At Dorothy’s House and Land of Oz in Liberal, Kan., you can learn about farm life and the movie

08/23/2014 2:00 AM

08/24/2014 1:42 PM

A perky 14-year-old in a blue gingham dress and sparkly red slippers says, “My name is Dorothy Gale,” and motions nine tourists from Amarillo, Chicago and Japan to enter an open screen door into a white clapboard farmhouse.

“Shhh!” one mother tells her daughter. “The movie is about to start.”

Only, in keeping with the trippy 1939 film, nothing here at Dorothy’s House/Land of Oz is what it seems.

The guided tour of Dorothy’s House, an actual farmhouse from the movie’s era, is more like a living history demonstration than reliving the film.

The house was donated by a local family and hauled to the grounds of the Seward County Historical Society, which runs the Oz attractions.

“Dorothy” explains that the tiny living room is where a typical family would have spent its evenings after chores, then passes around a stereoscopic viewer to the somewhat befuddled tourists to gaze through.

Moving into the front bedroom she lifts a large covered bedpan, explains its use and says, “As the oldest child, it is my job to empty this every morning.” In the movie, Dorothy was an orphan and the only child in Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s house, but never mind.

The kitchen is meticulously outfitted with canning equipment, period wallpaper and linens and a Hoosier cabinet “lined with metal so you can hear when the mice are running around in it — scratch, scratch, scratch!” It’s a lot of eye candy for antiques enthusiasts but the children are getting restless.

On the enclosed back porch, Dorothy explains the workings of an egg incubator and a huge cream separator outfitted with a hand crank and bell. “The bell rings if you aren’t turning the crank fast enough, and if that happens, you have to start all over!”

By the time you exit the house, you have a fair grasp of 1930s Kansas farm life and perhaps less of a clue why a young girl would long to return to it.

But then you enter the adjacent Land of Oz, a large windowless metal farm building, and the tour abruptly switches gears.

The “movie” some tourists were expecting starts. Dorothy is now impersonating Glinda, the high-pitched witch: “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Then, back to her regular voice: “I’m not a witch at all! I’m from Kansas.”

A winding yellow brick path leads the group through semi-darkness past familiar scenes from the movie, with intermittent re-enactments and trivia provided by guide Dorothy.

At the gates to the Emerald City, a rapid-fire, multivoice recitation ends with a deep impersonation of the Wizard saying, “Well, that’s a horse of a different color!”

And — voila! — through a doorway stands a model horse that is, well, mostly white but tinged with pink and green spotlights. Dorothy explains that in the movie, Jell-O mix was used to color the horse, which is why you can see it licking itself. Who knew?

Compared with Kansas’ other premier “Wizard of Oz” destination, the Oz Museum in Wamego, Dorothy’s House and Land of Oz is a kitschier, more immersive experience. It draws 15,000 visitors annually — nearly two-thirds of the population of this hardscrabble High Plains town.

It exists because decades ago, Liberal decided if you can’t escape Dorothy, why not make her a mascot?

In response to the inevitable Dorothy comments Kansans endure when they travel, a local businessman decided Liberal should declare itself Dorothy’s hometown and build an attraction. That was in 1981, but the grounds feel older than that.

The first thing you see when you pull into the parking lot is a soaring metal arch emblazoned with “Land of Oz” and a rainbow in peeling paint. The arch tops an old-school swing set with extra-long chains in an inviting shaded glen with picnic tables. It could be a set from another film set in Kansas, “Picnic.”

To buy tickets to Dorothy’s House and Land of Oz, you must first enter the Coronado Museum. The museum is named after the Spanish explorer who passed through in 1541 looking for mythical cities of gold, but there’s just one artifact related to Coronado: a bridle bit. The rest of the displays in the two-story historic home document the history of Seward County, interesting but perplexing to visitors expecting to learn more about the Spanish expedition.

Life-size depictions of the Coronado party face a TV monitor showing “The Wizard of Oz” on a loop, so the explorers appear to be watching the film.

What you think of the whole Coronado Museum-Dorothy’s House-Land-of-Oz experience depends a lot on your expectations.

The scenery and backgrounds in Land of Oz lack modern theme-park sophistication, but are charming if viewed as Kansas folk art.

The entire amateur soundstage was the brainchild of Linda Windler of Topeka. Windler had created a traveling version of Oz inside a shopping mall in Topeka and other locations before she was hired to create a permanent version in Liberal.

In 1992, Windler and her parents, Wilmer and Lucile Edson, spent six months crafting the displays entirely out of recycled materials and common household items. A bridge is made from fire extinguishers and the flower pots are paint cans.

“When you see it as Linda Windler’s passion, it doesn’t look as kitschy,” said Marci Penner, director of the nonprofit Kansas Sampler Foundation (no connection to Kansas Sampler stores) and author of several Kansas back roads guidebooks. “It means more than if it were built by an organization as a commercial venture.”

And the Dorothys are not polished like actors, so their youth and genuine enthusiasm are endearing. As one tour group is exiting Land of Oz, three preschool-aged girls rush their guide. One doesn’t speak but reaches up to hold Dorothy’s hand while another asks, “Where’s Toto?”

JoAnne Mansell, director of Seward County Historical Society, hires the Dorothy tour guides. Since the program’s inception in 1981, Mansell says, more than 250 girls have worn the gingham dress and ruby slippers. They range in age from 13 to 19; about a dozen are active in any given year.

“We’re the only place in the world that has Dorothy tour guides,” Mansell says.

Like the Wizard, Dorothys never reveal their real identities, even when the governor asks. When the girls graduate from high school, they “retire” the dress but often continue working for the museum and help train new Dorothys.

One former Dorothy, Kristen (Hall) Martinez, 28, has a picture of herself at age 3 with a Dorothy.

“If you’re from Liberal, you grow up seeing those girls, and you wanted to be like them and be one of them. They are highly visible role models in the community,” Martinez says.

Like all Dorothys, Martinez had to go through an application process that required teacher recommendations, a written essay and in-person interviews. When she was accepted, she completed a two-week training course.

“They worked with us one-on-one. We had to learn everything about the Coronado museum, and understand the history of Liberal, then memorize all the ‘Wizard of Oz’ trivia that everyone loves. And then we had to learn about everything that would have been in a farmhouse and understand the way of life out here. We would do tour after tour, practice tours with our families. Then they set us loose, and we started taking visitors,” she says.

All Dorothys sew or have someone sew their dresses, using either a Simplicity or McCall’s pattern. The dresses have to be blue gingham but individual differences, such as larger or smaller buttons, pockets or no, are allowed. The girls buy red shoes and hand-apply the sequins or glitter.

Mansell encourages the girls to have two sets of shoes, a set with heels and a pair of slippers, “because they have to walk backward when they give tours.” At 13, Dorothys volunteer for community service hours, and once they’re 14, they’re paid for their work.

Martinez said being Dorothy gave her the communication skills and confidence she needed to get a bachelor’s degree in business. Now she works in nearby Beaver, Okla., as a bank compliance officer. The job requires her to do a lot of training and speak to the board regularly.

“That’s when the Dorothy training comes in handy,” she said.

Mansell works with teachers and counselors from the town’s one high school and two middle schools to find potential Dorothys. Public speaking or performance ability is not a requirement. Instead, Mansell looks for girls who are active in school, in church, in the community. Mansell brings in speakers to teach them etiquette, public speaking and other skills.

“I had one little girl who couldn’t even say ‘good afternoon,’ she was so shy. Now she is a tour guide in Europe,” Mansell said.

In addition to being popular figures at the museum, the Dorothys are an important export for Liberal, says Earl Watt, president of Seward County Historical Society. “Whenever dignitaries come to Liberal or other cities in the state, people want to have Dorothy there to greet them. Dorothy is highly sought after, she is an ambassador for Liberal and Kansas. She represents Kansas values of wholesomeness, loyalty and imagination.”

Last summer the Dorothys flew to Washington, D.C. and visited the offices of Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Tim Huelskamp. They also toured the Smithsonian and got to see an original pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland.

On a 2012 visit to the statehouse in Topeka, the Dorothys serenaded Gov. Sam Brownback with “Over the Rainbow” and received standing ovations in the Senate and the House chambers.

Past Dorothys are memorialized in two ways: Each young woman gets her name on a brick in the yellow brick road, and the women who return to work at the museum for three years after they retire get their names engraved on a granite slab outside Dorothy’s House.

Watt says the historical society, which runs the Oz attractions and Coronado Museum, has plans to upgrade Land of Oz.

“I love Disney and we want to bring Disney-like magic,” Watt said. He wants to build a new entrance that will start the tour by putting people into the movie, in Dorothy’s living room.

“There will be a weather bulletin on a black-and-white TV, even though that’s not accurate to the era, saying a tornado is coming, and then there will be wind and noise and light to simulate the tornado hitting,” he says.

It may not be accurate, but it will fit right in.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindyHoedel, and on Facebook.

Dorothy’s House / Land of Oz

567 E. Cedar St.

Liberal, Kan.

620-624-7624

DorothysHouse.com

Open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas

Admission: $7; ages 6-18, $4.50; senior and military discounts

The Wizard of August

The Star is celebrating this month’s 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz” movie with a story every day this month.

Coming Monday: The scholars who study “Oz.”

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