WAMEGO — If you've ever traveled out of state and told someone you were from Kansas, chances are you've heard some of the many "Wizard of Oz" jokes.
"So," one line goes, "where's Toto?"
Here's another: "Have ya seen the wizard lately?"
How about: "So what's it like to be on the yellow brick road?"
Or, "How's everything in Oz these days?"
While most Kansans grit their teeth and force a smile, having heard the lines one too many times, it simply shows the enduring appeal of "The Wizard of Oz," a 1939 film that tells about the trials and travails of a girl named Dorothy and her dog Toto that continues to mesmerize audiences to this day, some 80 years after its release.
In the end, all joking aside, Dorothy returns to Kansas, finding "there's no place like home."
The movie was based on the children's fantasy novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," written by Lyman Frank Baum and first published in 1900.
Seizing on the ongoing popularity of the film, and nearly everyone's familiarity with it, the OZ Museum was opened 16 years ago at 511 Lincoln St. in downtown Wamego, a Pottawatomie County town of around 4,500 people located on K-99 highway about six miles north of Interstate 70, and some 45 miles northwest of Topeka.
The museum contains thousands of artifacts related to the "Wizard of Oz" film and has special events throughout the year, from fan festivals to live performances to a marathon road race in and around Wamego.
Visitors come to the museum from throughout the state, across the nation and even around the world. Several large billboards along Interstate 70 invite travelers to take a little time to get off the beaten path and check out the OZ Museum for themselves.
"The Wizard of Oz" film comes to life as visitors check out exhibits featuring the many characters made famous in the film.
Clint Stueve, the museum's executive director, said some 35,000 people visit the attraction each year. Visitors have come from all 50 states and more than 50 nations.
The museum, Stueve said, "is dedicated to all things Oz." He said it is home to exclusive exhibits featuring the earliest Baum books; artifacts from the author's life; and props and costumes from several films and stage plays with the Oz theme.
Among the films and stage plays featured at the museum are, of course, the 1939 MGM film "The Wizard of Oz." Also featured are "Dreamer of Oz" staring John Ritter; Disney's "Return to Oz"; "The Muppets Wizard of Oz"; and the original Broadway production of "Wicked."
Also featured are memorabilia from the early 1900s to today's collectibles, which can be purchased from the official OZ Museum Store. Stueve said the museum "is an enchanting experience appropriate for all ages."
Stueve said the movie and its message have stood the test of time, which is a reason the museum has proven to be so popular.
"'The Wizard of Oz,' as a story, book, movie and stage play, has impacted so many lives," Stueve said. "The MGM 1939 classic 'The Wizard of Oz' is the most viewed film of all time. That original magical tale has also been revived, retold and expanded only to connect with that many more lives."
He noted Oz-themed productions such as such as "The Wiz," "Wicked," the Sci Fi Channel miniseries "Tin Man," and many others.
"From each of these are unique elements with their own attraction such as the song, 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' which has been recorded by numerous artists," Stueve said. "With so many touch-points, most people have a recognition of 'The Wizard of Oz,' and many have fond memories."
Visitors to the museum will begin their journey in Auntie Em's gift shop, which resembles the barnyard scenes from "The Wizard of Oz" movie.
"It is set in sepia tones to replicate the beginning of the movie," Stueve noted. "Murals by Cynthia Martin throughout the gift shop and museum help set the atmosphere. The museum is set up to resemble the journey that Dorothy takes through Oz.
"Visitors will see each of Dorothy's friends and a few of her adversaries as the walk through the museum. They will also see the largest private 'Wizard of Oz' collection currently available to the public. Only a small percentage of the collection is on exhibit at any given time, but approximately 2,500 pieces are on display in the museum."
Stueve said visitors are "blown away by finding this jewel in a small town in Kansas. We have overwhelmingly positive response from all ages."
Stueve said the story of Oz in Wamego began in 1994, when the board of directors of the Columbian Theatre decided to display Tod Machin’s “Wizard of Oz” collection.
"Tod was a native of Wamego who began to acquire Oz memorabilia and artifacts after writing his college thesis on the subject," Stueve said. "It grew to the point that it was truly museum worthy.
"In May of 1995, 'The Wizard of Oz' exhibit opened in the Columbian Theatre’s Swogger Gallery. It was a huge success, bringing in 12,000 visitors from all over the United States and 14 foreign countries. Over 78 newspapers picked up the story across the nation. It was at this time that the vision of a stand-alone permanent facility dedicated to all things Oz was born. Staff, board members and volunteers worked cohesively to bring this vision to life."
Stueve said the not-for-profit OZ Museum, which opened in 2003, was built with a major grant from the state of Kansas and "the generosity of the people of this small community, who also provided thousands of hours of volunteer time.
Among the special events held each year is OZtoberFest. Stueve described the event as "an Oz-themed fall festival that takes over downtown Wamego the first weekend of October. There is Oz magic for every age and interest as well as the standards for fall festival lovers."
Special guests have included Oz historians, authors and we have featured actors from some of the films, stage and television productions. Children of some of the movie's stars also have paid a visit to OZtoberbest. Children of Judy Garland, who portrayed Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" film, Bert Lahr, who played the Lion, and Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch, are among those who have attended OZtoberfest.
There are also costume contests Auntie Em's apple-pie baking competition, Stueve noted. The Columbian Artist Group curates a special Oz-themed gallery exhibit in the Columbian Theatre, and a full stage production of "The Wizard of Oz" also is presented at the Columbian.
Though it already has an extensive collection, the museum continues to acquire more pieces, Stueve said.
"The OZ Museum continues to acquire and borrow pieces to the delight of visitors," Stueve said. "Many of the items on display are on loan from Oz collectors that wish to share with the public. Often times Oz collectors donate their collection to the OZ Museum to ensure they are cherished and preserved for posterity. The OZ Museum also seeks out unique pieces that are essential to the story of Oz."
For more information, call the Oz Museum at (866) 458-TOTO.