On Memory/Nostalgia 1: Is There Life in Oz?

This post is time-sensitive, so I’m putting it up before the site is really ready. So forgive my very basic website. As always, the perfect is the enemy of the ‘good enough’ as well as the good.

You may have heard the news. Oz has returned… for a limited time.

The Land of Oz was a theme park in the mountains of North Carolina, open from 1970 to 1980. Time and vandalism have taken their toll on the eerie recreations of the Judy Garland film, but its basic structure persists. The buildings, rides, sets are still there, strange and alone more than 90% of the year. It has been opened up to tourists since its closure– in the 1990s the cabins could be rented; tours have been available for special Beech Mountain events. Since 2012– maybe? It’s really hard to tell when this started, but it was following a 1970 park cast reunion in 2011– the park has hosted “Autumn in Oz” and was open for a weekend. Similar events have been scheduled since– in 2015 it was sold out, but also canceled due to a statewide state of emergency– hurricanes don’t really reach the mountains of NC, but I guess they were playing it safe… following the law… that kind of thing. Sadly, I only started looking into this when I was getting ready to leave the state of North Carolina for… an extended time, if not necessarily forever.

     And this summer the park is reopening for a short while. There will be tours of the park every Friday in June. Tickets go on sale the previous Monday; the park is accessible only by ski lift, so there is a $10 lift fee on top of the $12.50 park entrance fee. It’s still cheap. You should go. I can only urge you to go. I just moved to the state of Washington, so the odds are diminishingly small that I will make it this year. East Coasters can visit, though, and if you do please tell me about it. I have dim memories of my own trip to Oz, a child’s memories. In spite of the fact that the park is an obvious location for a low-budget horror film, I’ve always wanted to return. If you get the chance, then make the journey. You won’t forget the experience.

     I’m not sure how old I was when I traveled to the fairy country beyond the Deadly Desert– yes, I am a book nerd, so if you feel like you’re missing a reference, just assume that a book did it. I was old enough to form long-term memories, but I don’t remember my baby brother being carried around with us, so maybe four? My father’s first guess was 1982, when I would have been 10, but the park had already closed by then. His next guess was 1979. My brother, born in 1976, has no memory of the place, so… sounds right? I can’t know and my mother had no guess at all. The fact is this was an event both hybridized and set apart. I don’t have any mental landmarks to attach to the trip. I have multiple readings of (some of) the Oz books and multiple viewings of the 1939 film to help confuse my memories, though. Some confusions are worth embracing.

     After my family left the park, I begged to return. We never did.  At some point my parents told me the park had closed down, and I wasn’t able to comprehend what they were saying. Narnia can’t be closed for repairs; Heaven never has a fire sale. The Land of Oz wasn’t a place in the real world to me. If I concentrated I could remember the park’s flaws and frustrations, but I assumed I was the problem– my ears were too weak, my eyes too small to really understand the depth of the drama unfolding between Dorothy and the Witch. I like magic is what I’m saying and The Land of Oz felt like magic to me.

     I remember entering the park through Dorothy’s farmhouse, a tornado raging behind every window. It was just a movie, of course, and even at my young age I found it more clever than convincing. However, the next step was perfect– walking out of the farmhouse into Munchkinland, the colors suddenly more vibrant and alive than anything in the real world. Plastic flowers and lollipops, pastel-framed houses, and of course– starting in a spiral of yellow and red at the center of the tiny town– the Yellow Brick Road. I could hear eerily high-pitched voices singing and laughing, sounding very far away, and I remember becoming aware of a woman with a wand and a shimmering princess costume speaking to our tour group– Glinda! The Good Witch! Where was her bubble? Had I missed it? Why didn’t she float away when we left? Oh crap, was that the Wicked Witch? Why wasn’t I closer to the action? Why couldn’t I hear what they were saying, on the other side of the YBR? I had so many questions.

     I remember my parents pointing back to Dorothy’s cottage as we walked out and seeing stripe-stockinged feet sticking out– not rolling up but twitching and kicking forever in animatronic glory. I remember wanting to follow the Red Brick Road, because I knew where the yellow bricks led and I wanted to go someplace new. I remember following Dorothy towards the Scarecrow’s crossroads. The Scarecrow was different than the one in the film. Instead of Ray Bolger’s makeup, this Scarecrow’s face was invisible underneath a shaggy giant of a straw head. I think the head was supposed to look friendly, but it was mostly featureless. Jarred, I was still fascinated when he joined the party, dancing and singing alongside Dorothy. Things still felt right for me.

     Soon we were striding up to vocal but immobile Fighting Trees– my parents had to point out their faces to me– and across the way was the Tin Man. I don’t think he had an actual funnel on his head, to my disappointment– children have zero tolerance for variation– but he was a closer match to the film version and he held still until the ritual of the oil can freed him; I felt like things were going the way they should. More dancing followed, suddenly interrupted by the Witch’s laughter! At this point, perfection reigned. The Witch of the West was standing on the roof of a small, overgrown house near the path. She harangued us, projecting beautifully even though she was outdoors– they may have had some sort of amplifier in the house– threatened the Scarecrow with fire, and flash pots exploded near the performers. I was less than 10 years old and I was in awe.

     THIS. WAS. AMAZING.

     When the Witch disappeared in a cloud of colored smoke– she must have fallen through a trapdoor into the house– I was convinced. This was magic, scary magic. I wanted to live in Oz.

     The follow-up encounter with the Cowardly Lion was similarly arresting. The Lion was more of a dude in a straight lion costume, less the jovial human-hybrid thing from the move. The result was, when we heard a growl from the woods, what came out looked enough like a giant cat that it freaked me out. Now I wasn’t disappointed with the differences between the park and the film– I was learning to fear them. Yes, the Lion was still easily cowed by Dorothy and Toto, but I wasn’t convinced. I made it my job to keep an eye on the giant feline, just in case it turned on our group. It didn’t, but I can’t be certain that isn’t just because I didn’t afford it the opportunity.

     Oddly, I don’t remember the rest of the trip very well. I’m certain we made it to the Emerald City and rang the bell, only to have a weirdo with amazing facial hair poke his head out and tell us to knock because the bell was broken. I’m equally certain that I was a little mad that the Emerald City wasn’t made of emeralds, just wood and green paint. That said, the Emerald City exhibit actually burned down in 1975, so it’s possible these memories are real… but I don’t have any other memories as a 3 year old, so I doubt it.

    If they are real, I have no idea why I don’t remember the Wizard. I should remember meeting Oz, the Great and Powerful. Instead, I just remember a lame play in the 6th grade, where the Wizard was represented as a ball of fire– and by “ball of fire” I mean piece of cardboard with red and yellow marker scribbled on it. No booming voice– maybe there was a shimmering throne room? Open flames? These things should have left an impression if a melon-headed dancing straw man did. But now, nothing. I’m not even certain if the Witch’s castle existed. In contemporary photos it looks like a structure meant to be viewed from afar, but I’ve seen references to it in articles claiming that you used to be able to tour it. I know I wanted to visit it, asked to visit it, but I merely have a vague impression of viewing the castle from afar, waiting for a cloud of monkeys to spiral out of its tower with a growing sense of dread.

 

     I suppose that this confirms that the park was creepy. Yes, the park was creepy… and whimsical and fun. That’s a perfect description of what anything based on The Wizard of Oz should be. I know the park wasn’t perfect but… it was perfect. L. Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books during his lifetime; I devoured the 3 in my parents’ library when I was a child. I’ve since read another 4, with mixed results– Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz features the dream team of Dorothy, Professor Marvel, and Princess Ozma but still stinks of a book written because the author needed to get paid and isn’t worth readers’ time. I’ve only read one non-Baum novel, Edward Einhorn’s Paradox in Oz, which was a hilarious and worthy successor; the graphic novel series Oz-Wonderland War is flawed but enjoyable, and features Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew at its center– always a winning trait, at least if you ask pre-adolescent me.

     Also, it implies that the Flash villain Grodd the Super Gorilla was somehow allied with Ozma’s adversary Roquat the Red, king of the Nomes. What can I say? Sometimes we just need stupid things to make ourselves happy. Nerds know this better than most, I think. It’s just wrong to deny ourselves our stupid, stupid things.

     I enjoyed the novel Wicked but I have yet to familiarize myself with the musical. Which is weird, because I like musicals. Ah well. Digression.

     All that to say: my love for and interest in Oz has never diminished. I credit the half-remembered adventure of the lost theme park for a goodly portion of my love for Oz.

     Maybe that’s how kids feel when they visit Hogwart’s in present-day Orlando; maybe that’s how my daughter felt when I took her to a comics convention and she met Spider-Man and Rainbow Dash. Maybe “Mister Toad’s Wild Ride” inspires a lifelong love of The Wind in the Willows for some. I can’t know. I’m a nerdy adult, but an adult; the magic is muted but never gone. The Land of Oz is one of the places that taught me about magic; encouraged me to seek it out, not wait for it to come to me. Yes, that magic only existed inside books’ pages– also a great lesson, since just because something is fictional doesn’t mean it isn’t also real. Oz only had a sort of a short half-life, but it mattered more than some random tourist attraction should. Which is to say, it mattered to me.

     So, if you can, go to Oz this summer. Go there and take a lot of pictures– I have none. Take a lot of pictures, take a lot of notes, and then when you’re done… send them to me.

#memory #earlynerdlife #landofoz

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