‘Wizard’ finale grand for teacher

Bonduel 1st-grade shows ending

Contributed Photo First-grade students performing “The Wizard of Oz” last week at Bonduel Elementary School include, from left, Ryan Niles, Peyton Westrich, Mary Sue Margelofsky and Ryley Kurtz.

Leader Photo by Scott Williams Denise Rudersdorf, shown in her classroom at Bonduel Elementary School, is retiring after more than 20 years of producing “The Wizard of Oz” shows with the school’s first-graders.

Denise Rudersdorf has reached the end of her yellow brick road.

The Bonduel school teacher is retiring after producing “The Wizard of Oz” every year for more than two decades with first-grade students playing Dorothy and the other beloved characters.

The show has become a popular community tradition that draws big audiences. It also creates lasting memories for the first-graders who get a chance to step into the spotlight.

So much so that members of Rudersdorf’s first cast from 1995 returned last week and surprised her with an impromptu reunion during her final show before retirement.

Mindy Lohff, who played Dorothy as a first-grader in 1995, is now a 28-year-old career woman with a son who will be starting school in another year or two. Lohff remembers the excitement of performing in the

“Wizard of Oz” in first grade, and she is impressed that Rudersdorf made the show a yearly tradition with other children.

“I feel very thankful to have had her as a teacher,” Lohff said. “I think our community is very lucky to have had her.”

The surprise reunion also included Beth Przybylski, who played the first wicked witch, and Tim Kroll, the first cowardly lion.

Retiring after 27 years as a teacher, Rudersdorf said producing “The Wizard of Oz” was challenging at times, but she always enjoyed working with the children.

After months preparation every year, the teacher always beamed with pride while watching the 6- and 7-year-olds find their voices and become stage performers.

“They love it,” she said. “It’s always worth it in the end.”

The teacher’s final cast last week included first-grader Peyton Westrich, who had seen her two older brothers perform in “The Wizard of Oz” in previous years. Peyton set her sights on landing the scarecrow role, and she was thrilled to be chosen for the part.

Her mother, Tonia Westrich, is grateful that all three of her children got to experience the first-grade theatrical effort before Rudersdorf’s retirement. The production teaches young children the value of hard work while also giving them early exposure to the performing arts, Westrich said.

“It gives these kids an opportunity to see ‘I’m good at this,’” she said.

Rudersdorf began her teaching career in special education before switching to first grade at Bonduel Elementary School. To fulfill a curriculum requirement for teaching “presentation,” she decided to produce a class play. After trying other shows, she settled on “The Wizard of Oz” and knew she had found something special.

She retooled the show into a concise 40-minute version of the musical fantasy, using an off-stage narrator to move the story along. A piano player guided cast members through all the favorite songs, while handmade costumes and sets added to the charm of the first-grade presentation.

Within a few years, the show became a favorite among townsfolk, and the production was shifted to the Bonduel High School auditorium. Rudersdorf continued adding new features, such as making a costumed character out of the tornado that strikes Dorothy’s farmhouse.

Crowds of 200 or more turned out for the annual performances, which consisted of a morning show for students and an afternoon show for the general public.

“Every year it just got to be bigger and bigger and bigger,” Rudersdorf said.

When she decided to retire from teaching after the current school year, Rudersdorf found that no one else in the school district wanted to take over producing the “Wizard of Oz.” So the curtain came down for good after last week’s show.

Przybylski, who still remembers rehearsing with Rudersdorf in 1995 for her wicked witch performance, said she was grateful for the chance to join last week’s reunion — and to acknowledge Rudersdorf’s remarkable theatrical run.

“She was a fun teacher,” Przybylski said. “She made sure we learned what we needed to. But she also made school fun.”