- Written by Megan Joyce Megan Joyce
When Dorothy and Co. are finally granted entrance into Emerald City in the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and the girl from Kansas climb aboard a horse-drawn carriage and are whisked around on a lively tour of the city’s people, sights, and songs.
There is beauty everywhere, and there is warmth and welcome.
It’s much the same when Dennis Denenberg leads you around his Oz-themed home and gardens.
You don’t get the color-changing horse, but in both his environs and his own congenial spirit, Denenberg has managed to capture not only the sights of Oz, but also its essence and especially its warmth.
Like most of us, Denenberg first saw The Wizard of Oz as a child during its annual television broadcast. Once his family owned a color TV, he was struck by the visual shift Dorothy experiences as she steps outside after a tornado has deposited her home in mysterious Oz.
“When you saw the transition from the beginning of the movie, the black and white to the color — for a kid it was magical,” Denenberg said. “So I just really fell in love with it then, and as I aged, I just appreciated it more and more, the incredible quality of the movie.
“It’s 78 years old, and it stands the test of time. The acting still holds up, the special effects — it’s amazing. So I appreciate that, and I also appreciate the lessons in the movie,” he added.
Denenberg’s lifelong affinity for the film is literally on display throughout his home and Oz-inspired gardens and landscaping.
Over the years, the Oz-related tchotchkes kept rolling in to Denenberg’s possession, many as gifts from family and friends. Salt and pepper shakers, mugs, glasses, plates, music boxes, neckties, picture frames, figurines, artwork, books … Denenberg’s collection comprises, as he puts it, “a little bit of everything.”
The home’s interior décor incorporates numerous Art Deco elements. Popular in the 1920s and ’30s, the architectural style was featured prominently in Emerald City’s design.
Denenberg owns the country’s largest collection of Moderne-pattern Indiana Glass as well as extensive collections of Chase chrome and Kensington aluminum dinnerware, serving pieces, and houseware, all crafted in Deco style.
The upstairs guest bedroom is furnished with an antique Art Deco headboard, dresser, bureau, and chairs, which complement one of Denenberg’s other collections: framed studio photos of stars from the Depression era — including, of course, Judy Garland, referred to in Denenberg’s home as simply “Judy.”
Although every room in his home contains some (mostly) subtle nod to the movie, it all comes to a head — somewhat literally — in his “Oz room”: a working bathroom decorated floor to sink to ceiling with Oz memorabilia and the image of the wizard’s green head “floating” on the mirror. Denenberg had the wizard mirror and coordinating sink designed in 2014 to commemorate Oz’s 75th anniversary.
Hovering overhead on the bathroom ceiling are the words, “Surrender Dorothy”; the Wicked Witch of the West has painted her warning in blackened puffs of broom smoke. If you head down to the finished basement, you’ll find her watery, melted remains and pointed hat on a hallway floor, not far from her sister witch’s dearly departed legs, which stick out from under a guest bed.
A basement window and windowed door let multihued light in through depictions of the Emerald City and of the Gales’ tornado-swept home, respectively. An artist friend created both for Denenberg out of basic craft glue. A few feet farther down the hall, a lifelike cutout of the Wizard himself waits for Toto to expose his presence behind a makeshift curtain.
When Denenberg, a retired Millersville University elementary education professor, purchased his early-’70s rancher in 1995, it sat on an acre of grass, all of which is now gone, replaced by several thoughtfully planned, Oz-themed gardens that explode in waves of varying color during spring and summer.
“All the gardens are connected by pathways, so you actually walk through the gardens,” Denenberg explained. “That’s a concept that’s hard to explain to people because they still picture flowerbeds against the house.”
To one side of the property the Asian garden’s bamboo grove rises high, and on the other end of the yard, an all-pink garden blooms for breast cancer awareness; it is dedicated to Denenberg’s sister, Diana, who battled the disease for 18 years.
There are three floral “shows” of Oz blooms that take place over the season, allowing Denenberg and his guests a different visual experience depending on the month.
The property’s 7,000 daffodils are the first to burst forward, along with winter aconite and snowdrops; these are followed mid-May to mid-June by the early perennials, which include daisies, poppies, irises, and 75 peony bushes.
The biggest show, according to Denenberg, is the mid-July through mid-August late perennials: more than 250 hibiscus bushes, each containing 30-50 blooms.
Maintaining thousands of flowers and bushes is a massive undertaking, one that Denenberg, who never seriously gardened before buying his current property, does not do alone.
He has hired two “garden goddesses,” as he nicknamed them, otherwise known as Inge Storey and Greta Stoner. With degrees in horticulture, the gardening professionals not only put in the grunt work of cutting, digging, feeding, and clearing out, but also use their expertise to advise Denenberg on garden design and flower selection.
“Spring is the most fun, mainly because it’s moving plants, getting beds presentable, and finding out what you’ve lost over the winter,” Denenberg said. “Fall is the brutal time because, with an acre of perennials, there’s an incredible amount of cutting back. We usually take about 15 pickup-truck loads to the recycling area. The summer is really the most enjoyable [season].”
Denenberg and the “goddesses” try to add one new garden element each year, he said. In 2017 it was a mini yellow-brick road leading to Emerald City, its waist-high green-and-gold towers constructed from PVC piping. It joined 2016’s addition, a wavelike wooden sculpture.
These features accompany two fish- and frog-filled ponds and a newly renovated deck with glass-block bar, built around a colorfully beaded honey locust tree and an above-ground pool.
Toto’s dressing room, adjacent to the bamboo grove, is a small, rainbow-colored doghouse containing a replica of the famous canine’s basket alongside a pair of ruby slippers made for the cast party Denenberg hosted for the Fulton Theatre’s 2015 production of The Wizard of Oz.
Denenberg now offers his house and outdoor garden spaces to charitable groups for fundraisers, benefits, or retreats, taking no money for himself while serving as host and tour guide.
“I just think it’s important to give back and, with the gardens, to share the beauty,” he said. “It’s fun to let other people look at them, too.”
Although Denenberg does not host weddings, birthday parties, or events for any for-profit organizations, “[the garden] is here for any nonprofit group. If your charity wants to raise money, you can schedule an event here. I also allow nonprofits to have retreats here — any way that a nonprofit can use it.”
Cancer charities are close to Denenberg’s heart and frequently take advantage of his home and gardens for their events. Denenberg also maintains a garden in his sister’s honor at Millersville University and runs its breast cancer awareness program, Diana’s Dreamers: Determined to Defeat Breast Cancer (www.millersville.edu/nursing/breast-cancer-awareness-program/breast-a-ville.php).
And his “second career” as a book author and speaker takes him across the country, educating kids and adults about America’s real-life heroes (heroes4us.com).
Last summer, 650 people visited Denenberg’s Oz. Of those, 450 came during Lancaster’s Demuth Museum Garden Tour, which has already booked a return visit for June 2018.
Though he’s not distributing much-coveted hearts, brains, courage, or balloon rides home, Denenberg, like his favorite movie’s titular wizard, finds great and powerful fulfillment in the ways his Oz heightens the happiness of its visitors.
“The thrill for me now,” Denenberg said, “is giving back through events … One person said, ‘You know, I just can’t believe anybody would leave here and not smile.”
To contact Denenberg about booking an event for a charity or nonprofit group, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (717) 581-8293.