The Legend of the Land of Oz

 

There’s a wide variety of stories that we think of as fairy tales. They’re in books of bedtime stories or fables. If you’re my age,   many of them were converted into animated movies in childhood and as adults we had to slowly discover that the “real’ versions of the stories were typically quite a bit more disturbing than the ones we had seen. (not to mention Pocahantes) But if you’re American, all fairy tale stories have the commonality of coming from elsewhere. Hans Christian Anderson was Danish, Charles Perrault was French, the brothers Grim were German. The knights of the round table were British and the thousand and one nights came from all over the islamic world. But there is one fairy tale that belongs to us. In it, an ordinary girl from Kansas finds herself in a magical land trying to defeat an evil witch.

an abandoned yellow brick road

When I first heard of the Land of Oz it was, as for many who have heard of it, as an abandoned theme park of yesteryear. I pictured it crumbling and forgotten in the mountains, with plants growing through the bricks of the yellow brick road. A sad monument to times gone by.

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a little broken but this fountain is original to the park and works

This was however, not entirely true. The land of Oz is still there on top of Beech Mountain. It is not abandoned or forgotten. Its not overgrown or neglected. At least not anymore. It spent many years out of use, its worn away, pieces of it are missing, much of it it even burned at one point, but it is there. Surviving. Changing. Trying to rise from the ashes and save itself.

Professor Marvel’s cart sits in the Kansas section

I wonder why I find that oddly disappointing in a way. We as a culture romanticize decay. Urban exploration was a trend in the 2010s. (it was in 2016 that vice proclaimed and of oz abandoned and unwittingly sent ‘urban explorers’ to the park) Photo sets go viral on the internet of abandoned places, creepy from the echos of the people that once filled them, full of peeling paint and the struggle with nature to reclaim them. Ive done it too, Ive explored abandoned schools and famous theaters and nursing homes and even prisons. When I try to put my finger on what makes them beautiful, I’m not completely sure what the answer is. Is it their transience? There are few things more obviously temporary than something visibly rotting away. Is it some strange schuedenfruede to see something that has failed? Certainly we know that every abandoned home or theater or church or amusement park represents peoples lives. People who worked for it and believed in it and lived in these places. I wonder if it gives a morbid sense of relief to us that it’s not our crumbled dream, only someone else’s. A bullet we dodged, so to speak. We never do get to see that part of fairy tales though do we? The story always stops at the best part. the couple get to be together and they simply “live happily ever after”. All of our experience shows us that that cannot be reality. There is simply no “happily ever after”. There is divorce and sickness and disasters and all the complexities of raising children and all the other troubles of the world that are constantly trying to break happiness. And so, even as we are being taught that if you overcome a few obstacles you will reach a coasting point and be rewarded with “happily ever after” we know, even as children that that is part of the fairy tale. We are suspicious of it.

The wizard of Oz ends after Dorothy and her friends complete their magical quest and achieve what they wanted. The Land of Oz however, is the rest of the story. what happens after ‘happily ever after’. And like the Wizard of Oz it is a uniquely American story.

Like most stories, this one starts at the beginning. in the 1960’s brothers Harry and Grover Robins were looking for ideas for off season attractions in their mountainous ski community. The brothers are responsible for the nearby Wild West themed attraction Tweetsie Railroad. Reportedly it was Grover who, when he saw the trees at the top of Beech Mountain, immediately saw the trees of Oz from the 1939 film.( For research I rewatched the Wizard of oz several times and frankly, he’s very right.)

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still from the film

the trees on Beech Mountain

The park was designed by Charlotte based Jack Pentes, hired by the brothers to help conceptualize the park. Its often anecdotally repeated that Jack Pentes Designed the Oz park walking on his knees in order to experience from the point of view of a child. Sadly Jack Pentes died in 2015, just before the park truly began its renaissance.

 

 

The park was reportedly the passion project of Grover Robbins who through himself into working with Pentes on its construction. In 1970, just months before the park opened to the public, Grover passed away from cancer. He requested that his ashes be spread across Oz. He also has graveside on the mountain top, but the guide told me that’s its purely a symbolic place to visit, built as a compromise with his grieving mother. My tour guide also credited Grover for keeping it from raining on visitors at Oz

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be careful, looks like there are some poppys growing up ahead

 

(Aside: I’m no believer in spirits that can control the weather but if I were collecting data on this hypothesis, I have to admit that it would support her claim. My first planned trip to Oz several years ago, I ended up cancelling at the last minute because of car problems. I comforted myself that Beech Mountain was predicted to be being clobbered by the tail of a hurricane all weekend and I would have been miserable in the pouring rain. According to my weather app which I checked periodically that weekend, and the photos of the event that were posted to social media, it didn’t rain much if at all. The following year when I did make it to Autumn at Oz it was also forecasted to rain all weekend, which truly makes driving a rental car through the mountains exciting, but it never rained one drop while I was at Oz. Even as my guide was reassuring me that Grover’s spirit would keep us dry we could hear thunder. But I’ll be damned, it did not rain.)

gravesite of Grover Robbins

legend has it there is no body here and his ashes were spread on the mountaintop

Work began on the park in 1968. Ray Bolger (who played the scarecrow) held the shovel that broke ground. The park opened to the public in June of 1970 with Debbie Reynolds cutting the tape. Her daughter Carrie Fisher was also in attendance.

Instead of being based on the farm in the film the Gale house is actually built to look like another famous house. Perhaps you can imagine a man and woman with a pitchfork standing in front of it?

Gale residence was lived in by the landowners and occasionally rented out in the 1990s

It was a resounding, triumphant success. on opening day the park reported 4,000 visitors. In its first year open the park was the most popular attraction on the entire east coast.

When you first enter the Gale house you find a carefully crafted replica of the rooms seen in the film

This pitch dark line room is where you are picked up by the tornado. Only through exploration did current owners find a bricked over room that originally served as the projector room

 

 

When the park was originally opened the experience was designed for the visitor to take on the roll of Dorothy. They would begin in tranquil Kansas and then be in the house as it was “picked up by a tornado”. When they emerged from the now tornado wrecked house they found themselves walking out into the magical land of Oz just as Dorothy opened her door to it in the movie. Visitors met the characters of Oz and went on the journey to the Emerald City to see the wizard.

 

when you land after the tornado you find yourself in a wrecked version of the Gale house. This affect is achieved in the same fashion as a traditional Mystery house attraction and you know I love a bonus mystery house

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bonus roadside attraction fact: most mystery houses are made with 2 axis of tilt, while the post tornado section of the Gale house has 3

The journey first has you see the land of the munchkins. You then meet the Scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion. You’ll see the poisoned apple trees put in your path by the Wicked Witch of the West, and her castle. You’ll pass through areas heavy with poppies before arriving at the Emerald City. The original Emerald city featured a show acting out the scenes where the group of adventurers come before the wizard, a collection of gift shops, and a small museum holding ephemera from the movie.

 

 

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like in the film you will find that the house has landed on someone!

 

A balloon ride at the end of your walk through Oz took you from emerald city over all of Oz for a birds eye view. Much of the balloon ride’s infrastructure was later repurposed into an actual skin lift down the backside of the Beech Mountain slope.

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the land of the munchkins. Only a few pieces of munchkin land were salvaged

 

Apparently the death of Grover Robbins before the parks opening left a shadow on its operations from the start. The devotion to the park for its own magic gave way over time to the commercial interests of the investors who owned the portion of the mountain. California Caribbean Corp was heavily effected by a downturn in real estate sales and began to rely heavily on the park for revenue rather than prioritize the experience of the park. Failed investments left CCC bankrupt in 1975.

 

In Dec 1975 a fire started at the park. It is generally believed to be arson and was set to the Emerald City Amphitheater  and destroyed it and the surrounding shops. Two storage buildings were also destroyed in the blaze holding records, the park characters’ costumes, props and sound equipment. As the fire blazed multiple items were stolen from the parks museum, including Judy Garlands original Dorothy dress worn in the film. This piece of famous memorabilia has never been recovered and seems never to have surfaced in collectors circles.

the original lair of the lion from the original viewing platform. It was designed to incorporate into the natural landscape which probably helped it survive years of neglect

This is a stunning crime. It’s a but glossed over in the history of the park, but it seems to me a looming unsolved mystery. I can’t seem to find much information about it. The parks Wikipedia page claims that there is some speculation that the fire was started by disgruntled employees but also claims this phase (needs citation). This is one of the most suspicious stories Ive ever heard and the fact that it seems to have done unsolved for all these years and nobody seems to much care makes me think that it’s not so much of a mystery who started the fire.

a portion of the original witches castle. The small inside of the castle would have been used for costume changes and scenes would have been acted out in front of the castle in the late 70’s

I stole the wicked witche’s broom. It wasn’t even terribly difficult!

Regardless if this was the work of a unhappy employees (I mean how unhappy do you truly have to be to set your place of employment ablaze!?) or some kind of fraud scheme on the part of CCC, the damaged park was sold to a new company shortly after. It was rebuilt somewhat, and reopened under new management but apparently lacked something of the quality of the orgininal park and never recouped the money spent on the repairs.

castle guards

flying monkeys also make an appearance at Autumn at Oz

In this period in the later 70’s after the parks reopening the way that the visitor experienced the park was changed so that instead of having much of the yellow brick road experience as Dorothy, visitors stopped at various points along the journey to watch  acted out scenes and tableaus. Many of the stages and viewing platforms that are currently being restored at the park are from this iteration.

and of course

The park closed it’s doors in 1980, after a rollercoaster ride of just 10 years. When it closed it was apparently left entirely abandoned. Much of the park fell into disrepair, either through vandalism, thieves, or simply being left to the elements. People with the current task of reconstructing the park have little to go on. Only some of the late costume used,  sections of the witches castle and the munchkin village, and the brick road itself survived.

feeling sleepy

On the 4th of July 1991, after sitting abandoned for more years than it was open and functioning, the park was opened to the public of Beech Mountain to celebrate the redevelopment of the property into a condo complex. Students from a high school in nearby Boone who had performed the Wizard of Oz as their school play greeted visitors to the park in costume. visitors rode the ski lift, fashioned from the bones of the hot air balloon ride, up the back side of the mountain to gain entrance to the park.

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Glenda is a bit of a duex ex machina in the film which always bothered me

The Gale house has stood the test of time in part because it was lived in by the property owners. When visitors were allowed into the park in 91 there wasn’t much left to see but the house and the now worn out yellow brick road. Over the coming years the owners would begin work on restoring parks of the park. A few years later they began having a yearly reunion of former employees which eventually evolved in to the yearly Autumn at Oz celebration they now have in which the park fully opens in as close an approximation as possible to the way it would have run in 1970. Autumn at Oz is the source of many of these photographs featuring all the wonderful characters you can meet along the road.

this is where the park “ends” currently.

by 2009 the Autumn event was attracting around 8,000 people annually and becoming a tradition among the local public. By 2013 it had expanded to a fully public event with a tour of the park and other activities like a petting zoo and pony rides. Dorothy’s house was used as a rental property. In 2015 an article about a creepy abandoned theme park in the North Carolina mountains went viral. beckoning urban explorers to the park. the park suffered several break ins and lots of theft during that time, especially of bricks from the yellow brick road.

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the yellow on the original bricks was a glassy hard glaze which you can see on the center brick

Since then the park has managed to control its PR a but better and build its reputation as a open and functioning park. Each year it hosts a larger and larger Autumn at Oz. In the last couple of years it has added journeys with Dorothy small group interactive tours in the summer. This year, in lieu of those events, cancelled due to covid you can have a private tour of the site. This will continue until late Sept and I strongly encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity to see the park without other guests there. When the world gets back on its axis a bit, Autumn at Oz is a great way to see something of what the park would have been like.

A temporary Emerald City Ampheater area is built for Autumn at Oz, likely not dissimilar to the Emerald city used in the park after the original Emerald City burned down in 1975

The story if the land of Oz park is a lot more realistic than any fairy tale. It’s full of bad luck, and long periods of neglect. The specter that you see when you visit  the park was truly only a few golden years between 1970 and 1974, and the reality is that its spent far more decades being ignored than it ever did being the idyllic land of Oz. And yet every year they repair one more piece of the old park. Every year people come.

 

I absolutely adore the fact that there are people, right now, completely devoted to saving the land of Oz. I have no doubt that it’s in well meaning and determined hands. But can they save it? Even if they managed to find the money and resources to restore the park to what it looked like and how it ran in the 1970s which as I understand is the eventual goal, maybe even rebuilding the hot air balloon ride, is that a sound business choice? is it any more sound now than it was in the 1970’s? How long can nostalgia and the story of a “once abandoned” park sustain the park. I find it hard to even conceive of what it costs to keep nature at bay year round only to open it once a year.

All that remains of the balloon ride is this skeleton. The machinery of the ride was moved to the back slope of the mountain to form a still used traditional ski lift

Concrete footers for the air balloon remain throughout the park. It used ski lift technology but it was the first ski lift to ever be built on non parallel tracks

How much staying power does the wizard of Oz really have? As an elder millennial the Wizard of Oz was an old movie I saw when I was a kid because it was somehow implied that I should see it. Its one of the only times I remember seeing black and white movie footage. I knew the story but I wouldn’t have listed it as one of my favorite films. I do remember having a dolls of the scarecrow and the tin man. I think they were a gift from my grandmother and the Tin man was technically my brothers and the scarecrow was mine. I always preferred them to Dorothy herself.

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the story is that the park follows the natural land layout so precisely that only one tree was cut down to build the Land of Oz

I rewatched the Wizard of Oz when I was preparing to visit the park for Autumn at Oz last year. It was my first time watching it as an adult and I wanted to see in it what was so profound that it might inspire people to build an entire replica of it. I deeply desire to understand the impetus to build a roadside attraction. The combination of inspiration and obsession and dedication necessary for a theme park or a house built of bottle caps to actually get willed into existence is so extreme that I think I feel almost jealous of it. But Ive always felt frustratingly close to it as well, as though soon I will have looked at the pieces long enough I will finally see how they fit together. I hoped maybe the movie might provide this key but admittedly I didn’t find the answer there.

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manmade reflecting pool original to the park and probably meant to connect to some fountain or faux waterfall nearby which is incredibly enchanting

the same pond in the off season

But I did ask myself, what is the wizard of Oz about? I don’t mean this question in the way that would make the answer “a young girl from Kansas who goes on an adventure over the rainbow’ but what it is really about.   Much has been made about the political scenario at the time and the symbolism of the various characters in relation to it. Dorothy, for her part, seems to be summing up the movie with its last line about no where being better than home.

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there’s no place like home

I had sort of a memory bubble as I was rewatching that as a child the end of this movie never quite sat right with me. I mean Oz being an obvious fraud and the implications for magic in general certainly made me sad in a way that I couldn’t exactly understand as child. But I always felt that the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man were treated unjustly in the end. The false wizard gave them only useless symbolic trinkets instead of the very real things they desired. His cheeky speeches poking fun at overeducated elites and the pomp and circumstance of military customs went entirely over my head as a child. I knew the scarecrow didn’t get his brain to think with and the lion didn’t really get his courage and the tin man didnt really get a heart. Dorothy did get a way home though. even though that’s not how she ended up getting there, the false wizard didn’t offer Dorothy a trinket instead of her deepest wish.\

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the final scene from the movie is acted out by the characters at Autumn at Oz

 

Only as an adult did I realize that the reason these little trinkets were effective because of the nature of the wishes. If you watch carefully it is in fact Scarecrow who comes up with every clever plan in the film. It’s Scarecrow who’s observant enough to figure out that the apples are poison and the poppies are what have caused everyone to fall asleep. It is the scarecrow who comes up with the idea of dressing up as castle guards to infiltrate the witches castle and rescue Dorothy. He doesn’t need a brain at all, only to believe that he has it.

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Scarecrow is the best prove me wrong

The Tin man asks the wizard for a heart so that he can love. Its the Tin Man who feels emotion more freely than any of the others. How many times does he begin to cry and then have to be oiled because the crying makes him rust? How deeply does his affection for Dorothy affect him? He doesn’t need a heart to love, as his is already functioning perfectly.

The Lion too for all his whining and constant quaking shows the very quality that he claims to lack again and again. Courage of course, I know much better now than when I first saw the wizard of Oz, has nothing to do with not experiencing fear. To be brave one must proceed in spite of fear. The Lion, with the help of his friends, overcomes his overwhelming fear again and again.

So, 25 years later or so I forgave the wizard. Was he a conman? Yes. He did give the Tin Man and the Lion and the Tin Man something, even though it was things they already possessed. That, it seems to me is what the wizard of Oz is about. The wizard isn’t real. In fact he is a lie. He is a lie no matter where. you find him in the world, which is still full of people trying to give you a trinket that will allow you to fullfill your happiness.  What you need however, is inside you, it’s not for someone else to give or sell.

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a hot air ballon and a horse of a different color on display in the temp emerald city

One can even read the characters in the Wizard of Oz as aspects of Dorothy herself. Brain, heart, and courage. The combination of things that gets you through life. Our strengths and differences even come from which of these we rely on in what amount.

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the road to see the great and powerful wizard

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Ive finally come to write this piece about this place now. At this exact place in American history where it has suddenly become clear to so many of us that we are past the happily ever after peak as a country. The USA isn’t what it once was. As it turns out, for a lot of people it was never what it was sold as. It was an illusion made by the man behind the curtain. The American Dream was a fairy tale too. This too, like Oz on the top of Beech mountain is going to have to find a way to fight its way back. like Oz, this might be slow and non linear and awkward, and the park will never operate at its former glory and there’s something about that that’s hard and awkward to watch. Of all the times we should be watching it though, this is the time.

Autumn at Oz has been cancelled this year due to social distancing needs, but the park in offering completely private tours until the end of September atlandofoznc.com

 

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goodbye yellow brick road 

 

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