A bustling crowd walks down Broadway Ave. in downtown Chesterton Indiana. In the distance, the notes of “We’re off to See the Wizard” from the “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack are heard as individuals dressed as the Oz characters mingle with the crowd.
This was the scene at last weekend’s annual Chesterton Oz Festival. Oz fans that attended spent the weekend immersed in everything Oz from watching an Oz parade, buying Ozzy souvenirs and also meeting Oz celebrities, including two munchkins from the 1939 film.
There would not be a Chesteron Oz Festival if it had not been for Chesterton resident Jean Nelson, and her Yellow Brick Road Shop. When the shop opened in 1978, Nelson did not carry anything Oz related, only dolls. Customers, however, kept asking her if she had anything Ozzy for sale.
The quantity of Oz items Nelson began selling started out small, but soon grew large enough to fill a small Oz museum which was located at the back of the shop. The collection gained the attention of Oz fans worldwide and also Oz celebrities, such as Margaret Hamilton who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 movie. Hamilton visited Chesterton in 1980 and after seeing Nelson’s business, she donated a few of her own items to the museum.
In 1981, many businesses in Chesterton were not doing well due to bad economic times. Nelson saw that something must be done to fix this, so she and five other business owners in Chesterton invited the public into their shops for fun and games which later became known as the first Chesterton Oz festival. The event was such a success, it was held again the next year, this time, however, Nelson did a bit of research. Upon doing a bit of searching, Nelson located actor Parnell St. Aubin, who had played a munchkin in the “Wizard of Oz.”At the time, St. Aubin was living in Chicago (a mere two hours from Chesterton) with his wife Mary Ellen where they both ran a bar made to fit their heights. Upon discovering this, Nelson visited the couple and invited both St. Aubin and his wife to the festival where they became known as the First Man and Lady of Oz.
Since its first year, the festival has grown by leaps and bounds. Instead of being a single day, it now incorporates an entire weekend. This year’s festival was held on September 16, 17 and 18.
The first day’s festivities consisted of an autograph session with the Oz celebrities who included Margaret Pellegrini and Karl Slover, both of whom played munchkins in the film, Mary Ellen St. Aubin, Myrna Swenson, wife of the late Clarence Swenson who played a munchkin soldier in “The Wizard of Oz,” Caren Marsh-Doll, Judy Garland’s stand-in for the movie, “Judy Garland-Dressing of a Legend” creator Michael Siewert, illustrator Rick Ewigleben, artist Joe Shipbaugh, author and historian John Fricke, author Roger Baum and re-enactor Robert Baum, both great grandsons of L. Frank Baum, the original author of “The Wizard of Oz.”
In addition to the autograph session, several Oz and Judy Garland related items were unveiled. The first was Shipbaugh and Ewigleben’s “Wizard of Oz Collectors coloring book.” The book, written and illustrated by Shipbaugh and designed and produced by Ewigleben is so well done, it will make Oz fans of any age pick up their crayons to color in the delightful images. Siewert unveiled his own coloring book, also created by both Ewigleben and Shipbaugh. Instead of being Oz-related, however, it covers his entire Judy Garland costume collection in magnificent colorable pictures which will surely please any Garland fan. The last secretive item of the weekend was Fricke’s newest book, “Judy Garland, a Legendary Film Career.” The book covers Garland’s entire film career in minute detail from her first film to her last, leaving no room to question what an amazing actress Garland was.
Though meeting the Oz celebrities was thrilling for numerous attendees, the next day’s events seemed to be everyone’s favorite. The parade that was held that morning allowed anyone who wanted to dress up as their favorite Oz character to walk in the parade. This resulted in their being multiples of every character, including flying monkeys, yet this only showed fans serious dedication to Oz. The rest of the day was filled with look-alike contests, Dorothy’s birthday party, and also meet and greet sessions with Oz authors who have written additional books about Oz. The producers of the upcoming film “Dorothy of Oz,” also held a contest for an additional part in the movie which is due out in the spring.
Numerous individuals caught a glimpse of both Pellegrini and Solver throughout the weekend, yet very few got a chance to talk with them. The people that did, however, did so on Sunday morning at was has become known as Brunchkin. Both Pellegrini and Slover along with St. Aubin, Swenson, Marsh-Doll, Siewert, and Fricke were present at this year’s Brunchkin as the honored guests. In addition to being an honored guest, Pellegrini also received the L. Frank Baum Memorial Award for her contributions to Oz throughout her life.
At the end of the event, those that were present were invited to talk with the celebrities, get autographs, and also mingle with each other. Being that it was the last day of the festival, many attendees were saddened by the thought that it would be an entire year before they could return to Oz. If anyone was to judge by the weekend’s festivities, however, not a single person will forget their experiences last weekend, nor the people and friends they met which is truly the beauty of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Margaret Pellegrini stated at Brunchkin, “We will always live on because of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ because young ones will keep watching it. As long as we keep having little ones, Oz will never die.”
This could not describe “The Wizard of Oz” any better. The film was made over seventy years ago, yet millions of people still watch it with age not being a factor. Festivals such as Chesterton also continue to draw large crowds wherever they are held. Due to this, it seems that no matter what year it is, “The Wizard of Oz” will remain as popular and as loved as it was when it is first made.