In Oz, Kansas finds fame, fortune, and itself

The first thing visitors will see when they enter this small town's new museum is the drab facade of a farmhouse. Brown and white and tidy, it could be any Kansas dwelling: The mailbox reads Gale. Tumbleweeds fall from the roof.

But walk through the screen door - the one you can almost hear banging in the wind - and enter the technicolor world of witches, Munchkins, and other flawed but lovable characters. You're still in Kansas - but now you're in The Oz Museum.

Opened last month, the museum features scenes and characters from "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," as well as paraphernalia - all from a Wamego native who apparently ran out of space for his vast collection - worth more than $200,000. The display cases span decades, with everything from costumes to Oz-themed toys, and few will leave with unanswered questions about the tale, save maybe these: Why here? Why now? Who cares?

The answers, at least from the perspective of museum organizers, are simple: Where else? Why not? And, hopefully, thousands.

True, it's been more than 100 years since L. Frank Baum wrote Oz, and it's been nearly 65 since director Victor Fleming turned the bestseller into a movie. And yet the legend - and the desire to capitalize on it - lives on here in the wheat fields and small towns of Bob Dole's home state, delighting some and dismaying others. The recognition, Kansans say, is great - but it would be nice to be known for something besides a fictional movie and a girl with ribbons, braids, and bright red shoes.

"Oz has always been in Kansas. It's just been one of those things where people don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing for us," says Kim Qualls, tourism marketing manager in the Kansas Department of Commerce.

Oz and 'Ahs'

The museum, made possible in part by a $100,000 grant from the state's tourism bureau, drew 120 people last Saturday alone, according to curator Jim Ginavan - visitors from as far away as Hawaii and South Africa. But it's hardly the first attempt to capitalize on Oz. For years, fans tried to get an Oz theme park built, although Sept. 11, 2001 - and the negative impact it had even on places like Disneyland - put at least a temporary halt to that discussion.

And in Kansas, clashing claims to Oz make for an old and stubborn rivalry. Liberal, Kan., has long claimed ownership of Dorothy's home - or at least the model for it, used in the 1939 movie. Sedan, Kan., holds an annual Oz festival, and more than 10,000 yellow bricks encircle downtown. Each brick is inscribed with a name: Among the most recognizable are Bob Hope, Liz Taylor, Whoopie Goldberg, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. But anyone can add a name for a small fee, which goes toward enhancing Sedan's downtown.

More recently, the Kansas State Legislature renamed two highways after the movie. One, which leads to Wamego, is now The Road to Oz. The other, Highway 54, which runs across the entire southern half of the state, is - you guessed it - The Yellow Brick Road.

The state's commemorative quarter is due out in 2005, and one proposal sent to the US Mint includes a sunflower with a banner across it proclaiming, "There's no place like home."

Moreover, the state tourism bureau is considering orienting its next image campaign around the movie. Doing so has been successful in the past, says Ms. Qualls. (A campaign in the 1980s and early '90s was "The Land of Ahs.")

The totals of Toto

It may seem silly to make so much out of centenarian scarecrows and tin men, but in a state where the official song is "Home on the Range" - and a new Cabela's hunting- and fishing-gear store is the No. 1 tourist attraction - Dorothy is an important claim to pop-culture fame.

In an informal survey in August of 2000, 19 percent of respondents named The Wizard of Oz as one of the top three descriptors of the Sunflower State, Qualls said, while surveys in Germany and Britain reveal that when Europeans think of Kansas, they think of both "The Wizard of Oz" and Dodge City's "Gunsmoke."

In a 1994 national survey, 43 percent of respondents named the movie when asked about the first thing that came to mind at the mention of Kansas. Eighty-two percent said they strongly linked the two. And 38 percent said the movie gave them a favorable impression of Kansas.

It's those who don't draw a positive link between Kansas and Oz who the tourism industry worries about when talking up the Tin Man. While Dorothy insists "there's no place like home," Qualls points out that Kansas is depicted in the movie as a hot, dry, tornado-ravaged place. Still, she says, at least when outsiders think of the state, they have an image to go with the name.

A new focus for small towns

In the end, the spike in Oz-oriented attractions may be less a rebirth of cultish interest - the fascination has always been there - than a stronger focus in small towns like Wamego on providing jobs and attracting people.

"What you want when you get into the tourism world is to get ahold of something that already has some recognition," says Rosemary Crilly, executive director of the Wamego museum.

And museum organizers believe - like those in another movie, from another Midwestern state - that "If you build it, they will come."

"People will see this on I-70 out by Denver," says Tim Akers, creative director for the museum, adding that some billboards were accidentally put up early causing the phone to ring and tour buses to stop in the small town just nine miles off the interstate. "It will be huge."

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