With Disney’s new movie, “Oz, The Great and Powerful” showing on the silver screen, I cannot think of a better subject to talk about than the author of these iconic tales of the “Magical land of Oz.” For many people who were weaned on the 1939 MGM classic “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland, few realize that Baum had also written an additional thirteen books on the Land of Oz. He also penned nine other fantasy novels, 83 short stories, over 200 poems, an unknown number of scripts (A total of 55 novels in all) plus four “Lost Novels.”
The 1939 movie, which received much kudos on its opening release, failed to recoup MGM’s original investment. It was not until the film was re-released in the movies and on television that “The Wizard of Oz” became an American tradition and is cited as the most watched motion picture in syndication history.
Frank L. Baum was born (May 15, 1856 –died- May 6, 1919) in the small town of Chittenango, New York. His father, Benjamin became a wealthy businessman; originally a barrel maker, he made his wealth from oil. Young Baum, whose first name was Lyman, but he detested it and used his middle name Frank instead. He grew up on the family estate in Rose Lawn, just outside of Syracuse N.Y. He was a brought up a protected child and was very ill, diagnosed with a weak heart. Being sheltered as he was, he did much daydreaming and had many imaginary friends. He was schooled at home with his siblings and was a prolific reader. He later remembered his youth spent at Rose Lawn as a “Paradise”
Frank loved writing and began at an early age. He was also captivated with printing. He early forays into the literary word were helped by a printing press his father purchased for him, and he and his brother Henry began “The Rose Lawn Home Journal” and subsequently published several issues. At the age of 20, he began a hobby raising expensive poultry. He bred a chicken called the “Hamburg” With that; he created a trade journal called “The Poultry Record”, this was followed in 1886 with Baum’s first published book, “The Book of the Hamburgs”
In addition to writing, Frank Baum was devoted to the theater. He dreamed of writing plays and performing on stage. His obsession with this media followed with many failures and near bankruptcy’s’. He did have a bit of success after his father bought him a theater in Richburg NY. Here he wrote several plays and composed songs, fulfilling his ambitions. On November 9, 1882, Baum married Maud Gage, a daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a famous women’s suffrage and radical feminist activist. But while Baum was on a tour, his theater in Richburg caught fire and burned to the ground.
It was in July of 1888 that Frank and his wife Maud moved to the town of Aberdeen in the Dakota Territory. It was this short stay in this wilderness town that forged his ideas for the Wizard of Oz. At the time, in 1890 there was a severe drought and the tales of the plentiful West was just a wasteland because of the draught and a depression. It was this stark landscape that Baum used in his bland portrayal of the Kansas farm that Dorothy Gale lived on. The Munchkins Dorothy encounters at the beginning of the novel represent the poor hardscrabble farmers working the land. Other life experiences also induced Baum to include them in some manner in the book. Baum as a child had dreams of a scarecrow chasing him, and just before it reached him, it would fall apart. The Tin Woodsman was born from Baum’s attraction to window displays. Because he wished to make something captivating for the window displays, he used a diverse assortment of scraps to create a one of a kind figure. Using an old wash boiler and stovepipes he created a “Tin Man” There is a theory that John D. Rockefeller was the inspiration for one of the Wizard’s faces.
It was on May 17, 1900 that Frank Baum had his children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” published by the George M. Hill Company in Chicago. Baum and illustrator W. W. Denslow, who shared the copyright with Baum, did all the illustrations. Baum first teamed up with Denslow when he published a book of nonsense poetry called “Father Goose” in 1899. The book was a success, becoming the best-selling children’s book of the year. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has gone through many reprints and is often referred to as “The Wizard of Oz” was the best-selling children’s book for two years after its initial publication. The story most of us know (Because of the 1939 Movie with Judy Garland is a bit different the book). Dorothy is a young orphaned girl raised by her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. Her black dog Toto and she are caught in a tornado inside their house in Kansas and are swept in a field in Munchkin Country, the eastern quadrant of the Land of Oz. The house lands on and kills the evil ruler of the Munchkins, the Wicked Witch of the East. The Good Witch of the North comes with the Munchkins and gives Dorothy a pair of silver shoes (Not ruby as in the film!) that the Wicked Witch had been wearing when she was killed.
She tells Dorothy she must see the Wizard in the Emerald city and ask for help. (The Emerald City was inspired by a castle-like building in the community of Castle Park near Holland Michigan where Baum vacationed. The yellow brick road stemmed from a road at that time paved by yellow bricks. These bricks were found in Peekskill, New York where Baum attended the Peekskill Military Academy) On the way to Oz, traveling on the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy meets with the Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. When they arrive at the Emerald City, they are asked to wear green eyeglasses by the Guardian of the Gates as long as they remain in the city. When they meet the Wizard, he appears as a different being to each. . To Dorothy, the Wizard is a giant head; the Scarecrow sees a beautiful woman; the Tin Woodman sees a terrible beast; the Cowardly Lion sees a ball of fire. The Wizard agrees to give them their wishes if they kill the Wicked Witch of the West.
At the end of the book, the characters after meeting their objectives are fulfilled. Two years after the book was published, Baum and Denslow collaborated with composer Paul Tietjens and director Julian Mitchell to produce a musical stage version of the book. This stage version use the shortened title “The Wizard of Oz”, opened in Chicago in 1902, then ran on Broadway for 293 stage nights from January to October 1903. It returned to Broadway in 1904, where it played from March to May and again from November to December. It successfully toured the United States with much of the same cast. Baum even went as far as planning an “Oz” amusement park on an island off the coast of California. But Baum abandoned his Oz park project after a play based off his new book, The Woggle-Bug, was a failure.
The Wizard of Oz has been stimulation for many fantasy tales and movies. The book has been translated into more than 50 languages. Baum never planned on a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. But after reading the novel, thousands of children wrote letters to him, requesting that he write another story about Oz. In 1904, he wrote and published the first sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz. By 1938 over a million copies have been printed and by 1956 that total rose to three million.
This timeless tale was recanted many times in many different adaptations. There were early film adaptations in 1910 and again in 1925. Baum created his own independent film studio, The Oz Film Manufacturing Company, which produced The Patchwork Girl of Oz, The Magic Cloak of Oz and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. The Classic 1939 Wizard of Oz, which unlike Baum’s story, Dorothy’s adventure in Oz was a dream sequence. In 1970, the actor Conlan Carter, of ABC’s Combat! And The Law and Mr. Jones played the role of Baum in the episode “The Wizard of Aberdeen” in the syndicated television series Death Valley Days. In 1975 a Broadway musical “The Wiz” bowed with African-American music starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy. This led to the 1978 film by the same name with Diana Ross as an adult Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. In 1985 Disney produced “The Return to Oz” The Muppets had the “Wizard of Oz” in 2005. Even the Sci-Fi channel had “The Tin Man” in 2007, plus numerous animations. Another successful Broadway show, “Wicked” provides a backstory to the two Oz witches used in the classic MGM film. Even in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where Baum once lived has a theme park featuring characters and attractions from the books.
It’s hard to believe that one man’s imagination could span so many years and spawn so many adaptations. In what was a child’s tale of fantasy and adventure morphed into one of the world’s most cherished stories, a timeless story. Disney’s Oz, the Great and Powerful should keep the torch burning.