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Arts in Grand Central USA

Courtesy Columbian Theatre Foundation

The Grand Central Region harbors a treasure trove for the arts. Characters such as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz have their roots and inspiration in America’s heartland. One of the nation’s largest film collections resides in the Kansas plains, and Missouri and Oklahoma offer noteworthy stops for exploring the story of jazz and the history of the banjo.

Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum

Hannibal, Missouri
Fans of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer will want to spend time at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, a complex of eight buildings that were inspirational to Twain’s stories. “Tom Sawyer” and “Becky Thatcher,” Hannibal’s ambassadors, greet groups that book through the convention and visitors bureau.

“Interest in Mark Twain never seems to waver,” said Megan Rapp, assistant director and group sales manager at the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Hannibal is one the few places that groups can go and see the buildings and landscape that inspired the author more than 100 years after the books were penned.”

Special lectures given by Henry Sweets, the museum’s curator for more than 30 years and an expert on Twain, give insights into the author. Sweet’s presentations include “Mark and Livy,” which details Twain’s relationship with his wife. Another lecture highlights Twain as an inventor who held several patents.

“We try to make every group experience special and something that people can’t get if they come to Hannibal individually,” said Rapp. “We offer complimentary welcome bags, lectures and itinerary planning for those who call the CVB.”

This year the museum created a CD to commemorate a Twain trifecta: the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death, the 175th anniversary of his birth and the 125th anniversary of the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The CD highlights Twain’s life in words and music. Clint Eastwood, Garrison Keillor, Jimmy Buffett and Brad Paisley are among the featured artists.

Oz Museum and the Columbian Theatre
Wamego, Kansas
Although “somewhere over the rainbow” remains just that, there’s no place to celebrate “The Wizard of Oz” quite like the Oz Museum and the Columbian Theatre. At the museum, groups step through the screen door on Auntie Em’s front porch and enter Oz. At every turn, life-sized vignettes portray scenes from the 1939 movie.

First-edition books, personal items and memorabilia are just some of the thousands of items on display. Some date to 1900, the book’s first year of publication. There’s even a black-and-white silent version of the movie that loops continuously.

“Four years ago, we brought in a new permanent collection, and the exhibits change periodically,” said executive director Clint Stueve. “On display are two of the four remaining flying monkeys. They were actually miniature replicas made out of rubber.”

In 2014, the Columbian Theatre will host its biannual production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Local and regional performers make up the talented cast. Toto, a local cairn terrier, plays Dorothy’s beloved sidekick.

The Columbian Theatre’s ties to Oz date to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, part of the Columbian Exposition. That fair was referred to as the “White City” because of its spectacular architecture, waterways, exhibits and white buildings. It provided the inspiration for author Frank Baum’s Emerald City.

“J.C. Rogers, a local banker, brought back a railroad boxcar of decorative arts from that fair,” said Stueve. “I believe we hold the largest collection of decorative arts from that Columbian Exposition, including six massive murals, the first floor’s limestone facade, columns and many decorative accents.”

Kansas Underground
Salt Museum

Hutchinson, Kansas
When the elevator doors open after the 650-foot ride down to the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, a hush usually falls over the groups of visitors. This is one amazing underground adventure. Visitors are astounded by the cavernous Great Hall, once an ancient Permian Sea, and its shimmering salt walls.

“We introduce visitors to the different salts and by-products of the mining process,” said executive director Linda Schmitz. “There’s a long trough where people can literally get up to their elbows in salt.”

Groups walk through galleries and learn about mining through equipment that’s been abandoned for 90 years. The Salt Mine Express train travels on old rails and ties to a “raw” area where miners left behind trash, now considered treasure, and more equipment. An additional Dark Ride via trams explores more of the mine with time for visitors to harvest their own salt as a souvenir.

“What has gone down into the mine since 1923 has stayed in the mine, and it’s pretty amazing stuff,” said Schmitz. “It’s the only experience of its kind in the Western Hemisphere; all the others are in Europe.”

Afterward, groups stroll through the vault that stores 7 million documents and thousands of original Hollywood movies, including “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.” The movie, costume and prop exhibit includes items from “Batman,” “Superman,” “The Matrix” and many more.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.