Rides, Rallies and Events Recap

Oztoberfest in Wamego, Kansas

Written by  October 31, 2005

Anyone who has ever watched the 1939 movie classic “The Wizard of Oz,” knows that the Wicked Witch of the East is dead. After all, audiences watched as Dorothy’s house fell on her in Munchkin Land. They saw the ruby red slippers disappear and her legs shrivel up and wrinkle away under the house. And, to make it all official, the Coroner of Munchkin Land declared her dead. What more proof does one need? Well, you see in Kansas, as with most states, for a person, or witch, to be legally declared dead, there must be a signed death certificate. No such certificate was ever signed for the demise of the Wicked Witch of the East. For those who have been worried about this issue, put your minds at ease. Meinhardt Raabe, the little person who portrayed the munchkin coroner in the movie, has, after 66 years, signed a Kansas death certificate. So at last, the Wicked Old Witch of the East is finally, officially, unequivocally, sincerely dead!

It all took place the weekend of October 15-16 in Wamego, Kansas, 15 miles east of Manhattan on Highway 24. There wasn’t a yellow brick road to follow, but that weekend, amid the turning leaves of autumn and under a warmer-than-normal blue sky, there were several paved roads leading to Oz, as in the first ever Oztoberfest in Wamego. It was a great day to ride, and the Oztoberfest in Wamego provided a perfect destination. Taking the back roads out of Olathe to Highway 59 north into Lawrence, Highway 24 can be picked up just north of Lawrence. Once on 24, it’s a nice ride through several small communities and rolling countryside, past Topeka, and straight into Wamego. Wamego’s Main Street was barricaded at both ends. Down the middle of the street were white-topped tents filled with vendors selling everything from food, crafts, Wizard of Oz mementos, to children’s toys and educational products for children. Also lining the streets were children’s games, such as parents would find during some school events. In front of Munchkin Land, where activities such as a Moon Walk were clustered, there was a maze of hay bales where children could ride pedal-powered tractors.

Throughout the crowd were people dressed in Wizard of Oz costumes. There were several “Dorothy’s” young and old, along with a scarecrow or two, a few lions and tin men, even a wizard. There were some people dressed as munchkins, although they were too tall to be real munchkins. But it was munchkins that highlighted the two-day event — real munchkins from the movie. Along with Raabe were original movie munchkins Mickey Carroll (townsman), Margaret Pellegrini (the Flower Pot Lady), Karl Slover (one of the munchkins who led Judy Garland to the yellow brick road), and Clarence Swenson (soldier and 1st trumpeter). To help with the celebration, Kansas State Registrar Lorne Phillips was presented the death certificate by Rob Campanella, a Wamego funeral director. Earlier in the week, Shawnee County Commissioners appointed Raabe as special deputy coroner so he could sign a 1938 replica of a state death certificate. The witch’s certificate will be coded with death listed by tornado trauma.

The munchkins, along with Bob Baum, great grandson of Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, spoke to the crowd from the balcony of Wamego’s The Columbian Theatre, a building constructed at the turn of the century by community philanthropist J.C. Rogers. The museum and art center houses six 11 x 17 feet oil-on-canvas paintings that represent the promise and prosperity of America at the end of the 19th century. They were created for the U.S. Government Exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also know as the Columbian Exposition. The paintings are some of the only surviving paintings from the Chicago World’s Fair. The others were destroyed during the Chicago fire.

Also in Wamego is the Oz Museum with hundreds of artifacts and memorabilia. It includes early Baum books, Oz Parker Brothers board games, and includes Auntie Em’s Gift Shop. During Oztoberfest, it also included original items from the movie owned by Michael Shaw, including the hat worn by Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West, one of Judy Garland’s “Dorothy” dresses, and other original clothing. It was to include one of the seven pairs of original ruby red slippers, but they were stolen last August during an exhibit in a Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Instead, a replica owned by broadcasting mogul Ted Turner was brought in. During the month of October, The Wizard of Oz play was performed each weekend on the stage in The Columbian Theatre.

The seeds for the Oztoberfest were planted 12 years ago when former Wamego resident and Oz collector Tod Machin loaned part of his collection to the town, said Cheri Pugh, a member of the Oztoberfest committee. “He lives in Kansas City and used to work for Hallmark Cards,” she said. “He has a large collection of Oz artifacts and memorabilia. We received a lot of grant money and local money, and exerted a lot of sweat equity to create the Oz Museum.” A lot of this came about as a result of the Main Street Program,” added Rosemary Crilly, former Wamego Chamber of Commerce President. Oztoberfest chairman Clark Balderson said the committee was hoping to get 5,000 people to attend the two-day festival. “We didn’t really know, since this was the first one,” Balderson said. “In a couple of weeks, the committee will sit down and talk about what was good, what went right, and what didn’t, and then begin planning for next year. “I know we’ll need to improve our sound system, we’ll also need a great big sign on the highway letting people know where it is, and some kind of big board listing the schedule of events and their times. “But from the people I’ve talked to, they all seem to be happy. And that’s good.”

Even without Oztoberfest as a reason for taking a ride to Wamego, there’s one more, and it doesn’t matter what time of year. And that reason is a restaurant called The Friendly Cooker. Whether breakfast, lunch, dinner, or just stopping for dessert, The Friendly Cooker offers good 'ole Midwestern homestyle cooking at its best. The portions are large, and price is extremely affordable, and it’s good. As far as the dessert, I highly recommend the chocolate pie. I’ve never been to a restaurant that gives such large pieces of pie at such a low price.

So the next time it’s your turn to plan a ride, don’t look for a yellow brick road, just grab a Kansas map, click your heels three times, and set out on the road to Wamego.

Story & Photos by Chuck Kurtz