News & Politics

In Search of Emerald City

"The Wizard of Oz" turns 100 this year, but the strange urge to create a life-sized Land of Oz shows no sign of abating. In fact, the attempts are advancing right along with technology -- small-scale Oz parks with weird histories are being replaced by high-tech, virtual versions.
Few stories are as embedded in American pop culture as the Wizard of Oz. Originally published in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz spawned an enormously popular 39-volume book series, and has never gone out of print. The tale inspired the classic 1939 MGM film as well, along with numerous stage musicals, a radio series, five silent films, 1978's The Wiz, an ice show featuring over 50 character voices by Bobby McFerrin, and a rumor that Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon synchronizes with the MGM film. A bizarre legion of amusement parks were also brought about because of Baum's book -- from an opulent Oz at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas to an idyllic mountaintop theme park in the Blue Ridge mountains. Now, a century after the publication of Baum's fantasy classic, the Oz Entertainment Company is set to break ground on yet another new theme park that, technologically at least, will be like no other. Whether they boast a rich infusion of artificial elements in nature, a visually stunning razzmatazz, or a technological embrace of interconnectedness, these theme parks are proof that there is some sort of magic in Baum's storybook that inspires the urge to build Emerald City.Fitting the Ship in the Bottle: The Packaging of OzThe desire for a tangible Oz has existed for nearly a century. As early as 1905, a newspaper rumored that Frank Baum planned to purchase an island off the coast of California in order to build an Oz amusement park. Although the island didn't exist and the story proved to be a hoax, Baum was reportedly enchanted with the idea of turning Oz into a sort of playground. Although Baum's book preceded MGM's The Wizard of Oz by nearly 40 years, the film version is certainly the best known. The first movie to be shown on commercial television, as of its 30th showing in 1988, CBS Vice President of Television Research Arnold Becker estimated that over one billion people have seen the movie. As Disney knows all too well, a movie with such universal appeal possesses infinite merchandising possibilities -- such as pressing the experience into a Franklin Mint commemorative plate. But for many, Toto beanie babies and poppy-field snow globes aren't enough; quite simply, they want to be in Oz. As the Oz Entertainment company attempts to make that desire come true in ways previously undreamed of, let us back up to the beginning of the Oz theme park.Throughout the past century, Oz has been presented in revolutionary formats. The original book featured type in a rainbow of hues that characterized the story's various settings -- a somber sepia in the early Kansas chapters, bright blue in Munchkinland, red for the poppy-field episode, green for Emerald City, and so on. As its estimated one billion viewers can surely vouch, the MGM film made a huge splash with its inventive use of then-brand-new Technicolor, again contrasting grayish Kansas with the blooming, Candyland colors of Oz. A Mountaintop OzIt wasn't until 1970, however, that Oz would break free from its celluloid boundaries and for a brief, magical period become a real place. The first Land of Oz theme park was perched in the layers of fog that encircle Beech Mountain -- a majestic mile-high peak in North Carolina. Beech Mountain is popular with skiers, and regional entrepreneur Grover Robbins, along with his brothers and father, were pioneers in the burgeoning tourism industry of the area. They saw the potential in Oz to be a part of that industry. Originally conceived as a facilitator to a planned ski resort and homesite community, as well as a summertime source of employment in an isolated region where jobs were scarce, the Land of Oz quickly became the star attraction. In its first year alone, the park lured some 400,000 visitors whose unnerving, curving car trips were rewarded with an entrancing setting. "We won't mess up the mountain. We won't destroy what nature gave us to work with," vowed Grover Robbins, the park's developer. He remained true to his word.Aware of the lucrative potential as well as the innate magic of the patch of land atop Beech Mountain, Robbins enlisted the imagination of Charlotte, N.C., designer Jack Pentes. Pentes took meticulous care to keep the bucolic environment intact while creating the theme park; after all, it was this unspoiled setting that inspired his vision of Oz. "Walking among the long-stemmed emerald grass, I saw all these twisted and gnarled trees, trees that seemed to have character. The hair stood up on the back of my neck; I had the feeling that somehow, I had been here before. I realized that those were the apple trees of Oz."Working from a kneeling position in order to see the Land of Oz through a child's eyes, Pentes concocted a fanciful world that barely disturbed the natural workings of the place, amazingly chopping down only one tree. Using local construction teams and area performing talent, the Land of Oz became a quaint enterprise that created marvelous characters out of the mountain natives.In a sense, as former Tin Man Lynn Holloway recalls, "Oz was an anti-theme park." Lacking traditional rides and attractions, the Land of Oz simulated the emotional experience of Oz, the classic quest for one's heart, brain, courage, and home. In its full splendor, the Land of Oz offered a journey through a Kansas farm complete with a petting zoo, the illusion of a tornado, and the subsequent entry into a world ablaze with colorful styrofoam mushrooms, a Yellow Brick Road, a natural Cowardly Lion cave, an exquisite Scarecrow's house with handcrafted woodwork, hot air balloon rides, and original songs and dances. During its brief reign atop Beech Mountain, the park garnered the Washington, D.C., Daily News' Outstanding Tourist Attraction award, and was the subject of a Southern Living cover story. Celebrities such as Oz fanatic Debbie Reynolds (who, with the park, shared custody of the dress Judy Garland wore in the MGM film) and pre-Ali Cassius Clay endorsed the Land of Oz. But Pentes' dream was not to last forever. The inflation crisis and gas hikes of the '70s put a huge dent in the tourist economy and the Land of Oz was one of the first properties to be let go by its financially strapped owners. An insurance agent's nightmare, Beech Mountain was privy to frequent lightning storms and near-daily rains that made the yellow bricks so slick that Dorothy tour guides urged visitors to shuck off their sandals and continue barefoot. Soon after the title to Oz returned to its original owner, a fire burned through Emerald City in 1975, destroying the park costumes and the Judy Garland dress. Although the park would plug on for five more years, the Land of Oz would never be the same again.The Glam of OzOpening its bronze-handled doors in 1993, the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino gave Oz a glitzy Las Vegas makeover. The mammoth hotel still boasts four 30-story emerald green towers and over 5,000 rooms; until its recent renovation in mid-1996, visitors downed shots at the Winged Monkey Bar and pumped their tokens into Ruby Slipper and Yellow Brick Road slot machines while standing atop poppy-field patterned carpets.Just a few steps away from the casino entrance, but far from the natural environment of Beech Mountain, the MGM Grand's Oz was dotted with fabric poppies and lifelike trees with real bark. While traveling down the Yellow Brick Road, visitors tripped infrared sensors that jerked animatronic Oz characters into motion. Around the bend, a combination of fiber optics and color changers created the illusion of a waterfall gushing down the facade of the Emerald City into a pool of fog. The City itself was designed by architect Veldon Simpson, with special effects created by a triumvirate of tech design firms -- Image Engineering of Somerville, Mass., Gallegos Lighting Design of Los Angeles, and AVG of Venice, Calif. Dazzling spires of emerald tempered glass were lit from below by green-filtered metal halides, and supplemented by a lighting arsenal that included strobes, quartz lamps, and dimming halogen lights. Measuring 200 feet across and 75 feet high, the astounding Emerald City dome provided the backdrop to a laser atmospheric storm show which was followed by a brilliant rainbow. Somewhere over that particular rainbow was the Oz Buffet where logos were plastered on everything from the placemats to the waiters' attire. But MGM's Oz was even more fleeting than Beech Mountain's Land of Oz -- today only a gift shop called Just Oz remains.Virtu-Oz-ity"These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies," Marshall McLuhan opined in 1967. "We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses of the old." Talking to Dan Mapes, designer of the Wonderful World of Oz park set to launch in Kansas in 2003, it's impossible not to think often of Marshall McLuhan. With a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from Berkeley and a resumŽ that includes digital stage shows for Ornette Coleman, Peter Gabriel, and the Stone Temple Pilots, the World of Oz is the perfect element for Mapes. References to the global village pepper his speech, and he becomes increasingly exuberant as he describes the future. "If you think about the power of technology that is emerging, virtual reality and artificial intelligence will be very common in the next 100 years. Today we see virtual reality as this thing outside of us, as having to do with computers. A child growing up with virtual reality and computers 50, 60, 70 years from now won't look at all this in the same way we do. That room we call 'virtual reality' they will see as an extension of their existing reality. They'll have some friends they hang out with in the physical world and some they hang out with in the virtual world, and sometimes your best friend may live in another country and know you better than the kids who live next door."This is the Epcot-like translation of the global village and the idea behind the Wonderful World of Oz -- an ambitious theme park comparable in size to California's Disneyland, the major difference being the vast fiber optics network laying the ground for a state-of-the-art digital, interactive park. In addition to 50 acres with three-dimensional rides, walkaround characters, an Emerald City, a golf course, an office park, a mall, an RV park, and a resort hotel, the Wonderful World of Oz will be globally accessible via an Internet broadband (at press time, Mapes declined to comment whether a fee would be charged). Online visitors will be able to peer into the physical theme park and interact with Oz characters. "If you're a kid from Paris or Tokyo you can still enjoy Oz and take part in it," Mapes says. Even after they've left the park, the characters which online visitors create for themselves may remain in Oz forever. "A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," Mapes says, quoting Arthur C. Clarke. "In the Oz theme park we are sharing a sense of magic so technology is very important to us. The fiber optics network will allow us to build upon that magic by adding new effects and enhancements. It's not just about what we can do now, but what we can do five years from now. This is a theme park for the Nintendo generation."Upon entering the physical park, visitors will be given a bracelet on which their identity is recorded. As they walk through the various domains, sensors will transmit information from the bracelet to artificially intelligent characters that might greet the person by name and strike up a conversation. A creepy intrusion to some, this detail belies the unsettledness that lurks in Oz -- a reminder that even as Dorothy was traveling through a magnificently exotic city with newfound companions, all she wanted the entire time was to return home.Although the green towers remain at the MGM Grand Hotel, most of the Emerald City has vanished or undergone renovation. In North Carolina, thrill seekers and vandals made off with yellow bricks and styrofoam mushrooms. The Emerald City was finally bulldozed, following the owners' decision in 1980 that the cost of a renovation was prohibitive. Except for the restored Dorothy house, Uncle Henry's barn, and the Cowardly Lion's cave, all of the character houses were destroyed. Tiny stone staircases remain in Munchkinland, but the gigantic mushrooms are missing, replaced by gnome statues. A handful of the mushrooms have been restored, their unique colors researched and tracked down, and a trickling of souvenirs and artifacts have been recovered for a museum exhibition, but the park will never be like it once was -- many of the materials originally used to build it are too costly or completely unavailable today. "I think you can still get a sense of it today, if you go up to Beech Mountain, with all the spooky trees, the fog. But there are significant portions of the Land of Oz that you cannot recreate," acknowledges Dr. Charles Watkins, curator of the Land of Oz exhibit at the Boone, N.C., Appalachian Cultural Museum. But there is always the desire to reincarnate Oz. Emerald Mountain Properties sells homesites and slope-side cottages atop Beech Mountain; and for the particularly nostalgic, the Dorothy house is available for rent and is a popular ski and summer spot. When the gates to Emerald City closed for good, something of Jack Pentes was closed up, too. Even telling the story of Oz now, he chokes up at times; he is sorely affected by the park's demise. Pentes is not alone; everyone I spoke with who was somehow involved with the Land of Oz remains somehow attached to the park -- a woman who played Dorothy married a man who portrayed the Tin Man, another Beech Mountain Tin Man went on to design theme parks himself. Oz is a universal story that became mixed with their own history. "Oz could never have happened anywhere besides Beech Mountain. It was just its time and place," Pentes states simply.Could the time and place for Oz now be in cyberspace? Breaking ground near Kansas City in May 2000 -- and in virtual reality at an as-of-yet undisclosed date -- Oz Entertainment's theme park will offer up the answer. Flush with excitement, Mapes eagerly awaits the launch. "The fundamental thing that's magic about Oz is that almost 100 years after this fantastic book was published, we're starting on this massive theme park. The magic is still alive!"It is just the method employed to create the magic that has changed. While Pentes created Oz on his hands and knees and then led children through to gauge their reactions, Mapes' firm consulted teachers and child psychologists to find out what appeals to a child. But whether capturing an Oz as emblematic as Dorothy's dream as Pentes did, whether erasing the finite markers of space and time as Mapes is set to do, whether simply wowing crowds with a fantasy city as MGM Grand did, all of these parks are foremost indebted to the story they bring to life. The story is the first reality. "And it's important to remember," Dan Mapes is quick to point out, "that Frank Baum always claimed that he did not 'write' Oz, but that he received the stories directly from Oz, that Oz was, in fact, a real place." A place so real that people continue trying to get there.
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