Banking on Dorothy: Kansas town cashes in on Oz

WAMEGO, Olivia Blanco Mullins - Seventy years after a tornado tossed Dorothy into the Land of Oz on the silver screen, a small Kansas town is cashing in on the fact there's no place like home.
"The Wizard of Oz", which premiered on August 12 1939, and L. Frank Baum book series "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" both named Dorothy's home as Kansas, forever putting the sunflower state on the map.

Banking on Dorothy: Kansas town cashes in on Oz
Most tourist shops in the largely rural state flog a hefty selection of Oz paraphernalia, from plush versions of Dorothy's loyal Cairn terrier Toto to t-shirts with the image of the ruby-red slippers that finally took them home.
But the town of Wamego, population 4,312, has turned Dorothy into a major cottage industry, embracing the fact that people around the world know little about Kansas except its connection to the Wizard of Oz.
This year being the 70th anniversary of the release of the film, local businesses are hoping for a bigger tourism impact, especially in the midst of the economic crisis. So far this year they've already seen 3,000 more visitors than in the whole of 2008.
Other Kansas towns have yellow brick roads and small Oz fairs, but in Wamego the restaurants have Oz-themed names and menu items, the hair salon Scissors of Ahhhhz has a yellow facade, and a local winery uses the Oz-theme for cheeky names and labels.
There's a museum too, where visitors can see life-sized depictions of the main characters, old editions of Baum's Oz series, and pictures of actress Judy Garland from her days playing Dorothy.
There is also an annual street festival, dubbed the Oztoberfest, and a strip of the state highway that serves as the town's main road has been renamed the Road to Oz.
For local entrepreneur Clark Balderson, who spearheaded efforts to turn Wamego into the Land of Oz, the eureka moment came at an immigration control in Portugal when he was asked about Dorothy.
"It was a point where I realized that, oh my God, everyone associates Kansas with the Wizard of Oz."
Balderson, who admits being obsessed with economic development, said he had been thinking of ways of improving the economy of his hometown.
In the past, Wamego had largely served as a bedroom community for the nearby town of Manhattan and the state capital Topeka.
It still does, but since the opening of the Oz Museum -- a star attraction -- in 2003, Wamego has emerged as a tourist destination in its own right, pulling in an average of 20,000 visitors a year.
Following the yellow brick road, just as Dorothy had to do to get to Emerald City to find the Wizard of Oz, visitors to the museum can see a selection of the 25,000-piece collection of Oz memorabilia.
Dolls, games, books and pictures of the Wizard of Oz through all of its representations, from the book series of the early 1900s to the theatrical versions of the MGM movie, and the musicals The Wiz, and Wicked are displayed, 2,000 pieces at a time.
Among the pieces in the museum there is a puppet set, and movie posters. There are Wizard of Oz books in 46 different languages, props from the movie set, including a piece of Judy Garland's blue and white gingham dress, TV Guide's from 1956 to 1960 with the news of the annual showing of the movie, and a pair of Ruby Red slippers made of Swarovski crystals.
The busiest season in Wamego is May through September, as well as Christmas.
The busiest weekend is during the annual Oztoberfest, when more than 2,000 people, including Oz historians, collectors, fans and even some of the original Munchkins, residents of Munchkinland where Dorothy's house lands after the tornado, visit.
While the museum and the small-town fair atmosphere attract a number of people, Wamego business owners have given the town credibility by embracing the theme and catering to the Oz tourist.
In the short 4-block walk around commercial Lincoln Street, visitors can get a haircut at Scissors of Ahhhhz, some coffee at JavaOzo's, go to Oz Winery to buy a bottle of Witch in a Ditch red or Yellow Brick Road white, or stop at Toto's Tacoz to get some Baja-style Mexican food.
"It was a gamble to mix the Mexican to-go place we had in our mind with the Oz theme," says Colleen Lord, who opened Toto's with husband Craig as a 9-seat restaurant in 2005.
The restaurant now seats 59 and the Lords estimate that a major share of business comes from tourists wanting to eat Aunti Em's Nacho's -- named after Dorothy's aunt -- Dorothy's Quesadillas, or the Yellow Brick Burro'd.
"It makes it more of a destination, not just a stop in the highway. People can spend the day here -- between the museum, Toto's and the winery -- that's pretty much a whole afternoon," said museum manager Mercedes Michalowski.

Tuesday, August 11th 2009
Olivia Blanco Mullins

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