Follow the Yellow Brick Road...
In the summer of 2005, while planning for the 24th Annual Chesterton Wizard of Oz Festival, the committee discovered the festival had grown so large that a second group of costumed characters had become necessary. The festival's chairperson for the entertainment committee remembered the three-year reigning champion of the Scarecrow Look-A-Like Contest, Z.R. Allen. She reached out and asked them to pull together a troupe of “Junior Costumed Characters” for the upcoming festival. If the Junior cast of characters was a successful addition to the festival, they would become a regular fixture. Thus, The Spirit of Oz was born. However, the group did not coin its namesake in its founding year; in fact, the name would not come about for a few more years.
Of course, the characters looked much difference in their first appearance. They were given less than 9 weeks to pull a cast, costumes, props, and even a 30-minute stage show together! The original cast was comprised of Allen as the Scarecrow, a drama classmate as Dorothy, two local theatre actors rounding out the cast as the Tin Man and Lion, Z.R.'s mother stepped in as the Wicked Witch and Glinda was pulled right from the Chesterton crowd!
All this considered, the group was well-received and by the end of the festival's first day, the committee had already asked the team, then dubbed "The Kokomo Kids," to return for the 25th Anniversary Festival. The team began planning immediately, but little could they have known that their journey down the Yellow Brick Road was only just beginning.
Discovering the Spirit of Oz
Over the next four years, the troupe experienced a great deal of growth. Cast members changed regularly and the costumes so a great deal of revision to improve the overall authenticity of the act. In 2007, actors from the Junior Costumed Characters cast began crossing over with the festivals Official Costumed Characters, as longtime performers began retiring from their roles. As this happened, the Junior Characters' presence at the festival began to increase and event started to absorb duties originally designated to the Official Characters. Not only did the group’s involvement in the festival grow but the characters began receiving invitations to attend events (big and small) across the state of Indiana. In May of 2008, Dorothy and her friends made their first appearance at the Indianapolis 500 Festival’s Kids Day. Later that same summer they made a special visit to the Indiana State Fair; this appearance resulted in their television debut when they landed a small spot on the Hoosier Lotto program. There was no doubt that what started as a small team of rag-tag costumed characters was quickly growing into its own self-sustaining entity.
By 2008, the Chesterton Oz Festival's two character troupes had integrated so much that it was hard to tell the Junior Characters from the Official. Both the festival and "Kokomo Kids" were optimistic as they made plans to fully integrate the Junior and Official characters for the best cast of characters yet. Unfortunately, however, plans quickly fell apart when a devastating storm swept through Northwest Indiana the weekend of the 27th Annual Festival. Everyone in the festival tried their best to remain optimistic and make the best of the festival in light of the weather but the damage had been done. In November of 2008, Lakeshore Festivals and Events officially discontinued The Indiana Wizard of Oz Festival after a nearly three-decade run.
With the 70th Anniversary of the MGM film version of The Wizard of Oz on the horizon, the cast was not about to give up on the dream that they had spent the last four years building. Events across the country were celebrating all things Oz on the largest scale in a decade and the characters had to be a part of it! After investigating the options available to keep the cast alive, the character team and the organizers of Oz-Stravaganza! in Chittenango, New York, reached an agreement for Chesterton's former characters to act as the official characters of their festival in June of 2009. The cast loved the idea of celebrating the 70th Anniversary in the hometown of L. Frank Baum, the creator of Oz. In preparing for the event, festival organizers asked how the group should be billed in advertising and programing. They at a loss for words. They had never really needed a title, they were just Chesterton Oz Festival Costumed Characters. Of course, that title wouldn't do now that the Indiana festival was defunct. The Kokomo Kids wasn't a viable option either as the cast was now primarily comprised of college students and adults. Members of the group racked their brains for days and had very little luck coming up with ideas. The name finally came on the eve of their departure as they sat around discussing the numerous actors who had played these characters in over the years. In doing so, they realized that they were more than just characters. Each was a spirit that manifested itself in those who opened their hearts and took on the task of portraying them. Realizing that every time the cast came together they collectively represented the heart and soul of the story, they officially decided upon the name of The Spirit of Oz; the very name that we proudly use to this date.
Off to See the Wizard
In early 2009, Spirit of Oz management received a phone call that they had never expected. A non-profit group in Chesterton was working tirelessly to bring the festival back in the coming Fall and they wanted the old team back. Of course, the offer was accepted immediately and the cast began preparing to return home to Chesterton. This was a big festival for the cast. They would be returning to Chesterton for the first time since their inaugural year (the festival moved to a neighboring city in 2006) and this time they would be the sole cast of characters representing the event. It was in this time that The Spirit of Oz saw some of the greatest improvements to costumes, makeup, and overall portrayals of the characters.
After the reinstatement of the Indiana Wizard of Oz Festival, The Spirit of Oz enjoyed four years of consistent growth and improvement. However, despite great success, the festival was again cancelled in February of 2013. Once again The Spirit of Oz became a set of characters without a place to call "home" but as an old saying goes, "you can't count on rainbows without rain." Just a few months after announcing the end of the Chesterton Oz Festival, The Spirit of Oz landed the gig of a lifetime as the official characters of the film's 75th anniversary celebration hosted by Warner Bros. in Hollywood, California. On September 15, 2013, The Spirit of Oz appeared alongside original Munchkin Ruth Duccini, Oz historian John Fricke, current day celebrities, and countless members of the press at the famed Chinese Theatre, the very spot the film made it's debut 1939. The characters were on hand for the Emerald City VIP Premier Party, walked the red carpet for the debut of The Wizard of Oz in IMAX 3D, and helped to unveil Madame Tussaud's brand new wax figure of Judy Garland as Dorothy.
This gig launched The Spirit of Oz into the national spotlight with appearances in numerous media outlets such as Entertainment Tonight, Yahoo! Movies, and even a photo search game in The National Enquirer. Following their adventures in Hollywood, the they began receiving more appearance requests than ever before. For the entire team, this truly was the pay off of nearly a decade of hard work.
Over the Rainbow
Since 2013, The Spirit of Oz has been growing leaps and bounds annually. In addition to festivals and fairs, the characters began appearing at private functions such as birthday parties and public events hosted by libraries, schools, and non-profits, as well as large-scale corporate events. They also began offering special services like custom videos and phone calls from characters for special events. Cast members began appearing in theatrical productions and other similar projects. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion even made a cameo appearance as Scrooge's ghostly visitors in a large, annual production of A Christmas Carol.
2014 brought the cast their first festival residency since the end of the Chesterton Festival when they were contracted by the fledgling Wizard of Oz Festival in Mapleton, Illinois. The festival has grown exponentially since adding the characters to their annual lineup. In fact, the festival saw so much growth after its first year with The Spirit of Oz that the park district that sponsors the event had their walkthrough Oz garden relocated and more than doubled in size. In 2015, two first-year Oz Festivals followed suit in hiring The Spirit of Oz: A Day in Oz (now Wizard of Oz Days) in Clarksville (now in nearby Hannibal), Missouri, and The Midwest Wizard of Oz Festival in Tinley Park, Illinois. This year also saw the addition of a full-time live Toto for the first time.
As of 2018, the characters make frequent appearances throughout the year. Cast and crew numbers have also grown large enough to accommodate two separate casts appearing at different events simultaneously. The company has also branched into other Oz-related services such as custom costume design and costume rentals as well as event consultation.
It's been a long journey down the Yellow Brick Road these last 15 years but we're not done yet! We invite you to join us as we continue our journey somewhere over the rainbow!