Monday, August 1, 2011

Banner Elk and The Land of Oz

Eric Shanower at the Gates of the Emerald City.
This coming weekend the International Wizard of Oz Club will be meeting in Banner Elk, North Carolina, at the site of the long-defunct Land of Oz theme park.

In many ways I wish I was going. Several close friends will be there, and it would be a great chance to meet some friends I only know from on-line. But I am not going.

While travel funds being tight is certainly a part of it, the biggest reason I decided not to go was that I had gone to the park in its heyday when I was a kid. Frankly, I was afraid of messing with those ever more distant memories.

Many of those attending the con and most actively involved in what remains of the park are too young to have ever gone to this Land of Oz when all was new and vital. For these Land of Oz newbies I suspect it is easy to look at the remnants and see the landscape as one-quarter full. I fear I would only see it three-quarters empty. In any case, I'm unwilling to risk my memories of the functioning Land of Oz park.

Eric's sister (in red) watches the Magic Moment show.
My partner Eric also went to the park back in the day. Indeed, that is Eric Shanower and his Dad (in the photo above) standing outside the gates of the Emerald City. I don't have any personal snapshots of my visit, though I still have all of the souvenirs I bought, except for two felt Oz flags.

I first heard of the Land of Oz park when I was six. My family and I were traveling in Texas to visit my grandmother, and the Holiday Inn magazine had an article on the park. I desperately wanted to go - having no conception that North Carolina was not an easy drive from Lubbock, Texas. I didn't get to the park until I was thirteen, when we were on a family vacation in Atlanta.

I really liked it. It felt  like going to Oz - albeit more MGM's Oz than L. Frank Baum's. The trip through the storm cellar during the tornado was very effective and the skewed perspective in the ruined house was really very amazing and disorienting.

The show in the Emerald City.
Photographs copyright © Eric Shanower 2011.
While it was called a theme park, in reality it was a walk-thru stage musical. There were no rides, no concessions, just pure fun and entertainment. All of the shops, food, and souvenirs were kept in the Emerald City where the journey ended. My dad, a grumpy, pessimistic, anti-corporation, anti-big-business radical LOVED the park. He was so impressed that they weren't nickle and dime-ing you every step of the way.

I think I might be able to deal with walking thru what remains of the park if I were alone - just absorbing and taking it in. Letting a curve of the Yellow Brick Road bring back a memory. But I'm not gonna risk it with a hundred Ozzy friends. Have fun, guys :)


James C. Wallace II said...

I think I know how you feel. I returned to the town of my birth and first eight years of Life, Huntington, West Virginia. My youngest child, Turner came with me and after all the festivities of the hot dog festival, we visited the valley where I grew up. It was sad to see so much change and so many memories washed away by the vegetation, the erosion of Time and the absence of anyone from the Past.
It was humbling...

scott o. said...

I'm going to hazard a guess and say that picture is from 1977? I had a striped shirt then, too.

David Maxine said...

Actually it's earlier - Eric says 1971.

Randal said...

Saw your blog online and wasn't sure what part of the country you were in. Land of Oz, in it's heyday I'm sure was great, I never got to see it.

However, the land has been parceled up and there are actually houses in some of the areas where the park used to be but the basics of the park are still there. There had been a fire and some of the park was destroyed at that time, including some of the artifacts in the museum.

Still the "Ozzies" dress up and recreate the magic once a year, the first weekend in October. I did a series of portraits of the main characters from the film and had a small booth there. It would have been fun to go for the International event but I had a scheduling conflict.

Loved reading the parts of your blog I have. All Best, Randal Tolbert

David Maxine said...

Hi Randal -

Well, there was a major fire in the mid 70s, too - but the park was fully rebuilt after that. Park officials told us all about the fire when I went. The museum was housed in temporary quarters because of fire damage.