I lied! I’ve superseded this post many times over since it was written in 2013! There is now an entire Wizard of Oz/L. Frank Baum section of Travalanche, and my most complete deep dive into the life and work of L. Frank Baum is this one, based on a talk I recently gave at Coney Island USA. So I very much urge you to read THAT one for the last word; I retain the more perfunctory post below because it expresses some more personal impressions about what Baum means to me.
For a time during my childhood, at an age far too old to have been healthy, I believed that Oz was a real place. This may be credited both to an unhappy childhood…and to the unparalleled imagination of Oz’s creator, L. Frank Baum, who was born on this day in 1856.
Baum’s first love was the theatre. While he worked in stores, raised poultry and did similar quotidian work to earn a living, as early as the late 1870s he was already acting in and writing plays in his native upstate New York. When a theatre he owned burned down in 1882, it was a setback to his ambitions, but he would return to them in a major way as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
In 1888, he moved his family to the Dakota territory, where he was a storekeeper and newspaper editor. This was literally the Wild West (about 15 years after the events in Deadwood) and from his experiences there, Baum would derive that bleak, wilderness flavor that informs Dorothy’s adventures in the first Oz book. It also is the time of our one potential black mark on Baum’s character. As editor of the local paper, he wrote approvingly, even enthusiastically, of extermination of the local Sioux Indians, although some have argued that the piece was perhaps intended ironically. The incident was isolated and Baum was progressive in many more benign ways, especially in the cause of feminism.
After Baum’s business failed (as they always did), he and his family moved to Chicago in 1891, working for newspapers and trade journals.
In 1897, he brought out his first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz came out in 1900 and was such a smash hit Baum wrote thirteen sequels (and successors wrote scores more). Those who know only the 1939 MGM film, or only the first Oz book, can scarcely dream the fully realized complexity of the world Baum created. A world with a complete (if imaginary) geography, populated with dozens and dozens of characters as whimsical and original as the ones we know from the first book: Jack Pumpkinhead, the Wogglebug, Tik-Tok, Bellina, the Shaggy Man, Princess Ozma, and on and on and on. this is why it was possible for me (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) to get completely lost in that parallel universe of hot air balloons and humbug.
In 1903, a version of The Wizard of Oz was brought out as a Broadway musical. The content was completely different from that of the MGM film, but the performance of Fred Stone as the Scarecrow in that stage version was so memorable that it would later inspire Ray Bolger to become a dancer, and to dream of playing the part himself some day. The stage version was a major hit of its day, allowing Baum to finally realize his dream of success in the theatre.
In 1910 Baum branched out into cinema, with the first film version of The Wizard of Oz produced by the Selig Polyscope Company
Baum actually moved to LA and made movies for the remaining decade of life, even as was churning out children’s books at a prodigious rate. He passed away in 1919.
In 1925, silent film comedian Larry Semon made his own version of The Wizard of Oz.
As I’ve remarked in many places, most of the principle cast members in the 1939 MGM version were vaudeville veterans: not only Bolger, but Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Charley Grapewin and even Singers Midgets. Knowledge of this was without a doubt one of the major factors leading me to vaudeville as a principle area of exploration in my life’s work. There is now entire L. Frank Baum/Wizard of Oz section of Travalanche, with over 50 posts. Read them here.
Not surprisingly I find myself drawn to people to whom Baum’s stories were important — it’s like a cult. The Mad Marchioness owns his complete works, putting me to shame (I only had four of his books as a child, discovering the others years later when I got them for my children). (For the Countess’s much more relevant post, in which she talks about Baum’s actual writing, go here). And Edward Einhorn, with whom I worked on many theatrical productions, has actually written two Oz books of his own, thus trumping us all. Info on how to get Einhorn’s books is here.
Don’t miss my highly relevant books Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, and No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous