CHESTERTON — The organizers of a Wizard of Oz festival that attracted thousands of fans of the classic 1939 film to watch parades of costumed characters say this year's flood-plagued festival was their last.
Brenda Maynard, president of the Indiana Wizard of Oz Festival, announced the cancellation Friday. She said the low turnout at September's festival due to heavy rains and flooding was just one factor in the decision to end the annual tradition after 27 years.
“When you add to that the tough economy everyone is up against right now, as well as the advancing age of our Munchkin guests … we had to make a decision that it's time to retire the festival,” Maynard said.
Mary Paschen, the festival's treasurer, said the festival is about $10,000 in debt. She's working with creditors to pay off the money.
Paschen announced the festival's end Friday during a gathering at the Yellow Brick Road Gift Shop and Museum with other festival organizers. She was joined by Marilyn Zengler, who owns the shop/museum, and Maynard and Jean Nelson, former owners who founded the festival in 1981.
Paschen said during its peak years, as many as 15 “little people” who played Munchkins in the film would attend. At this year's festival, there were only three Munchkins still alive and well enough to attend.
Nelson debuted the festival in 1981 after learning that Pernell St. Aubin, who had played a Munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz” movie, owned a bar in Chicago with his wife, Mary Ellen.
She invited the couple to Chesterton for an autograph party that sparked her idea for a festival with a parade, costume character contests and Auntie Em pie-baking competitions.
From 1981 until 2005, the festival was held in downtown Chesterton in joint sponsorship with the town's Chamber of Commerce.
After the 2005 festival, both the Chesterton Town Council and the chamber agreed that the festival and its 75,000 attendance had outgrown the community.
The festival was forced to reorganize and relocate as an independent entity based at the Porter County Expo Center in Valparaiso, with some events still held at the Yellow Brick Road Gift Shop and Museum.
Zengler, who purchased the gift shop and museum in 2001, said Friday that she would close both the store and museum, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary.
“Our hopes are that money can be raised for at least the possibility of preserving the one-room Wizard of Oz museum filled with rare artifacts and the history of the festival or it being acquired by another organization and moved,” Zengler said.