I was a teenage scarecrow
The failed yet fabled Land of Oz will throw open its emerald gates in June, offering a rare opportunity to relive a uniquely 1970s experience where folks can once again skip merrily down the Yellow Brick Road with sweet Dorothy Gale.
Land of Oz was a Beech Mountain summer attraction developed in 1970 by Grover Robbins, whose nearby Tweetsie Railroad is still going strong. An immediate hit, 4,000 eager tourists were on hand as Debbie Reynolds, accompanied by daughter Carrie Fisher, cut the opening day ribbon.
The Land of Oz adventure began with a cyclonic recreation in a tidy clapboard farmhouse with Dorothy and her hand puppet Toto. When park goers exited, the dwelling appeared shattered against the naturally formed rocks and pines with two legs in striped stockings protruding from the foundation.
On their whimsical trek down a winding Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy and her companions encounter a warren of grotesque faces carved into native trees towering above knee-high, psychedelically painted mushrooms.
Colorful abodes dot the way forward, each inhabited by the familiar 1939 MGM movie characters performing pre-recorded song and dance numbers. A tin structure jutting from the mountainous terrain, Scarecrow’s summer home nestled in a wooded glen, the Cowardly Lion’s cave leading to the druid castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. Then onward to the Emerald City for a stage show capped off with a rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”
Gondolas rigged to resemble hot air balloons delivered patrons back to the base of the mountain where, on display in the museum, was one of Judy Garland’s actual costumes from The Wizard of Oz. In 1975, that iconic gingham dress was stolen during a fire and vandalism that laid waste to the park’s infrastructure, leaving the public with an impression that the attraction would be closed for good.
Prior to the grand reopening of The Land of Oz in May of 1977, my 19-year-old-self was hired to embark on a novel tour where I would portray the Scarecrow and put on a puppet show in shopping mall courtyards located anywhere within a three-hour radius of the park.
Only two actors were needed to set up and go, so I enlisted a classmate from Catawba College, Cyndi Rorie, for the role of Dorothy. In that signature flouncy pinafore, ruby slippers and ponytailed black wig, a more quintessential Dorothy there will never be. Children’s eyes were bedazzled at the sight of her.
The musical program, puppets, and set were created by Jerry Halliday who went on to Las Vegas fame with a, “Wickedly Inappropriate Adult Puppet Show.” For rehearsals, they booked Cyndi, myself and Jerry into a grand hotel where we were the only guests. State law was if a hotel was open, their restaurant had to be as well. So a retinue arrived every morning just to serve the three of us for the few days we were there.
Kids adored the show Halliday choreographed and composed. Dorothy and I would begin with dialogue in front of what resembled an enormous toy chest that served as the staging area for Wizard versus Witch puppetry.
Cyndi and I were fortunate to perform on one of the last episodes of WFMY’s legendary Old Rebel Show, delighted to run across George (Old Rebel) Perry at charity events, Muscular Dystrophy camp and shopping center openings.
Adjusted for inflation, I was banking around $2,500 a week. Problem was, every mall resembled the one we just left. The sounds of sloshing waterfalls, garish florescent lamps bombarding the senses from every direction, the sickeningly sweet aroma from The Great American Cookie Company, the two-story high artificial plants (because real trees would rather attempt suicide than live like that), became somewhat maddening.
Land of Oz flew forever over the rainbow in 1980, a victim of gasoline shortages and price shocks that sent the short-trip vacation industry into a tailspin. A parcel was developed into condos but a large portion of the attraction still exists despite urban plunderers.
The park is available for weddings and private parties during the summer. Every Friday in June, one-hour interactive expeditions through the Land of Oz will take place where attendees are called upon to play the Scarecrow and others. These events have been attracting legions of fans since Autumn at Oz in the 1990s, that event is still ongoing. Tickets for June’s Journey With Dorothy are $25 (plus taxes and processing fees) with proceeds going to further the preservation of that merry old Land of Oz.
Details at www.landofoznc.com/journeywithdorothy.
One day Billy Ingram may tell you about selling used cars on TV as The Mummy until then he’s stubbornly working on a 6th book despite the marketplace making it abundantly clear there is no demand for any such thing.