Super Subcultures

A Tiny Town with the Spirit of Oz

In a sleepy village that birthed America’s most celebrated children’s story, an obsessive crew of volunteers has built the world’s definitive shrine to all things Oz.

A Tiny Town with the Spirit of Oz

Flapping gently in the breeze, American flags extend from power poles along a stretch of Genesee Street in Chittenango, located east of Syracuse in central New York. Few cars or pedestrians can be seen on the main drag of the village, which appears forlorn in the afternoon sunlight, almost like an Old West ghost town or the deserted setting in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

But look closer and you’ll notice yellow brick sidewalks lining both sides of the street — an homage to the “yellow brick road” from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the classic American fairytale written by native son Lyman Frank Baum and adapted into the 1939 MGM movie The Wizard of Oz.

Baum was born in Chittenango on May 15, 1856, and his family owned a barrel factory there. The family moved to the Syracuse area, where Baum grew up. He married Maud Gage, daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a women’s suffrage leader who worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Baum went on to pen a total of fifty-five novels, fourteen in the Wizard of Oz series.

The spirit of his creation endures in Chittenango through the efforts of an all-volunteer group that manages the International L. Frank Baum and All Things Oz Historical Foundation, and organizes “Oz-Stravaganza!,” an annual event held in June to honor Baum and celebrate Oz.

Photos courtesy of Pamela DiClemente
Photos courtesy of Pamela DiClemente

At 219 Genesee Street, a square, light-green building, power lines block the view of the All Things Oz Museum sign hanging above the second-floor windows. You could easily drive past the building without being aware of the cultural treasures housed inside.

Museum volunteer and foundation board member Marc Baum (no relation to the author) says the museum owns about 10,000 pieces, with more than 2,000 on display at any time. Exhibits rotate seasonally. The nonprofit museum opened this year and is run by the foundation, which has seven board members, including Baum. The museum receives exhibit contributions from private collections as well as businesses.

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Baum, a large, balding forty-four-year-old with a goatee, green eyes and a jovial personality, grew up in Watertown, north of Chittenango. He works as the merchandise presentation director for an area pharmaceutical company and lives in nearby Manlius, a Syracuse suburb .

Baum has been involved with the “Oz-Stravaganza!” festival for five years. He insists that The Wizard of Oz story remains alive and relevant.

“Not a day goes by where somebody doesn’t say, ‘There’s no place like home,’ or ‘Click your heels three times,’ or ‘If I only had a brain’ or ‘I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.’ I mean, it’s become a part of American culture to the extent where you don’t even realize you’re quoting the movie or quoting the book.”

Visitors to All Things Oz enter a small gift shop up front, dubbed “Baum’s Bazaar,” in reference to the name of a fine china and gift store L. Frank Baum and Maud owned in Aberdeen, South Dakota, on the western frontier. It failed, however, as Marc Baum explains. “People on the western frontier didn’t need china. So it was an utter failure. He always had kind of lofty aspirations and they didn’t always work out.”

But Baum eventually found his place as an American literary figure. In 1891 Baum and his family moved to Chicago, and in 1897 he published Mother Goose in Prose, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. He then teamed up with illustrator W. W. Denslow to produce Father Goose: His Book, the best-selling children’s title of 1899.

A year later, Baum and Denslow achieved commercial success again with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was the bestselling children’s book for two years after its initial publication and later became a Broadway musical.

Baum and his family relocated to Hollywood, California, where he died in 1919. According to Marc Baum, the author never returned home to Chittenango.

The gift shop sells Oz-related books, DVDs, T-shirts and other merchandise. Patrons can have their photographs taken in front of a backdrop displaying the yellow brick road, a field of poppies and the Emerald City in the background.

Beyond a black curtain, the museum space consists of one wide room that looks like a church basement. An assortment of Oz-themed memorabilia packs the floor. Here you will find Judy Garland photos, Oz lunch boxes, board games, comic books, drinking glasses, a plethora of Dorothy dolls, Wicked Witch figurines and collectibles related to the Broadway musical Wicked.

Other museum highlights include photos and historical documents related to the life of L. Frank Baum; first- and second-edition copies of the Oz books; the original props, costumes and script (with director’s notes) from the 2011 film After the Wizard; and the costumes worn by two Wizard of Oz Munchkins at public appearances.

Many of the donated pieces are imbued with folksy kitsch. Case in point: a motion-detector Scarecrow figure rests on a display shelf; whenever someone walks by it, the little object “dances” and belts into the song, “If I Only Had a Brain.”

Marc Baum’s voice rises as he points out one of his favorite exhibit items: the large green sunglasses worn by André De Shields in the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz. The actor donated the glasses to the museum, along with his backstage pass and cast T-shirt.

Baum recalls how his grandmother took him to New York to see the play, which he describes as an African-American, urbanized retelling of The Wizard of Oz.

“I loved it and she hated it,” he says. “When we got out of the theater, I’ll never forget, she said, ‘We should have seen Pippin instead.’”

Baum explains one of the variations of how the Oz name came to be. One day L. Frank Baum was sitting in his parlor, telling his stories to some neighborhood children.

“And one of the kids said, ‘Mr. Baum, Mr. Baum, what is this magical place with the Wizard and Dorothy, and where is this?’ And he said, ‘Oh it’s a magical place.’ And they said, ‘Does it have a name?’ And he said, ‘Of course it has a name.’”

Marc Baum says the writer noticed a filing cabinet with two drawers in a nearby room. He says the top drawer was labeled “A to N” and the bottom one “O to Z.”

“And he said, ‘Of course it’s Oz.’”

Baum says it’s fun to share such stories with visitors, even if no one knows for sure if the tales are true or based on legend.

Baum’s son, Matthew, thirteen, spends some Saturdays at the museum, helping his father by sorting through items and setting up merchandise. Matthew says he likes that “there are a whole bunch of things connected to this one story” written over a century ago. Matthew, who has curly black hair and wears glasses, sits in a black chair positioned in front of a small HD television screen, which plays The Wizard of Oz. But Matthew pays little attention to the film, as he bows his head to read from a book spread across his lap. He says he has seen the movie so many times, “it becomes background noise.”

But Marc Baum says, “Nobody tells me that they get sick of it. If they do, I’m the wrong guy to tell that you’re sick of Oz.”