Chesterton Tribune

Valpo Wizard of Oz Festival calls it quits; Chesterton's Yellow Brick Road to close

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CHESTERTON, Ind. (AP) — The organizers of an annual Wizard of Oz festival that attracted thousands of fans of the classic 1939 film to watch parades of costumed characters say this year’s flood-plagued festival was their last.

Brenda Maynard, president of the Indiana Wizard of Oz Festival, announced the festival’s cancellation Friday. She said the low turnout at September’s festival due to heavy rains and flooding was just one factor in the decision to end the annual tradition after 27 years.

“When you add to that the tough economy everyone is up against right now, as well as the advancing age of our Munchkin guests, who are one of the primary reasons this festival is so beloved, we had to make a decision that it’s time to retire the festival,” Maynard said.

Mary Paschen, the festival’s treasurer, said the festival is currently in debt for about $10,000. She’s working with creditors to pay off the money still owed.

Paschen announced the festival’s end Friday during a gathering at The Yellow Brick Road Gift Shop and Museum with other festival organizers.

She was joined by Marilyn Zengler, who owns the shop/museum, Maynard and Jean Nelson, who previously owned the gift shop and museum and founded the festival in 1981.

Paschen said the festival’s annual operating budget had grown to as much as $100,000 during its peak years, when as many as 15 “little people” who played Munchkins in the original film would attend.

At this year’s festival, there were only three Munchkins still alive and well enough to attend.

“We are in the process of contacting all of the Munchkins and celebrities who have been so wonderful to attend this event each year, as well as the 30 members on our festival committee so they are aware of this announcement,” Paschen said.

Nelson launched the first festival in 1981 after learning that Pernell St. Aubin, who had played a Munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz” movie, owned a bar in Chicago with his wife, Mary Ellen.

She invited the couple to her Chesterton shop for an autograph party that sparked her idea for a festival with a parade, costume character contests and Auntie Em pie-baking competitions.

From 1981 until 2005, the festival had been annually held in downtown Chesterton with the sponsorship of the Duneland Chamber of Commerce.

After the 2005 festival, both the Chesterton Town Council and the chamber voted and agreed the festival and its 75,000 attendance had outgrown the community.

The festival was forced to reorganize and relocate as an independent entity based at the Porter County Expo Center in Valparaiso, with some events still held at the Yellow Brick Road Gift Shop and Museum.

Zengler, who purchased the gift shop and museum from Nelson in 2001, said Friday that she would be closing both the store and museum, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary.

“Our hopes are that money can be raised for at least the possibility of preserving the one-room Wizard of Oz museum filled with rare artifacts and the history of the festival or it being acquired by another organization and moved,” Zengler said.

She said the shop planned to close by Jan. 1.

As for the festival committee’s large warehouse of props, artifacts, scenery and costumes, Paschen and Maynard said all of the items will be auctioned off or sold via an online outlet to raise the necessary funds to pay creditors.

 

Posted 12/1/2008