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How the Dust Bowl depiction from 'The Wizard of Oz' left a lasting impact on Kansas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"The Wizard Of Oz" and the state of Kansas have been inseparable since the movie debuted in the summer of 1939. But does an enduring image from the Dust Bowl hold Kansas back from what it wants to be today? Reporter David Condos prepared this report for the Kansas News Service and NPR.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: Any Kansan who has stepped outside the state has heard the same quip. Nathan Dowell certainly has.

NATHAN DOWL: You know the joke. They're like, oh, you're not in Kansas anymore. Like, you know, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that.

CONDOS: But he doesn't mind too much. After all, he's the museum director at two "Wizard Of Oz"-themed attractions in his hometown of Liberal, Kan. - Dorothy's House and the Land of Oz.

DOWL: We have all kinds. And up here, we have a lot of posters.

CONDOS: Dowell reaches past a glass memorabilia case to pull a framed document off the wall. It says the state has designated this town in far southwest Kansas as the official home of Dorothy Gale.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

JUDY GARLAND: (As Dorothy Gale) I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

CONDOS: Actress Judy Garland's famous line gave Kansas a global brand. But generations after the film's release, that brand might not be all bluebirds and lemon drops anymore. So is the state's connection to "Oz" a gift or a curse that keeps Kansas boxed into an outdated, inaccurate image?

DOWL: Well, you know, the movie didn't work too hard to sell us with how black and white everything is and the dust and everything. But the message of the movie is still there's no place like home.

CONDOS: Perhaps nowhere is that contradiction on display more than right here at Dorothy's House in Liberal.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Dorothy Gale) All right. So right here, we have our yellow brick road. And on here, we have over...

CONDOS: That's our tour guide. You might have heard of her.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Dorothy Gale) I am Dorothy Gale.

CONDOS: She's 1 of 10 Dorothys on staff here, and all of them remain stubbornly in character while on the job. She skips down a path of bricks painted yellow, wearing sequined red shoes and a blue gingham dress that museum rules specify must be homemade. She sings. She dances. She re-enacts scenes from the movie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Dorothy Gale) Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my.

CONDOS: This particular Dorothy is the granddaughter of one of the museum's founders, so portraying the most famous fictional Kansan and of all feels natural.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I have some family that are like, you do that for a job? You get paid to walk around in red slippers and talk to people? Like, yeah, of course I do.

CONDOS: Liberal's version of "The Wizard Of Oz" may reside in a tan warehouse off U.S. Highway 54 rather than the Emerald City, but travelers just keep coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

RAY BOLGER: (As Scarecrow) To Oz?

JACK HALEY: (As Tin Man) To Oz.

JUDY GARLAND, RAY BOLGER AND JACK HALEY: (As Dorothy Gale, Scarecrow and Tin Man, singing) We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz.

CONDOS: One day's page in the museum guestbook features entries from Washington, D.C., Houston, Mexico. A truck driver from Idaho interrupts our tour to get his picture with Dorothy. For a lot of people, "Oz" still holds a special place in their heart. Recent retirees from Wisconsin, Lee and Terri Veeser, pulled over in the middle of their cross-country road trip.

TERRI VEESER: I saw the sign for Dorothy. And I love "The Wizard Of Oz" (laughter). I grew up with it.

CONDOS: Childhood memories.

T VEESER: Yeah.

CONDOS: Yeah. Yeah.

T VEESER: Yeah, lots of good memories.

CONDOS: So, aside from Dorothy and Toto, what exactly did they expect to find in Kansas?

LEE VEESER: I was thinking we might see a tornado.

(LAUGHTER)

T VEESER: Hopefully not.

CONDOS: And twisters may not be the least flattering thing some visitors associate with Kansas. Our Dorothy tour guide has heard it all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I've seen a lot of people and heard a lot of people say that they thought this would just be horse buggies and nothing here. And they were completely surprised that it was - I don't know - modern (laughter).

CONDOS: It's hard to separate the film from reality, even for experts like Brian Hoyle.

BRIAN HOYLE: I've never been to Kansas, although I feel like I have sometimes through "The Wizard Of Oz."

CONDOS: He's a film studies scholar who teaches at the University of Dundee in Scotland.

HOYLE: It's amazing how a film can have such cultural resonance that it sets up in my head that, you know, Kansas is this good place, this safe place, this nice place, the place that we kind of yearn to go back to. You know, it's - there's no place like home.

CONDOS: He says one of the film's key innovations is how it visually contrasts the subdued rural Americana of Kansas and the vibrant Technicolor of Oz. Even to theatergoers in 1939, the sepia tones that wash over those Kansas scenes would have looked old, a throwback to the silent film era.

HOYLE: And then Munchkinland hits you, and it's like you haven't seen color before.

CONDOS: But today's Kansas sits somewhere in between those two extremes. Yes, it's windy, but Kansas has harnessed those breezes to become one of the top states for generating wind energy. There are still plenty of farms here, but these days, they're run by fewer farmers who rely more on GPS satellites than scarecrows. And two-thirds of the population of Liberal - hometown to the film's archetypal white farm girl - now identifies as Latino. The state has growing urban centers, too, that are trying to turn from building grain elevators to building microchips and electric car batteries. But if outsiders still think of Kansas as Dorothy's backyard, that could hurt efforts to attract the high-tech businesses and workers it needs for the future. Just a few years ago, the state dropped its "Oz"-themed tourism slogan, there's no place like Kansas. Colby Sharples-Terry of the state tourism office says it was time to expand outsiders' view of Kansas beyond the yellow brick road.

COLBY SHARPLES-TERRY: I don't want to say it's like a love-hate relationship at all - absolutely adore the movie - but we in tourism are tasked with changing perceptions about Kansas.

CONDOS: The state isn't clicking its heels to leave "Oz" behind entirely. It could never buy the marketing that "Oz" has done for Kansas over the years.

SHARPLES-TERRY: You can't put a dollar amount on that.

CONDOS: But as culture becomes more fragmented, the spell "Oz" cast over America might start to fade. Gabbi Hall is creative director with tourism marketing agency Noble Studios in Nevada. She says every new generation grows up further removed from the film's heyday.

GABBI HALL: As travelers age, is that something you can anchor onto as a brand?

CONDOS: But if not "Oz," then what would Kansas anchor its brand to? Hall says recent research from another agency shows the top words consumers associate with Kansas are wheat, flat, boring and "The Wizard Of Oz."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

GARLAND: (As Dorothy Gale, singing) Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high...

CONDOS: So is Kansas still better off with "Oz"? Jane Albright thinks so, even if it means enduring the same old jokes every once in a while.

JANE ALBRIGHT: Some people want to take that as an offense - I certainly don't. It's the most beloved movie in the world.

CONDOS: Now, she may be biased. She joined the International "Wizard Of Oz" Club as a 13-year-old growing up in Topeka, Kan. Decades later, she's finishing her sixth year as the club's president, connecting hundreds of "Oz" fans around the globe. And because of Dorothy, they all know her home state.

ALBRIGHT: Dorothy wanted to get back to Kansas. And the whole concept of home is tied to Kansas in that film. So, to me, there's not anything disparaging about that.

CONDOS: In the end, maybe Kansas doesn't have to be a magical dreamland to be someplace special. It can simply be home. For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Liberal, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

GARLAND: (As Dorothy Gale, singing) Someday I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me, where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, that's where you'll find me. Somewhere over the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Condos
David Condos is the western Kansas correspondent for the Kansas News Service and High Plains Public Radio based in Hays, Kansas. Prior to joining KNS and HPPR, David spent four years covering mental health, addiction, trauma and rural healthcare issues as a freelance producer, reporter and host. His work has been heard on WPLN News, WAMC's 51% and Nashville Public Radio podcasts Neighbors and The Promise. After growing up in Nebraska, Colorado and Illinois, David graduated from Belmont University in Nashville and worked as an award-winning recording artist, songwriter and touring musician.