The weekend of March 8th wasn’t just Megacon this year, it was also the third annual Southeast Wizard of Oz Fest (or as I like to call it “Munchkin Mall Mayhem!”). Fortunately the Fest was expanded to two days this year so I was able to pay a visit to the Orange Park Mall on Sunday without interfering with my Megacon trip.
My chief complaint about the 2007 event was the lack of information available on the schedule of events. This was corrected for the most part this year on their website,http://www.southeastwizardofozfest.com, which featured a detailed program for both days. The website also provided information on the actual location of the event which, like last year, appeared to be a well kept secret by the mall.
Once again, the courtyard in front of J. C. Penney was transformed into the Land of Oz, complete with a giant rainbow of balloons, to welcome memorabilia vendors and surviving members of the cast to Orange Park,Florida. Volunteers dressed as characters from the film greeted attendees and posed for pictures while roaming the mall. Related events this year featured dance performances, a cake decorating contest, and a magic show.
Guests for 2008 included returning Munchkins Meinhardt Raabe, Margaret Pellegrini, Karl Slover, and Clarence Swensen. Appearing for the first time this year were Jerry Maren (along with his wife Elizabeth, a “Munchkin by marriage”) and Judy Garland’s stand in Caren Marsh-Doll. Ms. Marsh-Doll entertained the audience with some interesting stories about what it was like to be a stand in (it’s actually a pretty grueling job) and served as a reminder that, if circumstances had been different, this could have been Judy Garland on the stage in Florida.
Jerry Maren is best remembered as the head of the Oz Lollipop Guild (he played the Munchkin who actually presents Dorothy with the lollipop) but he is also the most recognizable of all of the diminutive actors from the film. Following his turn in The Wizard of Oz, Maren went on to appear in over two dozen motion pictures and even more television shows. Fanboys will recall him as one of the subterranean dwellers in the feature film Superman and the Mole Men which served as the pilot for the George Reeves television series. I had Mr. Maren sign my one sheet poster for Little Cigars, a light-hearted ’70’s crime caper picture he appeared in with exploitation heartthrob Angel Tompkins.
The promoters of the Fest made some appreciable changes to the still evolving show. Vendors were sparse due to a new policy of only allowing Oz related merchandise but this also improved the appearance of the event by eliminating the jewelry and vitamin dealers seen last year. With the expansion to two days, the signing times for the Munchkins were increased but they were still set up in a linear area that made it difficult to jump to one particular person if you didn’t want to see everyone.
In a colossal misstep this year, the mall movie theater did not offer any screenings of the film. Having grown up with the annual network broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz, I would welcome any opportunity to see the film on the big screen. According to Fest coordinator Anita Caton, the theater opted not to show the movie on any of their 24 screens because of the low attendance the previous year. Apparently no one realized that both of the 2007 screenings were scheduled at the same time as the Munchkin signings so the poor turnout is understandable given the choice to be made (I had to miss out on seeing the film last year to get autographs and I was not pleased). Considering that the promoters intend to make this an annual event at the mall, I am surprised the theater hasn’t purchased a print of the film just to have it on hand. If they decide to continue this insult next year, I sincerely hope the Fest will investigate other options for screenings.
It seems to be increasingly more difficult to find activities appropriate for young children that the entire family can also enjoy. The Southeast Wizard of Oz Fest is thankfully a treat for all ages and the majority of the activities are free to the public. Proceeds from the event go to support the Seamark Ranch, a home for abused, neglected, and abandoned children. Based on the turnout this year, especially for a Sunday, I would say there are still plenty of Oz fans out there eager to relive the memories of the yellow brick road.