Before we begin chatting, I know that the duo next to me are Betty Jo and John Trimble, a fan-culture power couple married for more than 50 years. Bjo (the nickname she’s used for decades, pronounced bee-joe) is best known for the letter-writing campaign she spearheaded in 1968 that effectively resuscitated Star Trek: The Original Series for its third (and final) season, bringing it back from the programming purgatory where most canceled television series go to die.
Sitting in a ballroom of glittering chandeliers and listening to a panel of conference organizers discuss the next two days of events, Bjo, a magenta streak in her soft salt-and-pepper hair, clutches a wooden cane painted with daisies. John’s face is partly covered by a straw hat, his feet in what look to be extremely comfortable brown corduroy slippers. We’re all wearing conference badges attached to sunshine-yellow lanyards.
It isn’t a dream. We came by choice; we were not dropped in by a howling storm. From a parking lot full of cars covered in bumper stickers with phrases like “I’ve Gone Down the Yellow Brick Road,” I followed a woman in ruby red Chuck Taylors, weaving along a white cement and red brick path lined with palms through the frustrating labyrinth that is the Town and Country Resort and Convention Center in San Diego, California. The dated, sun-bleached compound, which could easily double as the backdrop on Fantasy Island, is a dystopian “ozmopolitan” if there ever was one.
It’s a hot Friday morning in August. Elsewhere in the complex, a Catholic singles retreat and a Filipino American heritage celebration fill banquet halls. And in a few small conference rooms, some 300-plus fans of the Land of Oz have convened at the 50th annual Winkie Con, the longest-running Wizard of Oz fan convention in the United States and probably the world, to discuss, debate, and reminisce. The longstanding get-together is named for the western Winkie County in the Land of Oz, ruled by the Wicked Witch of the West until her demise. This year, 2014, also marks the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Technicolor fever dream.
“We met under a piano,” John tells me when I ask if he and Bjo met at the fan gatherings they attended in the 1950s. They’d passed one another, sure, but never gotten properly acquainted. At a crowded party at the sci-fi author and collector Forrest Ackerman’s house, a friend grabbed a bowl of chips, and four of them crawled under a baby grand. There, they reasoned, no one would step on them.
We’re at an introductory panel, where mutton-chopped colonial Boston historian and longtime Oz fan J.L. Bell explains the benefits of holding a fan convention in the shadow of San Diego Comic-Con, which was just two weeks ago. Back east, he says, Oz gatherings have died off. “Well, you burn witches,” someone jokes to appreciative tittering. Bell notes that despite our unstylish surroundings, “the management here is used to our type of people — who are very into one type of thing.”
A formative part of Bell’s childhood, Oz gatherings were where he first engaged in meaningful peer-to-peer discussions with adults. “It was very important to me,” he says, his voice dropping reverently. Accordingly, he encourages people to show some Winkie Con “ozpitality” and say hello to strangers. “Everyone I’ve met just loves to talk about Oz,” he says.
“They ought to,” murmurs John. I chuckle and comment, confident of his reply, that surely this isn’t his first Winkie Con. No, he assures me evenly. “I just wanted to hear what they had to say.”
I nod. I want to hear it too.
Let the joyous news be spread
Winkie Con used to be held farther north, in places like Yosemite National Park and California’s Monterey peninsula. This first year in a San Diego location has historic significance for fans because the neighboring sunny resort town of Coronado is where L. Frank Baum came to write, desperate for a respite from Midwestern winters. Along the main Coronado streets, lampposts display Oz Con banners. The walking tour includes stops at Baum’s part-time residence (the historic Hotel del Coronado) and the public library’s permanent Oz-themed children’s center.
Winkie Con nearly winked out of existence several years ago, during a period that conference chairman David Maxine, who has been attending the gatherings since he was 14, called the “graying of fandom.” In 2009, attendance dropped to fewer than 40 people. Leading it back from the brink, Maxine changed the location and revamped the conference calendar to include activities geared toward fans of next-generation Oz entertainment, like the musical Wicked and the 2013 film Oz the Great and Powerful.
For some, the new multi-track Winkie Con — and even the new location — is a contentious topic. More than once, someone makes an offhand comment that “it wasn’t always like this.” No one seems unhappy enough to leave or never return. But there’s that resigned tone, like the way old friends might describe how they’ve grown up and apart, their bond cemented in the past but eroding as the future presses in.
A retrospective panel one afternoon, featuring a slide show of Winkie Cons past, showed a family-reunion style event, more like a summer camp or tent revival than a geeky con full of costumed fans. “He hasn’t been coming as of late,” a panelist comments as a color-faded photo of a plainclothes attendee flicks past. “But he’s still active with the Oogaboos.”1
Interest in Oz is resurgent, thanks in large part to the MGM film’s anniversary, and a number of new Oz events are scheduled this year. At this September’s inaugural Midwest Wizard of Oz Festival in a Chicago suburb, for instance, organizers will attempt to break the world record for the largest gathering of people dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz. (The number to beat is 446, set in England in 2010.)
This year’s larger Winkie Con venue facilitates grand exhibitions on a whole new scale, and allows Oz fandom to sprawl into new territory. The premier Judy Garland dress and memorabilia collector, Michael Siewert, flew in from Augusta, Georgia, where he works as an interior designer. He enjoyed an entire hall in which to display his fragile dresses, which he carries onto direct flights in massive garment bags, checking only dress forms and appurtenances so that nothing is lost during a connecting flight.
During a panel discussion including Siewert and Aljean Harmetz, an Oz historian and the author of The Making of The Wizard of Oz, a debate erupts about ruby slippers. “He stole those slippers,” Harmetz insists of one wardrobe supervisor who sold several of the seven pairs of Dorothy’s slippers, including what was widely agreed to be the best pair, which featured dyed red soles rather than felt. “Nothing was given to him.”
Siewert, seemingly a bit amused but also weary of the conversation already, replies, “His point of view was that he liberated them from people who didn’t care.” He pauses to add, “One of my costumes, he liberated.” Up front, someone raises her hand. “Can we see the seams?” she coos, wanting to see Garland’s name on the tags sewn into the costumes Siewert has in the next room. “I have my gloves. I’ll be happy to show you,” he says with an obliging smile.
Yet what would seem like marquee events do not necessarily cause the same spectacle as the short-lived shoe debate. On Saturday, without announcement or fanfare, Garland’s only son (and Siewert’s longtime friend), the normally publicity-shy Joe Luft, sits quietly at a table next to some of the apparel. He’s promoting a new one-man show featuring film clips and memories of his boyhood with his legendary mother. Videos of Garland in various film roles, interspersed with soundtracks of her bewitching contralto, played on a loop in the background.
Siewert motions toward the hallway and asks if I’m headed to see Wicked Witch of the West impersonator Kurt Raymond. I nod, and he smiles, saying Raymond is one of the best he’s ever seen: “And I’ve seen a lot of Wicked Witches.” (See accompanying article, “Other Lands of Oz.”)
It’s not a place you can get to by a boat or a train
The Trimbles followed two distinct yellow brick roads long before fandom brought them together. Bjo’s mother was a self-made Oklahoma woman who, set on escaping rural poverty, moved her daughter to California at an early age. The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t fiction, Bjo deadpans. “Those were my cousins.” Her family was so poor, they shopped not in thrift stores but behind them, picking through the castoffs in the rubbish heap. Bjo’s first introduction to the Oz books was through a free paperback with the cover ripped off. “My world was hardscrabble farms and traveling in cars forever,” she says of immersing herself in Dorothy Gale’s fantasy. “I devoured it.”
John’s story is simpler: he borrowed the first Oz book from his older sister, and years later saw the MGM film. Until that point, he hadn’t known that multiple versions of the same story existed. But all threads lead back to the same core values. “All fandoms are cousins,” Bjo insists. She says of fan culture in general, “You have to treasure it.”
We’re waiting for a talk by the artist William Stout to begin when Bjo leans in to discuss how the friendly atmosphere at fan conventions mirrors her theory-in-practice of speaking to strangers in public. Specifically, she thinks more people should talk on elevators and public transit, which she now takes more frequently since voluntarily relinquishing her driver’s license. (Though over 80, she and John continue to own and operate Griffin Dyeworks, a natural dyes and fiber arts company.)
Winkie Con attendees are certainly a welcoming clan, though some couldn’t seem to grasp that I was a member of the press, and that maybe they shouldn’t tell me about Oz-centric domain name disputes or share intimate fan community gossip. Oz fans, at least at Winkie Con, are also a mostly homogenous group of middle-aged Caucasians. Many are serious collectors with a lifelong interest in the books, some are contemporary graphic novel artists as at home at Comic-Con as they are among Winkies, and some have ties to the film industry or are nurturing a particular fascination with old Hollywood.
(Some of this may explain why, while I listened to many animated debates about self-published Oz fanfic, I never once heard anyone debating the merits of The Wiz, a campy 1970s all-African American adaptation starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross that essentially destroyed the already downward spiraling blaxploitation genre.)
All this latter-day wizardry is due to the fact that many of the original Oz books, written before 1923, long ago entered the public domain. Characters and their traits can’t be separately protected by copyright or other means when a work is no longer under protection, so all of Baum’s people are in the public domain too. This accounts for the rich fan culture that’s cropped up around the Baum books, but it becomes complicated for other Oz vehicles.
Characters introduced in the 1939 MGM film, as well as new traits given to them, remain under copyright, as does the film as a work. And some but not all of the books by early 20th-century Oz author Ruth Plumly Thompson remain protected. In other words, dressing up as Baum’s 1913 The Patchwork Girl of Oz or the wise elephant Kabumpo in author Ruth Plumly Thompson’s 1922 Oz novel won’t land you in hot water. But publicly impersonating Judy Garland’s Dorothy without permission is just asking to be slapped with a copyright infringement suit, though many do it anyway.
The varying state of Oz copyrights has encouraged a rich fanfic culture to flourish, and spawned sequels, series, and an array of affiliated merchandise, such as Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995), by Gregory Maguire, which was adapted (and substantially changed) into an extraordinarily successful musical. At Winkie Con one afternoon, Gita Morena, a licensed transpersonal psychotherapist and the great-granddaughter of L. Frank Baum, gave a reading from a new Oz-themed tarot deck. In the main atrium, a young, good-natured sketch artist sat at an easel, drawing caricatures of attendees in Oz-like scenarios. (“Ten dollars for black and white, fifteen for color on the person, twenty for full color like this one.”)
Over two days, I watch preteen girls in Little Prince tees and awkward middle-aged men in brown tassel loafers compete in the Winkie Treasure Hunt, collecting sacks full of cocktail umbrellas and tiny plastic bones that were hidden around the grounds. The odd paraphernalia is a nod to the 80th anniversary of Plumly Thompson’s 1934 book Speedy In Oz, the tale of a living dinosaur skeleton named Terrybubble who ends up on Umbrella Island, where everyone carries — you guessed it — an umbrella.
Awful sentimental regarding love and art
Everyone has their own niche Oz obsession. Patricia Watson, a California-based Cairn Terrier fancier who runs the Web site CairnTerrierMovies.com, is amped to share a secret with an entire room full of Toto fans. To be fair, I might not have attended Watson’s talk had I not stopped to pet Betty, a 10-year-old Toto lookalike, at which point Watson mentioned her prized Oz trivia. But I’d have to wait until after a short performance. “Where’s the Wicked Witch?!” Watson prompted gleefully as I patted Betty’s wiry coat. On cue, the otherwise mild-mannered pooch started yapping like a Miss Gulch-fearing Toto before pausing expectantly to wait for her reward.
Later, Watson would divulge what she says newspaper reporters and documentary filmmakers have routinely left out of Toto’s narrative but has been verified by the trainer’s family. Toto’s trainer, Jack Weatherwax, was so necessary on the MGM set that he’s the person inside the leftmost apple tree when the foursome trot through the Forest of Fighting Trees. As the trees pelt Dorothy and her motley posse with fruit, Toto whips into a frenzy at their feet. But Toto is excited by Weatherwax’s commands, not by the excitement onset, and he keeps the dog under control and playing along in the pandemonium of the scene.
MGM had a scrappy, uncontrollable underdog on its hands after the film’s theatrical release in 1939. It took years and numerous re-releases for the studio to earn back the heaps of money it poured into what was its most elaborate, expensive production to date. It took until American homes were equipped with televisions that could display the full Technicolor marvel of the film that it became a cinematic classic. The annual telecast became a huge commercial success, and is often recognized as a major cultural and broadcasting landmark. Between 1956 and 1980, it was pretty much the only way to see the film.
Winkie Con has had a similar blossoming from drab to brilliant as paper newsletters were replaced with the instantaneity of email lists and mobile Web sites, opening it up to a broader Oz-intrigued public. There’s even an intersection between unrelated fan culture vintage revivals, leading to the 2013 Wizard of Oz pinball machine rolling off assembly lines.
It’s ironic that a small piece of stay-put propaganda — a story about the dangers of leaving home, setting off on a perilous and bewildering adventure, and making unusual friends and menacing enemies — inspires people to take those very chances to gather at Winkie Con. It’s a tale that brings them together time and again, year after year.
San Francisco-based journalist Brittany Shoot, the managing editor of The Magazine, writes about fascinating people and far-flung places. She is a contributing writer to Mental Floss, Spirituality & Health, and Sojourners, and also writes for magazines including Time, San Francisco, and Islands.