Chesterton's Wizard of Oz Fest could end without new sponsor

2013-02-11T18:15:00Z 2013-02-12T15:56:04Z Chesterton's Wizard of Oz Fest could end without new sponsorPhilip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

CHESTERTON | A new sponsoring organization is needed to assume the duties of managing and coordinating Chesterton's annual Wizard of Oz Festival or the event is likely to cease.

The festival, which celebrated its 31st year in September, faced the threat of disappearing once before, in 2009, before the operations were assumed by Machelle Blount and the Duneland Business Initiative Group in an agreement granted by the Chesterton Town Council.

"We really only agreed to do the festival for three years," Blount said Monday.

"But we told the Chesterton Town Council we would continue for an added year to do the 2012 festival. Each year we have fans say, 'You have to continue it, this is a special anniversary year for the movie or the festival or the original book or there's a new movie coming out.' The truth is, there will always some new milestone, which is great because it keeps the memory alive."

Because of dwindling staff, fewer volunteers and a lack of resources and sponsorships, Blount announced Monday that she and the Duneland Business Initiative Group were officially "retiring" from the duty of planning and hosting the festival.

Blount said she has a meeting with Chesterton town officials Thursday to provide a wrap-up of the four years the event was under her group's umbrella. The group oversaw the return of the fest to downtown Chesterton.

"The town's been very supportive, but the festival just didn't generate enough money to keep it viable," Blount said.

"So our group decided it would be better to leave the festival now, while on an up note. I spent much of the weekend talking to various groups, organizations and private individuals to find out interest for someone else to take the festival. But as of now, I haven't had any potential takers."

From 1981 until 2005, the festival had been annually held in downtown Chesterton in cooperation with the sponsorship of the town's Duneland Chamber of Commerce.

Following the 2005 festival, both the Chesterton Town Council and the chamber voted and agreed the festival and its 75,000-person attendance had outgrown the community. The move forced the festival to reorganize and relocate as an independent entity based at the Porter County Expo Center in Washington Township, with some events still held at the Yellow Brick Road Gift Shop and Museum in Chesterton.

When the festival nearly ceased in 2009, it was after Brenda Maynard, president of the Indiana Wizard of Oz Festival and the group's 30-member committee blamed the severe flooding and rains in September 2008 for low attendance at that year's 27th annual Wizard of Oz Festival resulting in Mary Paschen, the group's treasurer, announcing a festival debt for approximately $10,000.

When the festival was first moved to the Porter County Fairgrounds in 2006, it was already operating at a negative balance of $24,000 according to Paschen, who also said it returned profitable by the following year in 2008.

The festival's annual operating budget had grown to as much as $100,000 during its peak years in the 1990s, when as many as 15 "little people" who played Munchkins in the original film would attend. At last year's festival in 2012, there was only one Munchkin from the film, Margaret Pelligrini, who turns 90 this year.

Jean Nelson, who previously owned the Yellow Brick Road Gift Shop and Museum in Chesterton, founded the festival in 1981.

She retired and sold the gift shop business and museum, which later closed in January 2009, though she kept the building attached to her cottage house to rent out to other business ventures.

Nelson, who is now 80, originally launched the festival as a one-day event in 1981 in the yard of her private residence that is the back half of the cottage building where the Yellow Brick Road Gift Shop and Museum was housed.

Her idea for the first festival came to her after learning Parnell 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 her shop for an autograph party, prompting her idea for a festival, complete with parade, costume character contests and Auntie Em pie-baking competitions, among other activities.

Roger Baum, great-grandson of "The Wizard of Oz" author L. Frank Baum, attended the festival each year and said he was sad but still optimistic Monday after hearing about the festival's potential fate.

"It is sad that we are not promoting 'Oz' for the future of young people who need, now more than ever, the teachings of love, heart, wisdom and courage," Baum said via email.

"It is truly a shame that a festival that at one time attracted close to 100,000 people is falling by the way side. Even if the festival attracted a mere 10,000 people I think it would be worthwhile to pursue and who knows what the future may bring. My personal thank you for all the devotion and love you gave us and Oz."

"The Wizard of Oz" was first published in 1900.

Duneland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Heather Ennis said her organization is grateful to the Duneland Business Initiative Group for not only the group's past four-year involvement, but also for "bringing the festival back home to Chesterton."

"Back when the Duneland chamber did this festival, it took up half of our year for the planning and staffing to do it and in the end, the financial benefits were really never seen for many of the more than 400 businesses we represent as members," said Ennis, who has been the Duneland chamber executive director for almost five years.

"This is why we've opted to go our different direction for our strategic economic development plan, which doesn't include this festival. However, if there is a group or sponsor willing to come forward, our organization would be supportive to see the festival continue."

Calls to Chesterton Town Attorney Charles Lukmann were not returned Monday afternoon.

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