Following the Yellow Brick Road
Alum to Head International Wizard of Oz Club
By Sala Levin '10
Photo by John T. Consoli
Illustration by Valerie Morgan
The annual telecast of “The Wizard of Oz” was “an almost religious ritual” for Ryan Bunch M.A. ’01. Growing up bookish, gay and the youngest (by 11 years) of four kids on a cotton farm in Louisiana, he needed to believe in a real-life Emerald City—some other place where friendship and adventure in Technicolor awaited him.
Bunch went on to make his childhood fixation the centerpiece of his academic, professional and off-the-clock pursuits, most recently publishing the book “Oz and the Musical: Performing the American Fairy Tale” (Oxford University Press), based on his master’s thesis. In August, he will become president of the 66-year-old International Wizard of Oz Club.
“I really found inspiration and satisfaction from the books and movies and TV shows that I was consuming as a child,” he says. “And I just never lost the enthusiasm for those things.”
He was already a fan of the 1939 movie when, during the summer after third grade, his mom encouraged him to read L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” series. Soon, he was acting out the stories and imagining conversations with Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow.
His mom paid the $10 membership fee for him to join the International Wizard of Oz Club, and soon, Bunch’s parents began taking him to “Oz” conventions in Oklahoma, Illinois and California. “My mother says she never knew what that $10 was going to end up costing her,” Bunch says.
After taking piano and violin lessons and singing in a “little country church,” Bunch initially pursued music performance at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., but soon realized he was “more interested in history and scholarly writing about music than practicing for five hours a day,” and switched his focus to musicology.
At Maryland, he studied “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a queer anthem and the film as a touchstone for LGBTQ+ communities.
The connection between “The Wizard of Oz” (and star Judy Garland) and the queer community has always been strong, says Dina Massachi, an Oz scholar and visiting lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Oz has a slew of nontraditional characters. There is this embrace of the weird, the alternative and the nonconformist, which really is an American value if you think of how this country was founded, and who it was founded by and what they were trying to do.”
Bunch’s book analyzes four musical adaptations of the story—the original 1903 Broadway show, the film, and “Wicked” and “The Wiz”—as depictions of characters “navigating between specific identity and the idea of belonging to a utopian idea of what America is and who belongs in it.”
He will juggle his work as a doctoral student in childhood studies at Rutgers University-Camden with his duties leading the roughly 700-member Oz club for a year. The group produces the thrice-yearly Baum Bugle, a print magazine that features scholarly articles, interviews with Oz-lebrities like collectors or actors from adaptations, and other items to quench fans’ thirst. The club also hosts conventions and contests.
“Ryan is one of those people who flips between multiple worlds,” says Massachi, a club member. “He’s definitely a lifelong fan, so he gets the fandom, but he ... understands the academic world and grounding of it, too.”
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