The [Original] Road to Oz
July 18, 2014
Is there anybody here who reads, simply because they love to read? If so – and if there’s any possibility of converting some others – I thought it was time to get in a definite plug for all the original, written glories of Oz: the boundless pleasure and rewards of the Oz books themselves.
If that sounds ominously historical, I should stress up-front that the saga, as I tell it, also involves a lot of personal anecdote. (Pending your point of view, that may make it duller. But it's my blog…. J )
The Fricke introduction to L. Frank Baum's "marvelous land" -- and my ensuing, fifty-eight year (to date) immersion therein -- began November 3, 1956, with the coast-to-coast, CBS Network "Spectacular” telecast of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 motion picture, The Wizard of Oz. The back-story of that programming and the film's subsequent incarnation as an annual TV event will be recapped in a future column. Meanwhile, the turning point in my life can be traced to that evening, and to the presents I received from my mom and dad for my sixth birthday, less than a month later. Two of those gifts were long-playing record albums: The Wizard of Oz soundtrack (which included most of the movie songs and some of its dialogue) and the 1956 Judy. The latter featured the then-thirty-three-year-old Garland in eleven numbers from what is now referenced as the Great American Popular Songbook, in this case orchestrated for her by Nelson Riddle.
Each recording had specific and ongoing personal impact.
Yet it was the third gift that led me deep into a literary wonderland: a 1950 storybook adaptation of Baum's original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with illustrations by Anton Loeb. At six, I was already rapidly (by my own demand) learning to read, and while some of the differences in the Baum and M-G-M approaches to the plot instantly were apparent, they didn't seem to bother me: I leapt ahead…somehow – and probably subconsciously -- feeling that the more Oz there woz, the better.
What soon brought me up short, however, was some wording on page two, which specified that this volume was an "abbreviated version" (or, as stated elsewhere, "a brief retelling") of Baum's "famous tale.” Once the meaning of "abbreviated" was explained to me, I was on the prowl for the full-length Oz, which my parents provided a few months later via a dime-store copy, illustrated by Russell Schulz. It had lots more text about -- and adventures for -- Dorothy & Co.!
So I was increasingly and jubilantly Ozzified. An even more lavish edition, pictured by Evelyn Copelman, followed as a gift for Christmas 1957. It was the same Baum manuscript, but Copelman’s art much more specifically represented some of the movie characterizations and settings, which made it welcome on a whole other level.
I guess the point here is that Oz on the printed page was, for me, a joyous, separate kind of extravaganza than had been the movie. Anybody who loved the concept of Oz could read themselves into a further, immeasurably rich and exciting expansion, especially if one was already of the emotional mindset that there was no such thing as too much.
And my real epiphany was just around the corner.
One afternoon -- fifty-six years ago this summer -- I was age seven and roaming Gimbels Department Store in downtown Milwaukee. My mom was shopping that day, and my reward for accompanying her was a final stop in “Books.” She and my dad had read to me almost nonstop from the time I was a baby; nothing made me happier than that (and, as referenced above, my records and little three-speed phonograph). By summer 1958, I was well into reading for myself, and I’ll never forget the surprise and thrill when -- by chance? by the grace of God! – I looked up and unexpectedly saw the white dust-jacketed spine of a book on a Gimbels shelf: THE ROAD TO OZ.
To this day, I remember my almost breathless excitement. There was a beautiful John R. Neill painting on the front of the jacket: Dorothy and her three companions. To comprehend the depth of my emotion, one has to realize that these four characters had become “best friends” to me across the preceding twenty-one months. The realization that there were “further adventures of…” was brought home on a virtually incomprehensible level when, a few moments later, I looked at the rear dust jacket flap and saw its heading, “The Oz Books” – followed by thirty-eight different titles.
I recollect an instant mix of gratification and anticipation as I scanned the list. I was ecstatically satisfied to see that there were so many favorites who had their own books: The Scarecrow of Oz, The Tin Woodman of Oz, The Cowardly Lion of Oz. Glinda of Oz. Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. I immediately related to -- and craved -- those stories.
But beyond intriguing, in a completely different way, were the inexplicable, “mystery” titles. Who were The Scalawagons of Oz? and The Purple Prince of Oz? The Silver Princess? The Gnome King? Why were there Pirates in Oz? Was there really a Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz? And a Lost Princess? And a Hungry Tiger? And a Patchwork Girl?
I remember brandishing the volume and excitedly summoning my mom over to the bookcase – with all the fervor a little red-headed kid could manifest. (In my particular case, we’re talking a lot of manifestation….) I’m sure she was pleased for me; I had the kind of blessed parents who did all they could do to fulfill their kids’ genuine desires.
I also remember that she reacted to something on the rear dust jacket flap that I somehow missed. In addition to “The Oz Books” heading and the list of titles, there was an additional, ominous notation:
$ 2.50 each.
[to be continued]
Article by John Fricke