In the town of Chesterton, Ind. (population 10,488), residents flock to the streets every fall, as they have for the past 26 years, to revel in the town's famous "Wizard of Oz" Festival.
Chesterton, nestled between South Bend and Chicago, is just the sort of town you might expect to fall victim to an errant tornado, full of just the sort of corn-fed folks who might be looking for an escape into Technicolor fantasy. Its long-running festival has been lovingly mimicked in towns small and large around the country -- including Kansas.
For Thomas T. Kazmierczak, executive director of the Lancaster Opera House, it's high time such a festival made its mark on Buffalo, too. Starting today and running until Tuesday, the Opera House will feature Buffalo's inaugural "Wizard of Oz" Festival, complete with screenings, appearances from four Munchkins from the 1939 film and expert commentary on the making of the film and the life of Judy Garland.
Among the expert guests coming to town for the festival is John Fricke, an author and documentarian whose films on Garland won two Emmy Awards. Fricke, a professed Garland and "Wizard of Oz" fanatic, will host two events: "The Joy of Judy Garland" at noon and 8 p.m. today and "Making of 'The Wizard of Oz' " at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Fricke remembers the very first time he saw the film that started his lifelong obsession with all things Oz.
"It was Nov. 3, 1956. That was the first night 'The Wizard of Oz' was ever on network television, anywhere," Fricke said. "I'm 56 years old now, and this has been a part of my day-to-day life since I was 5."
And Fricke isn't alone -- by any stretch. Although children today are more likely to be caught up in Harry Potter mania, Fricke said, there isn't a soul over age 3 who doesn't have some knowledge or affinity for the land of Oz.
In addition to Fricke's talks, some of the Munchkins -- now in their 80s and 90s -- will be on hand at 11:30 a.m. Sunday for brunch at the Millennium Hotel in Cheektowaga.
For those who don't see the appeal of a bunch of geriatric Munchkins, plenty of other Oz-themed options abound. Garland costume collector Michael Siewert will exhibit his extensive collection of costumes on Garland-sized mannequins starting tonight at 6, and a release party for a new book by Joshua Dudley titled "Lost in Oz" will take place during tonight's opening gala at the Opera House.
For Fricke, the "Wizard of Oz" phenomenon is so "remarkably cross-generational" that the original seems never to shed popularity, despite reinventions like the musicals "The Wiz" and "Wicked."
"There's very little in the world that has that kind of purity anymore," Fricke said.
" 'Live Earth' is for people in their teens and 20s and 30s. The Super Bowl is for men," Fricke said. " 'The Wizard of Oz' was for everybody, is for everybody."
WHAT: Wizard of Oz Festival
WHEN: Through Tuesday
WHERE: Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster
TICKETS: Prices vary by event
INFO: 683-1776 or www.lancopera.org