Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Land of Oz

By C.J. Hirschfield

Last week, a man and his 5-year-old daughter enjoyed a full day at Fairyland. They were exiting through the gift shop when the man looked up and noticed two puppets in a display that honors the 60th anniversary of our renowned puppet theater—the longest-running in America.

The Alice in Wonderland and White Rabbit puppets that caught his eye had starred in a 1960s Fairyland production, and on the display we noted the person who designed the puppets’ lovely costumes: Frances Oznowicz, who happens to have been the grandmother of our visitor, Mike Oz.

Mike and Frances Oznowicz with marionettes at one of Fairyland's annual puppet fairs in the 1950s.

Although he’d visited Fairyland many times, as both a child and a father, Mike now felt the time was right to learn more about the place that played a key role in the lives and careers of three of his closest family members.

We’re so glad he did.

“I just had to say hi to someone,” Mike said. We immediately contacted our master puppeteer Randal Metz, who also serves as our resident historian. Randal thought someone was playing a cruel joke: Mike is named after his late grandfather, Mike Oznowicz, who had been a major player in the puppetry scene in years past, and Randal was not ready to face a ghost that day. Imagine his relief and delight when he met Mike and Mike’s daughter Isadora, whose name honors Grandfather Mike’s given name, Isidore.

Randal brought Mike and Isadora backstage at our puppet theater, where stories were told, more of Frances’ costumes displayed and the seed of future partnerships planted.

The elder Mike and Frances Oznowicz were accomplished puppeteers in Belgium, doing both traditional and political theater before emigrating to America, and Oakland, in 1950—the same year Children’s Fairyland opened to the public. Before he left Europe, Grandpa Mike bought many bottles of Chanel No. 5 perfume, because he’d been told they’d be lovely gifts for his American friends and relatives. He hid this contraband under a suit and some puppets. When the U.S. Customs official examined the suitcase, he pulled out a puppet of Hitler, the star of one of Mike’s anti-Nazi shows. The official was so flustered that he shoved the puppet back into the case and waved the family through. “Hitler saved my Chanel No. 5,” Mike relished telling his listeners.

Once in Oakland, the couple and their two young sons naturally found their way to Fairyland’s Storybook Puppet Theater, where the region’s top puppeteers gathered and performed. One son, Frank (who along with his nephew Mike also shortened his last name to Oz), apprenticed at the theater before starting a stellar career in television and film.
Young Mike Oz with his grandfather Mike Oznowicz, making funny faces.

Both Randal and Mike confirmed that Mike Oznowicz was a legendary talker, about every subject but the European war he’d survived. Randal recalls that the elder Mike loved playing devil’s advocate to stimulate lively discussion. When local puppeteers met in 1960 to craft a charter to form the Bay Area Puppet Guild, Mike kept the discussion going for hours. When he finally excused himself to take a bathroom break, the puppeteers quickly ratified the charter in his absence.

Mike Oz also shared memories of his grandmother, who had worked as a couturier in Belgium. “She was a very vibrant person; a true artist,” he says. “To her, detail was everything—and she was a wonderful cook.” We love that her puppet costumes live on at Fairyland, and that some of them will next be featured in our scheduled holiday performances of “Beauty and the Beast.”

Mike Oz sees his grandmother’s attention to detail in his daughter Isadora, who loved her backstage access to our puppet theater. “I want a puppet show for my birthday,” said the young girl with the impressive puppetry pedigree. “Then you’ll have to write it and make the puppets,” her father responded. And so it begins.

Mike Oz is the principal of Oakland School for the Arts’ high school, just a short walk from Fairyland. For a decade, he’s brought graduating kids to the park to take a group picture by our iconic sign. But last week marked his first connection with Team Fairyland.

Mike Oz and daughter Isadora backstage at Fairyland's Storybook Puppet Theater.

Once school starts and Mike settles in, we’re going to schedule a meeting to talk about partnerships between Fairyland and OSA. This term, the school will have a fashion design track (could students make puppet costumes?) as well as production design and set-building options. It is quite possible that the first Oz to connect with us in many years will rekindle the family connection that has survived over the 60 years of our puppet theater’s life.

“Let’s not limit ourselves,” says the teacher who continues his family’s rich legacy of promoting the arts in Oakland.

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Fairyland’s puppet theater, on Saturday, Aug. 27, we’ll present our first-ever Forbidden Puppet Cabaret, featuring 11 artists performing for an adult audience. For tickets, go to our website.

-- C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park. 

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