It’s hard to believe but 2009 is the 70th anniversary of one of the all time classic motion pictures, The Wizard of Oz (it was originally released on August 25, 1939). It also marked the fourth anniversary of the Southeast Wizard of Oz Festival in Orange Park, Florida, on the weekend of March 13-15. What started in 2006 as an afternoon ceremony to honor local resident Meinhardt Raabe (the Munchkin Coroner) with a proclamation and screening of the film, has blossomed into a three day celebration of all things Oz.
One of my chief complaints for the early years of the show was a lack of readily available information on the schedule of events, especially in advance. As someone who attends multiple shows throughout the state, this information is often critical when events end up overlapping on the same weekend (as this did with Megacon in 2008). This year, full color posters and handbills with the weekend’s agenda were available in advance and generously distributed throughout the event. These schedules were so well done that they not only kept attendees apprised of the goings on, they also gave them a souvenir to take home. There was also an equally well done program available for $1.00 that contained a brief history of the festival, biographies of the Munchkin guests, and some fun Oz trivia and photos.
Appearing with Mr. Raabe this year were Jerry Maren (leader of the Lollipop Guild), Margaret Pellegrini (Oz villager and Sleepyhead), and Karl Slover (Trumpeter). While these guests had all attended the show in previous years, they represented over half of the seven surviving Munchkin actors after Clarence Swensen, who played an Oz soldier and appeared at the Fest in 2008, passed away last month. It is absolutely amazing to see how well the remaining cast is holding up, especially considering they are all in their eighties and nineties.
Having previously experienced the main events held at the Orange Park Mall, I opted to try some of the new items that had been added for 2009. On Friday evening there was a screening of the film at the Hilton Garden Inn near the mall. For a donation of only $5.00, attendees received popcorn, candy, and a drink as well as getting to see the show. All of the Munchkin actors, except for Raabe, were on hand and visited with attendees before the movie. Jerry Maren kept younger audience members fascinated with his stories of making one of their favorite films. I spoke with Margaret Pellegrini about the busy day she and the others had been through promoting the event. She told me that she didn’t know about anyone else but as soon as the Munchkin’s scenes were over, she was going to bed!
The film presentation was done with a laptop PC playing a DVD through a video projector. The image was projected onto a standard four by six foot screen, which was adequate for the space used. The room was set up to hold about eighty people and filled up quickly just prior to show time. Unfortunately the sound was limited to the laptop’s speakers and those seated in the back (where my wife Cindy and I were) could barely hear the audio. We toughed it out through the opening of the film but after the scenes in Munchkinland, we took a queue from Margaret and company and called it a night. Even though we only watched about twenty minutes of the movie and couldn’t hear most of that, Cindy and I still agreed it was $5.00 worth of entertainment. The lack of participation in recent years from the AMC Theater in the mall has been a sore spot with me, so hopefully this screening will be continued next year with better equipment. Having grown up in the pre-home video days where Ozwas only broadcast once a year, I look forward to an annual opportunity to see the film.
As good fortune would have it, my friend and fellow movie fan Donovan “Poster Man” Johnson was visiting Jacksonville the same weekend of this year’s OzFest. Since he had never attended before, I lined up tickets to the Sunday night dinner for him and his wife Kim to go with Cindy and me. Meals at functions like this are usually a risky proposition but the dinner provided by Carraba’s Italian Grill was actually very good. Apparently there were a number of no shows because the room was only about two thirds full. As we ate and visited with other Oz fans, some weary Munchkins, again sans Meinhardt Raabe, were introduced at their banquet table and made brief greetings. Following the meal there was no formal interaction with the guests but we did stop by and thank them for coming again this year. I can only imagine how exhausting a weekend this must have been for them.
As the dinner attendees were filing out, I ran into Anita Caton, one of the many coordinators who help make this festival possible, and her fiancé Bobby Grismer who heads up security for the event. Anita filled in a lot of the gaps for me since I had missed the mall portion. She said that attendance was on par with last year but the vendor turnout was down, possibly due to the economy. Meinhardt Raabe had to limit his participation this year due to health concerns but was able to attend everything at the mall. This was also the first year for an OZ parade outside the mall, featuring classic automobiles, and a Munchkin eating contest. Thankfully these were the delicious donut holes donated by Dunkin’; the diminutive guests were never in any danger!
The progress the Southeast Wizard of Oz Festival has made in only four short years is both commendable and impressive. As a North Florida film fan, I welcome any celebration of classic motion pictures and you couldn’t pick a better one to celebrate than The Wizard of Oz. Hopefully the show will continue to improve and expand. I know by next year I will be ready for the full three day treatment again.
Special thanks this year to Anita Caton, Bobby Grismer, and Nicholas Thompson for providing information and photographs for this article.