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Children's Fairyland

New York Times

Original Article »

February 05, 2011

Arthur Navlet, an Oakland nurseryman, suggested the idea of Children’s Fairyland in 1948 to a civic group, the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club. Local sponsors like Gov. Earl Warren, who went on to become chief justice of the United States, raised $50,000.

Walt Disney toured amusement parks, including Children’s Fairyland, in 1950, seeking ideas for what turned out to be Disneyland. Five years later, he opened his Magic Kingdom, using the same storybook themes and also some of the Fairyland staff.

Children’s Fairyland is designed for children ages 2 to 7 who are about three feet tall. The merry-go-round animals are diminutive, and the Alice in Wonderland Tunnel and Jolly Trolly Train are proportioned for toddlers.

Frank Oznowicz was an apprentice puppeteer at Children’s Fairyland when he was a youngster in Oakland. He later shortened his name to Oz and became famous creating whimsical creatures for The Muppets and “Sesame Street,” plus Yoda of the “Star Wars” series.

The Fairyland Personalities program enables youngsters aged 8 to 10 to become storybook characters in the park and at civic events. Councilwoman Libby Schaaf of Oakland was Raggedy Ann in the 1970s.

After serving as the Mad Hatter personality 40 years ago, Randal Metz now works as the puppet master at Fairyland’s Open Storybook Puppet Theater, the oldest continuously operating puppet theater in the United States.

Children’s Fairyland sells Magic Keys for $2 that activate talking boxes by the storybook sets. Many Oaklanders have 50-year-old keys that still work.

The storage room behind the puppet stage holds more than 1,000 puppets for approximately 150 shows. The Hamlet marionette was created in 1930 by Ralph Chesse, the painter of a Coit Tower mural.

Though the $8 admission price is lower than that of many other theme parks, Fairyland waives it for 5,000 low-income children annually.

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