"We have never seen a more beautiful natural setting
nor a finer marriage of a place and an idea," the paper gushed. "It
is truly an adventure, imaginative and unspoiled."
The park was planned in this manner comprising only about 16
acres, of which seven were left undeveloped. All major pipes and wires were run
under the 44,000 bricks of the yellow brick road and were invisible to the
guests. Only natural clearings were used for the placement of the many
buildings Oz required, and, most impressively, only one major tree was
destroyed on the mountaintop to make room for the park. The impressive
structure of the park, along with the strict attention paid to the many details
that made Oz so unique can be traced to one man: Jack Pentes.
Pentes, a young Charlotte artist and designer, was hired by
brothers Grover, Spencer and Harry Robbins to develop a plan to lure potential
buyers of Beech property (4,000 planned homesites) to the mountain in the
summer season. The major winter attraction was a series of ski slopes at the
top of the mountain. The Robbins brothers hoped that Pentes could come up with
an idea that would incorporate the use of the chairlift and gondola system.
Previous summer promotions including an ill-advised grass-skiing adventure had
been colossal flops.
"Land of Oz is the most magical thing that ever
happened in my life," says Pentes. As soon as he reached the top of Beech
Mountain on his first visit that cold, winter day in 1966, Pentes had cemented
in his mind the idea of recreating Oz.
"Those beautiful trees all seemed to have faces, and
their limbs seemed to be reaching out for me. It was over the rainbow—part of
another world," he says.
Pentes was determined that his park would be an original,
and he refused to copy from the 1939 film classic, "The Wizard of
Oz." He brought together a team that relied heavily on area and North
Carolina talent. Not only was the Land of Oz owned locally, the construction
relied on local carpenters, stonemasons and renowned craftsmen including Daniel
Boone V, who created the wrought iron work for the park.
Music was written by Charlotte composers Loonis McGlohan and
Alec Wilder, whose songs had been recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra and
Tony Bennett. Charlotte sculptor Austin Fox designed the costume styles for the
Oz characters. Hollywood choreographer Alice Leggett LaMar created special
dances for each character. An extraordinary rear-screen projection of opera
star John Richards McCrae (as the Wizard) added a touch of class to the show's
Pentes' unique concepts broke all the rules for theme parks:
It was too small, too high, too hard to reach. The mountain weather was
frequently dreary at best. Visitors would search in vain for the Ferris wheel
and the roller coaster. Instead they found a cast of characters whose mission
it was to suspend belief.
But the hard work paid off. The Land of Oz was completely
operational on July 3, 1970 and attracted more than 400,000 people in its first
year. Almost overnight, Oz became the leading attraction for travelers in North
Visitors to the Land of Oz began their adventure after a
ride to the top of the mountain in a bus or chairlift. They then viewed items
from the film, including the original dress Judy Garland wore as Dorothy, then
worked their way to Uncle Henry and Aunt Em's farm. There they met Dorothy, the
tour guide at Oz. She helped visitors through the horrible cyclone that hit her
house, and also down the yellow brick road. Guests passed by the scarecrow, tin
man, cowardly lion and wicked witch, who all performed song and dance numbers.
Next, visitors were ushered through the forest of apple trees and into the
Emerald City. Here, Munchkin girls dressed in miniskirts distributed Greenie
Glasses, made of cardboard and colored plastic, so Oz could be viewed in the
Inside the Emerald City, visitors could shop at the many
stores for Yellow Brick candy bars and rainbow lollipops, buy Oz cream (ice
cream with green chunks of candy) or just sit and relax. Emerald City was also
where Dorothy and the other characters met in a grand finale to face the Wizard
of Oz. As in the film, the Wizard helped each character get his or her heart's
desire, and Dorothy was sent safely home in a balloon ride (suspended from a
converted chairlift system) that guests could ride also. It was the perfect
ending for a perfect adventure.
Oz provided summer employment for some 150 young people who
worked as characters, guides and in concessions. They called themselves the
Ozzies, these high school and college students who stuffed themselves into
Cowardly Lion suits and Tin Man armor and took the Oz mystique to heart.
Roaming their mountaintop fantasy world for long summers, the Ozzies made
marriages, shaped careers and formed lasting bonds.
"There was a certain spirit that existed up there that
was like none other I have ever been a part of before," says Fred Pfohl,
who worked in management on top of Beech Mountain from 1970-1975. "It had
a magical flavor to it and everyone who went through Oz was transformed by it.
It had a profound effect on people. The Land of Oz became a part of everyone
who worked there whether you picked up trash, were a performer, acted as host
or hostess or worked in one of the restaurants. There was a spirit. It grabbed
you whether you were young or old and I think that was the appeal of it."
How then could such a thriving enterprise take such a
nose-dive so quickly? A number of theories abound, and there are probably
elements of truth in each one. The tightening economy began to work against the
park almost immediately. Inflation pushed interest rates high and destroyed
second-home sales. Travel was heavily crippled by the 1974 gas crunch. And
profits created by Oz were funneled toward other interests of the corporation
such as the construction of a golf club and swimming pool. Consequently park
maintenance suffered and in some cases became nonexistent.
In 1975 a fire destroyed the theater and all of the costumes
and audio-visual material. The museum was vandalized and many valuable pieces
were stolen. The park continued to spiral downward until Pentes was called in
during the 1980 season to assess the situation and give his suggestions for
saving Oz. He recommended that more than $1 million was needed to update Oz
The other alternative was to close down operations. The
latter course was chosen and the 1980 season was the last for Oz, a season that
generated only 60,000 visitors. The property reverted back to the Huffy family,
the original owners of the 450-acre mountain. Oz sat abandoned for almost 10
years and became the victim of much looting and vandalism.
Marie Hopkins makes the trip to the garden several times
each year from her home in Russellville, Tennessee. "It is so peaceful and
magical to stroll down the yellow brick road," she says.
The realization of Jack Pentes' dream of creating something
that would endure is evident in Hopkins' face when she speaks of the Oz Garden.