At the end of the world's most popular movie, Dorothy chose grim, tornado-blasted Kansas over magical, Technicolor Oz. Kansas has gradually come to embrace Dorothy's endorsement, and the Oz Museum is a way to give it a respectability that only a museum can.
"If you're from Kansas you're always asked, 'How's Dorothy and Toto?'" said Oz Museum operations manager Kimberly Shepherd. "There needed to be an Oz museum somewhere in the state of Kansas."
Opened in 2003, the museum was built to house the Oz artifacts of Wamego collector Todd Machin. But Todd's memorabilia was only on loan for five years, and the museum faced an uncertain future. Then, by "a stroke of luck" according to executive director Clint Steve, the museum was contacted by a Franciscan monk named Johnpaul Cafiero. He knew about the museum and innocently wondered if it would like to display his Oz collection as well -- which turned out to be much, much larger than the one the museum was losing.
The Oz Museum now has the largest permanent public display of Oz artifacts in the world, and it's in a town of less than 5,000 people.
Visitors enter through a lobby that's monochrome, like Kansas in the 1939 movie. You pay admission through Dorothy's brown farmhouse window, open the sepia-colored screen door, and emerge into dazzling Munchkinland, with the colorful feet of the dead wicked witch sticking out from under the other side of the house.
If you're wondering how an entire museum could be filled with paraphernalia from a 1939 movie, you don't know Oz. It was a popular book series and marketing bonanza long before Judy Garland walked the Yellow Brick Road.
"I often overhear visitors saying, 'I didn't know it was a book,'" said Clint. "It was the Harry Potter of its day." L. Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz novels before he died, and dozens more followed from other authors. Oz characters that failed to make it into the 1939 film have been forgotten, but visitors to the Oz Museum can still see former stars such as the Woggle-Bug and Pumpkinhead.
Display cabinets are crammed with chronological memorabilia, from Baum's first editions to modern Oz spinoffs, along with Judy Garland's 1922 birth certificate and foreign versions of the book such as Le Magicien d'Oz and Der Wizard in Ozzenland. Flat screen monitors play Oz documentaries. An art deco mini-theater shows the film continuously, with the hand and footprints of elderly Munchkins pressed into cement slabs.
The museum's shelves also showcase more than a century of Oz merchandising: toys, dolls, cookie jars, figurines, ornaments, board games, snow globes, clocks, puppets, plates, coloring books, Halloween masks, lunch boxes. A display of Oz Peanut Butter contains one jar that's never been opened. "It's probably still edible," said Clint. "People always said it tasted like glue."
But it's the 1939 MGM musical that most people associate with Oz, and the museum's four galleries follow the narrative of the movie, with life-size statues of its main characters along the way. Museum rarities from the film include Munchkin costumes, a swatch of Dorothy's gingham dress, the movie's muslin tornado, and two of only four surviving rubber-and-pipe-cleaner Flying Monkeys. Clint confessed that the skyrocketing prices of some of these classic artifacts would be beyond his budget nowadays. The ruby slippers, for example; Clint said that even if the museum had one of the half-dozen original pairs, it probably couldn't afford the insurance to display them.
The Oz Museum is Kansas's way of overcoming the killer cyclones and Dust Bowl farms so vividly depicted in the movie, hoping that fans will come to Wamego and have their perceptions changed. "The sentiment that I get from most of our visitors is that Kansas is much better than they expected," said Clint.
Kimberly added, "Visitors from other countries are really shocked. They say, 'Wow, Kansas is so green.' And I say, 'Yes, we're not brown.'"