Off to See the Wizard

dee1310guide_oz1

Discover the world’s largest collection of Wizard of Oz memorabilia, housed right here in Maine.

By Will Bleakley
Photographed by Benjamin Magro

“And in the name of the Lollipop Guild, we wish to welcome you to Munchkin Land.” 

Getting your hands on a pair of underwear from the Lollipop Guild requires patience, persistence, and a little bit of luck. To be fair, it wasn’t just the underwear Camden resident Willard Carroll was after. This green plaid three-foot-tall ensemble he was eyeing was the last surviving complete costume from MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. Carroll had already passed once on the chance to acquire the five-piece outfit of the munchkin who handed a lollipop to Dorothy, welcoming her to Munchkin Land. He wasn’t going to let it slip through his fingers again.

Although the fifty-seven-year-old Carroll has the largest and most valuable collection of Oz memorabilia in the world, with more than one hundred thousand pieces worth a total of ten million dollars, he doesn’t simply throw money at any item he wants. Oz collecting has always been about the thrill of bargain hunting for Carroll, who has been at it since the age of ten. It’s about finding that first- edition British Oz novel on eBay that some poor sucker labeled “old book,” sold for $150, and, hopefully, never discovered its actual worth of $15,000. It’s about scouring southern Asia for a Vietnamese-language edition said not to exist, and coming across one for sale as a package deal with a waffle iron at an appliance store. It’s a game. One that, so far, Carroll is winning.

But he wasn’t going to let himself exceed his spending limit again. He had recently gotten too caught up in the moment and outbid Michael Jackson, the king of pop himself, for the Wicked Witch of the West’s hourglass. And when you find yourself outdoing Michael Jackson in any aspect of life, it’s probably time to rethink a few things. To restrain himself, he sent his friend to the auction in his place as he waited nervously by the phone. “It just causes too much anxiety for me to be there,” he says.

The call arrived. He got it — underwear and all — for significantly below market value. “Today the cost would be through the roof. It was a steal,” he says with glee.

That night he threw a party with his partner Tom Wilhite for two of the original munchkins — including the one who wore that very costume. The actor, seeing it for the first time in decades, held it up to his four-foot frame and remarked, tongue in cheek, “Willard, I can’t believe I was ever that small.”

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

This month, that munchkin’s outfit will be on full display at Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the classic MGM film. It will be shown alongside more than one hundred other Oz treasures from Carroll and Wilhite’s collection, such as Dorothy’s dress, the hourglass, one of the flying monkeys, rare and foreign posters, conceptual drawings for the original set, and a wide range of memorabilia showcasing the story’s influence on popular culture. The exhibit diverts from the Farnsworth’s usual rotation of Maine imagery and Wyeth paintings. But as Wilhite succinctly points out from the Camden home he shares with Carroll, “It’s still art. And the collection is in Maine.”

Though not highbrow like a series of nineteenth-century American landscapes, few works of art have had a greater cultural impact than The Wizard of Oz. Try going a few days without hearing or reading some reference to the 1939 film. It’s nearly impossible. Starting with Frank L. Baum’s 1900 novel, to the Judy Garland film, to The Wiz and Wicked, and the recently released Oz: The Great and Powerful, the story considered to be America’s first fairy tale has remained relevant for over a century. “I’ve seen it probably twenty-five times. And if it were on next week, I would watch it,” says Michael Komanecky, the chief curator at the Farnsworth. “It’s unique, it’s distinctive, and it has such broad appeal from the most mundane aspects of American pop culture to the high art forms of movie making and literature.”

While around one hundred items will be on display for the public to enjoy at the “The Wonderful World of Oz” exhibition starting October 12, one hundred thousand more rest in cardboard in a structure at the bottom of Carroll and Wilhite’s Camden property. Merchandise from the pointless (Minnie Mouse’s The Wizard of Dizz DVD) to the seminal (the first known drawings of Dorothy and Toto in 1899) make up the eight hundred boxes spread across two storage rooms. Eventually, this space will be turned into the National Oz Museum — a project spearheaded by Wilhite that could very well turn Camden into the center for Oz tourism. “We want people to be able to experience this vast collection,” Wilhite says, “to connect with this important piece of American art.”

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Oz is surprisingly inconspicuous at Carroll and Wilhite’s house near Megunticook Lake. The driveway isn’t painted with yellow bricks. A pair of striped stockings and ruby slippers doesn’t stick out from beneath the home. Instead, you’re greeted with an offering of iced tea and two bounding dogs, neither of which is named Toto. That said, a life-size cutout of Judy Garland as Dorothy stands at the top of the stairs, and Wilhite will insist you have your picture taken with her. Still, considering the enormity of the collection, it feels subdued.

That’s because the couple’s love for Hollywood and filmmaking eclipses that for Oz. They met while working for Walt Disney Studios, where Wilhite was head of production for the company’s first live action successes, Splash and Tron. They left Disney and together started Hyperion Pictures, a boutique production firm that continues today out of Camden. For the past thirty years, they have produced mostly children’s entertainment, including 1987’s The Brave Little Toaster — an animated story of an anthropomorphic toaster and his appliance friends that was required viewing for any millennial child.

Inside their contemporary home the sounds of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack swell over the loudspeakers. The crescendo accompanies the moment when Samwise Gamgee stops in a cornfield and says to Frodo: “If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” A candy tin with the image of Tin Tin (a Tin Tin tin) welcomes you in the foyer. Over the dining room table looms a nearly eight-foot-tall, three-sheet poster for the campy 1942 thriller Cat People. There are Oz items, of course. In their bedroom, a votive candle depicts Dorothy as the Virgin Mary, while I, Toto, the “autobiography” of the actor that played Toto, written by Carroll himself, rests on a credenza. “You wouldn’t believe how many people actually think Toto wrote the book,” Carroll says, laughing.

When asked how they arrived in Maine in 2010 after spending decades in Los Angeles, Carroll chuckles nervously, and takes a moment before answering. “Well,” he says, “it’s actually because of Peyton Place.”

It turns out Carroll’s Oz merchandise isn’t his only collection of note. Not by a long shot.

“Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!”

Carroll is a collector. He focuses on merchandise relating to mid-century films and television shows from his childhood. “I’m a completest,” he says, “and at a certain point, a collection takes on a life of its own. It’s no longer about the film. It’s about completing the set.”

Photographs, conceptual artwork, clapboards, and original ticket stubs for Peyton Place, the fifties melodrama filmed in Camden, decorate one of the upstairs bedrooms. Around the corner from the “Peyton Place Room” is the Gulliver’s Travels hallway, which contains the world’s largest collection of items from the 1939 animated film. It’s hard to verify Carroll’s claims. But how many others collect a dozen glass cottage cheese containers, each with the likeness of a Lilliput, from this not-universally beloved adaptation?

In the basement, a gun from Lost in Space hangs above a doorway. Piled nearby, next to the analog television, laser disc system, Betamax, and VHS player lies the complete collection ofM.A.S.H. novels, including M.A.S.H. Goes to Maine. A miniature coffin containing all 1,225 episodes of Dark Shadows sits on the coffee table adjacent a stack of dozens of board games featuring sixties television tie-ins. “I’ve never met an empty space I couldn’t fill,” Carroll remarks, with a few thousand DVDs and even more books about film in the background.

In a separate room, Carroll houses ten thousand vinyl records and an equal number of CDs — making it one of the largest known collections of American movie soundtracks. If a Hollywood film released an LP soundtrack, Carroll has it — even the terrible ones. Johnny Depp’s Lone Ranger? He pulls out both the orchestral soundtrack and the “Music Inspired by the Film” CD.Space Jam: The Soundtrack featuring R. Kelly and the Quad City DJs? It’s there, too.

“I didn’t have money growing up,” Carroll says. “So I worked and used my savings to drive two hours to Washington, D.C., every Sunday to go to the movies.” He would see two or three a day, and knew from an early age he’d dedicate his life to film. It’s his obsession, and it all started with The Wizard of Oz. “That movie was the first to show me the possibilities of a world outside of my own. I escaped there.”

Surrounded by the eight hundred boxes in the future site of the National Oz Museum, Carroll tries to answer what exactly drives these never-ending pursuits. “I didn’t have a great childhood. And this is, in a way, trying to buy back parts of it,” he suggests. “I think it’s therapeutic. I’ve read that people collect because the items give you this little jolt of pleasure. They don’t have to be valuable, they just instantly connect you to your childhood when you used to get excited about these movies.”

Every piece of Oz takes him back to that boy sitting on his rocking horse when he first saw Dorothy enter a world of Technicolor. He relives that moment with each new acquisition. That’s one hundred thousand jolts of excitement, starting from when his mother first bought him an Oz-themed Procter & Gamble puppet soap product at age ten up until his latest purchase of a French-Canadian edition of the book.

“I like to call it my anti-depressant,” he says candidly. “It’s better than drugs. Maybe not cheaper, but certainly better in the long run.”

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high”

There’s only one item he truly hunted for. It wasn’t Glinda’s wand, the witch’s broom, or even the ruby slippers (though he exudes utmost confidence he’ll eventually acquire those). No, for thirty years he searched for a single box.

Carroll already owned the box’s contents — a talking scarecrow. He wanted the box itself. “My mom went on a cleaning frenzy and threw it away,” he says. “So I would search for it at toy shows that happen three or four times a year. And dealers knew I was looking for it.” He admits it wasn’t even that interesting looking — he just had to have it. After three decades he found it in a magazine.

That box won’t be featured at the Farnsworth when the exhibit opens on October 12. Nor should it. It will likely forever sit in Carroll and Wilhite’s storage room. But you can be sure that six-sided piece of cardboard means just as much, if not more, to him than anything featured in the museum’s glass cases.

“I find a security in having this stuff around me. I still feel that way,” Carroll says. “It makes me feel like I’m home.”

Apparently, there’s no place like it.

Will Bleakley is the associate editor at Down East.

Will Bleakley is the associate editor at Down East magazine.

    Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to remove impersonators or personal attacks, threats, profanity, or flat-out offensive comments. By posting here, you are permitting Down East Enterprise to edit and republish your comment in all media.