Jackie Bussard's daughter had joined the cast of a seasonal event in Independence, the Enchanted Forest, when Bussard first met Nancy Eppert.
“My daughter was cast in this, and I had no idea what this thing was,” Bussard recalled. “Nancy gave my daughter her role, and she looked at me at said, 'Glinda!'
“I said, 'No, I'm Jackie.' She said, 'You're Glinda; you'd be perfect.'”
So Bussard played the Good Witch of the North from “The Wizard of Oz” and soon started making costumes for Enchanted Forest, while Eppert served as artistic director, putting together the various short skits, complete with costumes and in some cases sets.
“She's most witty, most funny. … She could come up with things I would've never thought of,” Bussard said.
More than 20 years later, Eppert says it's time to step aside, along with her husband John, who has guided construction for the Enchanted Forest sets at George Owens Nature Park for nearly as long. This year's production of the non-scary fantasy tour, which runs the last two Fridays and Saturdays in October, will be her last at the helm.
“This is part of Independence culture, and everybody that's out here is a volunteer,” said Eppert, one of the area's biggest community theater boosters, who also leads living history events in the city. “People just show up (to help), and I try to make this as collaborative and family oriented as possible. I never take it for granted.”
Eppert said she had just finished her first production with City Theatre of Independence in the summer of 1995, a year after she and John and moved to the city, when Enchanted Forest organizers approached her about joining. She had not heard of the event, which was still in its infancy.
“There were so many technical things that needed help, I never got to do my scene,” she said.
Soon after, Eppert became artistic director and was putting together the scenes herself. A couple times, an Enchanted Forest patron recognized her in the community as the Forest Fairy.
The skits, weaving together classical bits of child fiction with some pop culture references, are just under two minutes, to keep groups moving along the candle-lit path and eventually wind up next to the pond. This year, like the past few, a castle awaits there.
This year it will have a Harry Potter theme, something Eppert said came to her in a little prayerful inspiration.
To create a little something new every year and to come up with a witty skit that includes, say, Spiderman and Little Miss Muffett and references Jack B. Nimble and his candlestick, online dating, Snooki and Salvador Perez – that takes a little inspiration, as well.
“It's a challenge, because we have a lot of people who came as kids now bringing their own kids,” Eppert said. “You have to have a certain wackadoodle brain, I guess.”
“I try to stack them with nursery rhymes, superheroes.”
Both John and Nancy noted that they brought back “Wicked Witch Reform School” skit back last year to great acclaim.
“I thought, 'Let's have a child teach the 'villainesses' how to be nice,'” she said. “It was a huge hit.”
When John came along one early year to help build sets, he got cast as a joker. Over the years he's built, among other things, a pirate ship.
“We thought we were big time once and we built the Emerald City on the floating dock,” he said. “Over time it's progressed, and we've built things that are more sophisticated, more permanent. But you still have to be able to store them flat.”
What has brought the Epperts back year after year to help lead this event? A certain look and certain sound.
“I think it's the same for any one of us, it's a lot of work, a lot of time, but it's the satisfaction of people that come down here,” John said. “You can see it in their eyes.”
Nancy agrees, adding that she enjoys hearing the sound of laughter at a skit, as well as discussion about what the crowds hear.
“It's about making people laugh and enjoy themselves; people having fun without being plugged in,” she said. “I use different words that you don't hear much now to have further engagement.”
Nancy said the event has received strong city support, not just in patronage but in materials (old utility poles and storing sets), and having the Powerhouse Theatre Foundation non-profit keeps the event solvent.
The Enchanted Forest has been inspirational enough that Bussard said her son, who also acted in skits as a teen now resides in North Carolina, said he hopes to start a similar event in his current home.
If you go: The Enchanted Forest is 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 18, 19, 25 and 26 at George Owens Nature Park, 1601 S. Speck Road, Independence. Admission is $3 for everyone ages 2 and older. For more information call 816-325-7115 or 816-325-7370.
“There's something here,” Nancy Eppert said, “that's bigger than us.”