Islander Robin Hess, 80, guesses his interest in “The Wizard of Oz” began when he was 8 years old and first read the book.
Today, an entire room of his Dockton home is dedicated to his 1,000-book deep library and innumerable collectibles — salt and pepper shakers, an apron, a lunch pail, a Toto made of tin cans, rugs and lots of figurines.
“If you can think of something, I probably have it,” Hess said. “I need a room that is about twice that size.”
On Saturday, March 1, Hess spoke to the 42-member cast of Drama Dock’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” answering questions only an Oz expert would know — such as the ruby red-versus-silver slipper question. Hess explained that in the original book, author L. Frank Baum depicted Dorothy in silver slippers, but filmmakers didn’t think there would be enough color contrast between yellow and silver, so they jazzed Dorothy up with some bright red heels.
Hess, who retired to Vashon from Carmel, Calif., seven years ago, shared snippets of his seven decades of Wizard of Oz expertise with the Drama Dock cast, then answered questions from some in the audience as young as 8.
Before moving to Vashon, Hess had worked in politics and real estate, driven a bus and been a Methodist minister and a librarian.
An audience member asked if Baum had meant “The Wizard of Oz” to be a political commentary, and Hess discounted that suggestion, saying that although some academicians have written that, it is untrue, and in fact, Baum’s political leanings are the opposite of the ones that the book seems to hold.
These were the kinds of details that director Shannon Flora hoped the cast would find interesting — and thus strengthen and deepen their appreciation for the classic they’ll soon perform.
“I would say the vast majority of this cast is familiar with Oz from the movie, and Robin helped familiarize them with the parts of the play that are not from the movie,” Flora said. “Although I love Judy Garland and MGM, I think it helped them to realize that there are many, many more layers than that. I think that the kids realized how long ago these things were written, and it was helpful to hear a little about the author.”
Flora said she appreciated hearing some of the common myths about “The Wizard of Oz” — such as, “it was written as a political statement” — shattered.
Hess’ font of knowledge spans the kingdom of Oz and its many formats — print, television and film. He told the Drama Dockers that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was on the cutting room floor three times before making it into the final version of the movie.
L. Frank Baum wrote 14 books featuring the characters of the kingdom of Oz, and these are considered the original 14 Oz books. Then, other authors jumped on the bandwagon and cashed in on the series’ popularity. As a result, Hess said there are countless “Oz books” in print today, by varying authors.
Hess said he began collecting Oz books when he and his children had read every book related to Oz at the local library, and the library had sent away for every Oz book in its library network, and they still wanted more Oz stories. Then, Hess started buying Oz books and scouting for more. And then he went one step further.
“I thought, well gosh, we’ve got to have another Oz story, so I wrote them an Oz story called ‘Toto and the Cats of Oz,’” he said.
In 1996, A New York company published a short portion of “Toto and the Cats of Oz,” called “Christmas in Oz,” in a storybook format — illustrated by Hess’ son.
Hess said he is primarily a collector of Oz books, but people keep giving him Oz-related items, and so his collection grows.
“My favorite item is usually my most recent item my wife has given me,” he said. “Right now I am working on a jigsaw puzzle she has given me for Valentine’s Day.”
Hess said he has more than 132 different editions of The Wizard of Oz, and he has the book in 12 different languages. And he would never sell any of the items, he added. His youngest son will inherit the collection when he dies, he said, and he hopes his son won’t sell any of the collection either.
“I could pick out several favorite books,” he said when asked if he has a favorite item or book. “And when people ask me, ‘Who’s your favorite Wizard of Oz character?’, it’s a different one every time you ask me.”
Meanwhile, Drama Dock will spend the next month molding its own version of the classic.
While the script Drama Dock is bringing to life does not feature a scrappy dog named Toto, evil flying hench-monkeys or magical red high heels, Vashon’s live-action Oz will include cast members from age 8 to at least 68 and a species of people larger than Munchkins but smaller than Dorothy called Jitterbugs. And the Wicked Witch will have a few hilarious sidekicks, according to Flora. There will also be a magical bridge along the way.
Flora said the play presents some very big technical challenges for Drama Dock, elaborate costumes and complicated sets.
“The actors are incredible,” Flora said. “It will be a very colorful and magical play.”
Robin Hess is loaning out some choice pieces from his collections for display at both Vashon bookstores, the Vashon library and The Hardware Store Restaurant in the weeks before Drama Dock performs “The Wizard of Oz,” April 11 to 13, 18 to 20 and 25 to 27.