Land of Oz at Beech Mountain

November 8, 2016 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Beech Mountain

Each fall the old Land of Oz theme park awakens the first weekend in October for its yearly Autumn at Oz celebration.

On this magical weekend, fans come from near and far to spend a few hours touring Dorothy’s House and Uncle Henry’s Barn, and to enjoy a nostalgic stroll with Dorothy and friends along the yellow brick road.

There are vendors selling Oz-related merchandise, vendors selling a variety of foods, and a mini-Oz museum with artifacts from the park and from the actual movie.

“It never ceases to amaze me how much of an impression this little mom-and-pop theme park made on so many people’s lives,” says Cindy Keller, long-time organizer of the event. “It’s just amazing.”

Keller annually recruits a troupe of actors from across the East Coast to play the roles of Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, Glinda the Good Witch, Wicked Witch of the West, and the Great and Powerful Oz, plus a group of flying monkeys.

Meanwhile, live bluegrass and country music entertain guests as they wait to enter Dorothy’s house and start their journey. Typical hours for the Autumn at Oz celebration are 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and attendees are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite Oz character.

Land of Oz

Land of Oz; A History In The Making:

“Many, many miles east of nowhere lay the wonderful Land of Oz,” boasted a 1939 trailer for a new movie starring Judy Garland based off of L. Frank Baum’s famous novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Thirty years later, this would become a reality. For a brief moment in history, Oz was a real truly live place where performers portrayed Dorothy and her friends, and danced along a yellow brick road that curved around a mountaintop a mile high in Western North Carolina. Original ads enticed guests with the slogan, “You Just Don’t See It; You Live it!”

“Oz was the anti-theme park. It wasn’t about roller-coasters; it was about creating an emotional experience.”

Open for only a decade, The Land of Oz would see its share of success, dismay, and heartache. However, this small theme park’s impact has proven to be going strong over 35 years after its closing as public interest continues to increase and public events held on the property sell out immediately.

But how did the journey over the rainbow begin?

Follow The Yellow Brick Road
To create a theme park based on The Wizard of Oz was not the first thought of the developmental team of Grover and Harry Robbins of Carolina Caribbean Corporation (CCC). The two had built other local attractions in Western North Carolina such as Tweetsie Railroad and other resorts, and were in search of a way to utilize their newest acquisition: Beech Mountain. Skiing would be the main attraction during the winter months, but they were in search of a way to utilize the property during the spring, summer, and early fall seasons.

The brothers brought on Charlotte-based designer Jack Pentes to survey the land and pitch ideas. After one visit to the top of Beech in 1965, Pentes later recalled that when he noticed the beech trees, “The

hairs began to stand up on the back of my neck, they were the apple trees in the [Wizard of] Oz movie!” Grover immediately gave Pentes the green light and the rest is history.

That’s The Way To The Emerald City
Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow from MGM’s famous film) held a psychedelic shovel that broke ground in 1968 for what would be the first Wizard of Oz – based theme park ever constructed. Designed from a child’s perspective and not to disturb the natural beauty of the mountain, Pentes would use Beech’s natural openings to fill with the character homes of the Scarecrow, TinMan, Lion, the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West as well as the Emerald City finale amphitheater stage and gift shops. Impressively, because of Pentes’s designs, only one large tree had to be destroyed during construction. The pinnacle of Beech Mountain was perfectly preserved.

Using over 150 local artisans, Oz was built over the course of two years and cost an upwards of $5 million – roughly $34 million by today’s standards. 44,000 glazed yellow bricks were laid to complete the winding road that would run nine acres (with an extra seven saved for possible expansion). The park’s only ride would become one of the most memorable attractions in the area –the Balloon Ride. An original design that consisted of twenty-four replica steal balloons that would circle a track and glide down the side of the mountain showing off surrounding lands from a bird’s eye view.

The creative team would bring utilize their best resources to assure the top quality product for Oz. Hollywood Choreographer Alice Leggett Lamar choreographed dance numbers for each character as well as the Emerald City’s Magic Moment Show, all of which featured original music by Loonis McGlohon and Alec Wilder. The Judy Garland Memorial Overlook contained a bust of the actress as Dorothy designed by famed Playboy sculptor Austin Fox. Brooks Van Horne of New York City made the character costumes for the Scarecrow, TinMan, and Cowardly Lion. They were designed with mascot-type fiberglass masks with articulated mouths that moved as the actor would lip-sync to their pre-recorded track.

The Land of Oz officially opened on June 15, 1970, becoming fully functional by July 3rd. Debbie Reynolds (Singing in the Rain) cut the opening-day ribbon as daughter Carrie Fisher (Star Wars) stood by her side. The Park would literally become an overnight success and was named the “Outstanding Tourist Attraction of 1970” by the Washington DC Daily News, while it would also make the covers of Southern Living, Holiday Inn, and Friends Magazines. In its first season, over 400,000 people followed the yellow brick road including such celebrities including Muhammad Ali, Anita Bryant, Jay North, and Charles Kurait.

Something Bad Is Happening At Oz
However, as soon as Oz gained momentum, issues arose that would ultimately lead to its short lifespan. Grover Robbins, known as the passion behind Oz, passed away from cancer in March of 1970, just prior to Oz’s opening. Without his influence at Carolina Caribbean, the park would become more commercial and monies that should have gone back into updating and maintenance would be invested in other properties. The gas crunch of 1973 left many would-be attendees stranded at home, and two years later CCC would go bankrupt after one of their resorts in St. Croix failed.

On December 28th 1975, a fire was set to the Emerald City, destroying the amphitheater and its contents as well as damaging the surrounding shops and restaurant. Simultaneously, the museum was broken into and many of the original film costumes bought from the David Weiss MGM Liquidation Auction of 1970 were stolen, including Judy Garland’s original gingham dress, Munchkin jackets, and Frank Morgan’s Guard of the Gate jacket. The damage was astronomical. It seemed as though Oz would have no choice but to close its doors.

Defying Gravity
A new management team, Tri South of Atlanta, would take over Oz for the 1976 season. With Colonel Smith heading the project, a modified version of the park’s amphitheater was rebuilt, the gift shops were restored, and new costumes were designed. Miraculously, the park was reconstructed in a few months and was running by late June. Oz defeated the odds once again, but the hype from the successful rebuilt would be overshadowed by poor attendance. Numbers dropped drastically to 66,000 people.

For the 1976 season, The Land of Oz would go under many changes to cheapen overhead costs. The Magic Moment Show would have less special effects, introducing a puppet show as its opener. Original costume designs would be substituted with cheaper quality costumes, and the live animals in the Kansas barn would be replaced by animatronic ones.

Over the next five years, upkeep at the park would essentially go unnoticed and updates were not incorporated. The yellow brick road began to show wear and was in need of replacing. The sound systems were constantly stalling or breaking down leaving the performers to improvise. The once magical mountaintop was in need of TLC.

After surveying the property, Jack Pentes would estimate it would cost about $3.5 million to refurbish and expand Oz. With this, Tri South decided to close the park at the end of the 1980 season. There were hopes of re-opening Oz through 1983, and even rebuilding the park with Pentes’s designs in Tennessee. Unfortunately, these dreams never came to fruition.

Over the next few years, The Land of Oz would be left to survive the harsh environmental elements, vandals, and looters. By 1985, the Emerald City, character houses, and some other buildings were demolished due to decay and vandalism. The Balloon Ride was dismantled and repurposed as another ski lift on Beech.

A Brand New Day
By the early 1990’s, Emerald Mountain Realty had taken over managing the Oz property as they developed a residential gated community surrounding the old theme park. While it shut its doors for over a decade, public interest in Oz never ceased. In 1994 original cast members were invited back for a reunion during homecoming weekend for Lees-McGrae College to reminisce and recall stories of the park’s hey-day. The Leidy family then came up with the idea to begin Autumn at Oz, an annual re-opening of Oz to the general public in order to meet demands to visit the former theme park.

With property manager Cindy Keller at its forefront, the event would quickly grow from a one-day reunion party of a couple hundred attendees into a complete weekend with thousands of people traveling to Beech Mountain to follow the yellow brick road.

All profits gained from ticket sales would be put back into restoring the park, ensuring a longer lifespan of this well-loved and cherished magical mountaintop.

VISIT The Official website of the Land of Oz™