This post is adapted from a talk I gave at the Coney Island Museum in August, 2019, in commemoration of the 80th anniversary of my favorite film The Wizard of Oz (1939). We share it today in celebration of the birthday of L. Frank Baum. That film, as well as earlier versions and the books they are based on, are rife with traditional American cultural elements that we so love, and make up major content threads on this blog, such as vaudeville, dime museums/ sideshows, melodrama, musical theatre, and silent movies. Please click links in this post for in-depth articles about the people and topics referenced.
Barnum is best known for the apocryphal but not uncharacteristic quote “There’s a sucker born every minute” and for being the “Barnum” of “Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus“, the now defunct Greatest Show on Earth. He is very much identified with circuses, but really was mostly involved with tented shows at the beginning and end of his career. During the bulk of his career he was known primarily for two things:
1): HUMBUG: I hope fans of The Wizard of Oz recognize this word, as it’s used in both the book and the movie to describe the Wizard when he is revealed to be a fraud. Prior to that , the word was most closely associated with P.T. Barnum, both as a personal noun, i.e. he was a humbug, and as an object, the product of his humbuggery, i.e., “that’s just a lot of humbug”. What this referred to was Barnum’s many famous hoaxes, such as the Feejee Mermaid, Joice Heth, the Grand Buffalo Hunt etc etc. The word dates back as early as a hundred years before Barnum came along but he gleefully embraced it to an unprecedented degree. These were pranks that most people loved. And so it became a sort of archetype, representing any sort of a show man or swindler, and there were (and are) all types. Among the best known types would be proprietors of medicine shows or fortune-tellers, mediums, carnival operators, impresarios, etc.
Secondly, Barnum was known for exhibiting novel and exotic attractions, especially through an institution he created called the American Museum (1841-1865). Later institutions modeled on the American Museum became known as dime museums, and they evolved sort of in tandem with circus sideshows. Dime museums and sideshows were and are places where the main attractions tend to be Very Special People. The royalty of this kind of show were the born different, such as conjoined twins, people with extra or missing limbs, grossly overweight people or very thin people, and very tall people, known as giants, as well as…..very small people. Barnum hired a great profusion of these for his American Museum. including General Tom Thumb, Lavinia Warren, Minnie Warren, Major Edward Newell aka General Grant Jr, a sort of mini-me for General Grant; Commodore Nutt, Admiral Dot, Nellie Keeler (aka Little Queen Mab), Lizzie Reid, Jennie Quigley, Commodore Foote and the Fairy Queen. Later there were entire traveling troupes of Little People. So this has an obvious connection to the The Wizard of Oz, it’s indeed our main side show connection.
A third thing to throw in: Barnum’s lecture room, which I wrote about in my book No Applause. Barnum’s lecture room helped legitimize theatre in the United States, all manner of lectures and melodrama plays were presented there.
So P.T. Barnum was extremely influential. It wasn’t just him, but he was a sort of lightning rod, and this country experienced a huge economic and technological expansion in the 19th century, and an outgrowth of that were all of these new forms and institutions that fed into each other: state and county fairs, world’s fairs, dime museums, opera houses (melodramas), tented circuses, and later things like vaudeville, amusement parks and silent movies. Into the midst of all of this was born:
L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) was born in Chittenango, New York (today the site of an annual Oz festival) and raised in nearby Mattydale, both part of the greater Syracuse area. I find this significant, because among other things Syracuse is the home of the spectacular New York State Fair.
Some years the fair was held in different cities but most often those other locations, like Utica or Rochester, were not too far away. Founded in the 1840s, the New York State Fair hit its stride around the 1880s. It featured agricultural contests and displays and the like but grew increasingly carnival-like with games of chance, fortune tellers, and likely such diversions as hot air balloon demonstrations.
Upstate New York in the 19th century became known as “the Burned-over District”. Many passionate social movements came out of this region, including several new religious sects, utopian communal living experiments, and progressive political movements like abolitionism and feminism, but most importantly here in this context: Spiritualism. This is a topic not unrelated to humbug but one that also contributed to the development of professional stage magic. The Fox Sisters, whose shenanigans helped spark the Spiritualism craze, were from Hydesville. The Davenport Brothers were from Buffalo. Influential magician Harry Kellar, who apprenticed with the Davenports was from Erie, PA, near the New York border.
Some of these magic professionals employed a certain noun to describe themselves that will be familiar to Oz fans. One of the earliest was Albany’s Wyman the Wizard (1816-1881), but there were numerous others he may have heard about later such as John Henry Anderson, Wizard of the North; Chefalo, the Wizard in White; and Walford Bodie, the Electric Wizard. Most important of all, however, may be John Austin Hamlin, a magician who went into the patent medicine business with Hamlin’s Wizard Oil:
We know that Baum was aware of this product because Fred Hamlin, John’s son, was one of the producers of Baum’s Wizard of Oz Broadway musical shortly after his original book came out. Hamlin’s was based out of Chicago, where Baum lived for many years. Another connection to the product was the fact that it was made of petroleum, and Baum’s father (like Rockefeller) had made a fortune in America’s first oil boom in western Pennsylvania and Ohio. So-called snake oil was actually made of the stuff that came out of the ground.
So Baum was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He’d been sent to military school, which he hated, and was released from after a couple of years when he experienced a “heart attack”. But like his father, although in a much less cautious and conservative way, Baum was entrepreneurial, another trait he shares with Barnum. Both Barnum and Baum tried numerous moneymaking enterprises before arriving at their eventual calling. Both published and edited their own periodicals when still teenagers. Both had been storekeepers. Baum bred prized chickens for awhile (flash forward to Billina for those who know the later Oz books). Baum also wrote and edited for various magazines and newspapers over the years.
Baum’s real love, and this was true until the day he died, was the theatre. In the early years, this by definition meant melodramas. His rich father set up in his own venue the Baum Opera House in 1880. Baum wrote and presented his own plays there, and acted in them, the most successful of which was The Maid of Arran (which I’ll go ahead and assume was a Boucicault ripoff). As a man of the theatre, he used the pseudonym Louis instead of his real first name Lyman, so as not to embarrass the family. He went on tour with his troupe, and among the places they stopped was Kansas. Unfortunately his theatre burned down in 1882. By then, his father’s health and finances were both failing so that was the end of theatre for Baum…for the time being. This little theatre experience seems tangential at this point but the unfulfilled ambition returned in a huge way 20 years later as part of The Wizard of Oz saga. After this episode, in 1882 Baum married and “settled down” with Maud Gage, who was the daughter Matilda Joslyn Gage, an important suffragist, abolitionist, advocate for Native American rights, and free thinker — another influence on Baum.
In 1888 Baum moved with his family to Aberdeen, South Dakota to try his luck as a storekeeper and newspaper editor. It was literally the Wild West, part of the Dakota territory, the time and place that was the setting of the tv show Deadwood. Two things to note about this experience:
Most people agree that those vivid descriptions of the Kansas plains in the book were probably inspired by the landscape of South Dakota. (since he never lived in Kansas). And:
It’s a place where he would have encountered wagon based medicine shows, quack doctors, traveling salesmen, and the like (analogous to Professor Marvel in the movie (see wagon pictured at the top of this post).
In 1891, Baum’s Dakota businesses failed so he moved to Chicago, where he wrote for newspapers and took various other jobs. His timing was very good, because shortly after this came the World Columbian Exposition, better known as the Chicago Worlds Fair. This was one of a series of immense, fabulous world’s fairs to happen in various cities in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There had been several prior to these but not this big. These were not like the state agricultural fairs Baum had likely attended in his youth. Those can get pretty big. But worlds fairs are so colossal they permanently alter the character of the cities that host them. They get permanent structures and parks. It’s like a city within a city. I have written about the contributions of the world’s fairs to the creation of Coney Island previously, so I don’t want to get sidetracked too much by that rich topic today. But I did want to point a couple of things out:
The fair definitely offered hot air balloon rides, possibly inspiring this:
The writing on the balloon references the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, which was held in Omaha.
Another observation: I thought this one was my own brilliant insight but then I went online and saw that several other people realized it as well. The 1893 World Columbian Exposition aka Chicago Worlds Fair was known as the “White City”, cherished both for its fantastical architecture and the spectacular effect of the then-novel electric lighting at night. This influenced the great amusement parks at Coney Island, but probably also Baum and his original illustrator W.W. Denslow in their imagining of the Emerald City:
And lest we forget, the fair also featured Little People:
Midget Cities (exhibits that featured entire troupes of Little People) were a staple of world’s fairs as well as Dreamland at Coney island. Through them , there grew a kind of centralized network of performing Little People that would be useful for casting the 1939 movie.
Also, Florenz Ziegfeld got his start at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. His wife Billie Burke of course played Glinda the Good Witch in the 1939 film, bringing a bit of Ziegfeld’s Broadway magic with her.
Baum began writing children’s literature in the late 1890s and finally found success. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz came out in 1900 and put him on the map. Baum wrote 13 sequels and others wrote many more.
It is so telling that when he had a major hit with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 his very next move was not to write another children’s book, but to make a beeline for his first love, the theatre. At the soonest available moment when success as a children’s author allowed him to do so, he jumped at the chance to bring The Wizard of Oz, to Broadway, with the help of producer Fred Hamlin and director Julian Mitchell. Mitchell had directed several shows featuring the vaudeville team of Weber and Fields (whose costumes I believe may have inspired those of the Munchkins in the 1939 movie) and he also headed up several editions of the Ziegfeld Follies. Ziegfeld, as we have mentioned, was married to Billie Burke. Mitchell also directed the original production of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland. (A half century later Walt Disney acquired the rights to the Oz stories, but kind sidetracked by his own version of Babes in Toyland, which turned out to be extremely Oz-like, including the presence of Ray Bolger. A digression but I hope not an unwelcome one).
Essentially, adapting the book for the commercial stage meant catering to the needs and expectations of a Broadway audience, as opposed to, say, Oz fans, who were children, anyway. While the show technically follows the plot points of the original story, the fabric of it was composed of parodies of other Broadway shows, topical jokes, an endless stream of love scenes between lovers, lover’s quarrels, and dozens and dozens of offensively stereotypical songs about “darkeys”, “coons”, Irishmen, and characters with names like “Daisey Donahue” and “Jakey Cohen”. It drew heavily from vaudeville, burlesque, and minstrelsy**. There’s one song about skating, another about football. The cast included the team of Dave Montgomery and Fred Stone, Anna Laughlin, Bessie Wynn, Lotta Faust, and Arthur Hill. This patchwork thing was a smash hit. It opened in Chicago in 1902, then moved to Broadway where It ran 293 performances in 1903, got revived a year later and ran another 20 months and then toured through 1911. Dan Healy and Charles Daly replaced Montgomery and Stone in the road company. But if you always wondered (as I always did) why this show was never revived or made into a film, this is why. It was disposable stuff, contrived for its own day and not a day later.
In 1904, Baum published the first Oz sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz. The book was dedicated to Montgomery and Stone. He also cooked up another musical show based on it in 1905 called The Wogglebug . The title of the show refers to one of the characters in the book, whose credentials “H.M., T.E.” indicate that is is Highly Magnified and Thoroughly Educated. The character satirizes academia but I have always felt that he is quack-like, that is expertise is sort of nonsense, so that it is similar to a medicine show or humbug idea. (Indeed, in those days, many supposed “doctors” waved around highly dubious credentials, including degrees from mail-order diploma mills. Edward Einhorn, author of 2 Oz books, allowed me to play one of these guys, J.R. Brinkley in a play of his a couple of years ago. In the book, The Wogglebug is one of Tip’s friends who helps him on his journey. In the musical, he is more treacherous and sides with the witch Mombi and General Jinjur’s army of revolt but then changes into a good guy. General Jinjur’s army is the strongest burlesque element — similar to chorus lines and drill teams. It seems to satirize suffragettes, which is odd, because as we have mentioned, his wife and mother-in-law were important early feminists. There was a love story, featuring characters who did not appear in the book. There is also a blackface** cook character named Dinah, which was played by a man in drag. The show opened in Chicago and played for about a month but did NOT make it Broadway. One probable reason it wasn’t a hit on the same scale as the first one, is that Montgomery and Stone were not in it, they were still touring with the original Wizard of Oz show. But the stars of this one included Fred Mace (who would later be Mack Sennett’s first comedy star in the movies), Australian cricket star Sydney Deane, Blanche Deyo, and Mabel Hite.
In 1905, Baum announced a Marvelous Land of Oz amusement park, to be located in an island off California coast. Baum leaked teasers about the project for many months, but it may have been a hoax designed to publicize the Wogglebug show, for these hints stopped when the show closed. Later, Baum’s partner in films William Selig DID operate an amusement park though it helped bankrupt him. Future movie moguls Nick and Joe Schenck went in the other direction, going from owning amusement parks, to installing nickelodeons, to making the films that were shown. Thompson and Dundy of Coney Island’s Luna Park were also Broadway producers. And a half century later Walt Disney would build an empire that profitably integrated shows and amusements. This all goes to the point that Baum was a forward looking visionary. Only time, money, and luck prevented him from FULLY realizing his dreams, but isn’t the case for all of us?
Baum’s next theatrical project ,The Fairy-Logue and Radio Plays (1908) was also forward looking, for it was a multi-media spectacle, one that bridged his path from live theatre to movies. The show was adapted from the first few Oz books. Baum stood at podium and gave a “lecture”, while behind him onstage were live actors in costumes, as well as projections of magic lantern slides and hand tinted movies, produced by the Selig Polyscope Company. The show only played for two months, but then Baum went on to work with Selig on new movies.
At this stage, Baum actually moved to LA and made movies for the remaining decade of life, even as he was churning out children’s books at a prodigious rate. The first Oz Films came out in 1910: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz , The Land of Oz , John Dough and the Cherub . The first film survives. You can see it on youtube. It’s about 13 minutes long. It seems to be closer to the 1902 musical that it is to either the original book or the movie they used in The Fairlogue and Radio Plays. Cast members for these films included Bebe Daniels and Hobart Bosworth. They were produced by Selig Polyscope which was in fact the first studio to move its operations to Hollywood full time.
In 1913, Baum mounted his next stage venture, The Tik Tok Man of Oz, based on Ozma of Oz, The Road to Oz, and several of Tik Tok books. The character of Tik Tok was a wind-up automaton, such as the one at the heart of Hugo, but had been popular with audiences for over a century by that point. Produced by Oliver Morosco, the show played successfully in Los Angeles and San Francisco but didn’t do as well in Chicago, so it never went to Broadway. It featured the team of James C. Morton and Frank Moore, the great Charles Ruggles, and Charlotte Greenwood.
In 1914, Baum formed the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, along with composer Louis Gottschalk, with whom he had developed a working relationship in the theatre. They produced three Oz films that year: The Patchwork Girl of Oz, The Magic Cloak of Oz, and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. All are roughly what was considered feature length for the time, just short of an hour. They were shot mostly on the grounds of the San Diego Worlds Fair, which hadn’t yet opened. The first one didn’t do too well, so the other two couldn’t find distribution for several years. You can watch them on Youtube and you can see why they don’t do well. They are extremely imaginative which is wonderful, but they are badly told. Nothing is done to orient you so you can get your bearings. You are just immediately assaulted by bizarre, grotesque characters in a strange landscape carrying out magical plot points. Every element is disorienting. It reminds me of the David Lynch version of Dune. One of the more interesting aspects of Patchwork Girl of Oz (from a historical and performative standpoint) is that the titular character resembles and moves like a blackface minstrel**. We don’t approve of the practice, but it is an interesting, and instructive, choice for the producers to have made. The director, J. Farrell MacDonald, had been a singer in minstrel shows and was later one of Preston Sturges’s stock company. The cast also included Frank Moore from the previous Oz film, Violet MacMillan, Juanita Hansen, animal impressionist Fred Woodward, Mildred Harris (Charlie Chaplin’s first wife), and believe it or not a young Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd!
L. Frank Baum passed away in 1919. He’d continued writing oz sequels almost every year since 1900. His last couple of books came out posthumously in 1919 and 1920. But (obviously) his works still made it to movie screens.
In 1925, silent screen comedian Larry Semon made his notorious version of The Wizard of Oz, co-scripted by L. Frank Baum, Jr. Larry Semon and most of his fellow cast had their own roots in vaudeville. We wrote extensively about this movie here.
Just a fun bonus: we have previously talked about connections between The Wizard of Oz and several of the most important silent comedians: Harold Lloyd had been an extra in the 1914 Oz films, Charlie Chaplin’s first wife Mildred Harris was in those films, Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy had been in the 1925 version. One major name is missing from here, but it would be safe to conjecture that L. Frank Baum’s universe enriched his imagination: Buster Keaton. After all, Keaton was born in Kansas. His parents met in a medicine show. Part of his legend, no doubt exaggerated, is that as an infant, he was carried a mile down the street by a tornado. He started out in dime museums and vaudeville in an act with his parents. The Keaton family’s closest friend was Harry Houdini. Many of Keaton’s films feature whimsical contraptions that would live comfortably in Baum’s world, but I just want to point out a few specific things: his 1920 film The Scarecrow, where he wears a disguise that looks very much like the one Semon would wear in The Wizard of Oz five years later; the hurricane sequence in Steamboat Bill Jr (1928), which makes extensive use of wind machines, and flying houses and furniture as in the 1939 movie; and as an MGM contract player in 1949 he appeared in The Good Old Summertime alongside Judy Garland. Which of course brings us to this:
We have already written extensively about the 1939 version and all its connections to show biz, sideshow, and vaudeville here. I’d say go get lost in the Rabbit Hole, but that’s another children’s story!
Lastly, go here for two later Oz sequels made in the 1960s that very much have roots in vaudeville as well, by virtue of their cast members.
For more on various aspects of this history please see my books No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube , and Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People of Vaudeville
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.