Wamego # 17
Oct 10, 2014 If Ever, Oh EVER, a Club There WOZ! -- Part One
[Note: Last month’s OZTOBERFEST in Wamego, Kansas, once again underscored the fact that Oz fans are ever more fun when gathered and banded together. With that in mind, these next couple of blogs will honor the long-time, extraordinary, and very best meeting place for “all-those-Oz”: I’m going to be writing to celebrate The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. Any and every one, anywhere, who finds a happy haven on the Yellow Brick Road, is encouraged to become a member!]
Once upon a time – on or about January 1, 1957, if one wants to balance the fanciful with the prosaic! – an exceptional thirteen-year-old boy in Brooklyn, New York, decided to amalgamate his ardors and reach out to unite those with whom he shared a particular enthusiasm.
The boy was Justin G. Schiller, and he had been a voracious reader since early childhood. He harbored an unrelenting and already long-term passion for The Great Books – most of which had “Oz” in their title. He also possessed a well-developed bibliographic and collector’s savvy about the whole thing, which was a remarkable attribute for someone his age.
Justin was aided in his fervency by two sympathetic and nurturing parents. Across 1955 and 1956, they’d seen to it that he’d been able to align with Jack Snow, the author of two Oz series books and an authority on the first “Royal Historian of Oz,” L. Frank Baum. Schiller and Snow shared lengthy conversations; a trip to the movies to see Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ on its 1955 theatrical rerelease; and a visit to the Columbia University Libraries’ Baum Centennial exhibition in 1956. Indeed, as a twelve-year-old, Justin had become the youngest contributor in history to a Columbia presentation, loaning items from his fledgling archive to help complete their Baum homage.
During their friendship, the Brooklyn lad heard Snow lament the fact that – as Justin recounted it in 1987 – he “was continuously receiving letters from Oz enthusiasts all over the country, sometimes two or three times a week from the same correspondents, and he wished that there would be a vehicle [by which] they could all be in touch with each other and leave him alone.” Snow died in 1956, and from the author’s surviving correspondence with the Oz brigade, Justin was able to compile a mailing list of fellow devotees.
This was all the impetus it took, and on that fateful day in January 1957, he leapt into action. Justin’s introductory correspondence offered the hope that recipients “would be interested in the organization of an Oz club, its success depending wholly upon the cooperation of each and every member.” The letter contained an ink imprint, applied by a home-made rubber stamp. It proudly heralded the WIZARD OF OZ FAN CLUB, for which dues were set at an annual fee of $1.00.
As has been noted, this occurred nearly six decades ago. Since then, thousands of responsive associates have managed to offer the necessary “cooperation.” The quickly-rechristened International Wizard of Oz Club quickly became -- and remains -- the quintessential Ozzy forum, comprised of an exemplary publishing platform, a cross-generational group of world-wide adherents, and a yearly round of social conferences, all of which happily play into the diverse fascinations inspired by the greater legend.
Those multitudes of members were yet to come, of course; Justin’s original group was launched with sixteen charter colleagues. (At least four of them, including the cherished Mr. Schiller himself, are still on the roster.) Although among the youngest of the founding delegates, Justin adeptly drew to the Club one of L. Frank Baum’s sons, who served as initial “Honorary President.” The boy was equally quick to enroll Ruth Plumly Thompson, author of nineteen of the then-thirty-nine books in the official Oz series; the teen designated her “Correspondent for Emerald City.”
Contemporary news items, historical features, and the names of all participants were immediately shared in June and October 1957 via mimeographed newsletters, which Editor Schiller buoyantly titled THE BAUM BUGLE -- “the official Oz club paper.” To this day, he recalls spreading out the pages of each issue on the floor of his family apartment so as to collate and prepare them for mailing. In the Club’s early years, THE BUGLE contained anywhere from four to eight sheets of what can be best defined as “young teen typing.” Suffice it to say that the ebullient intent more than compensated for the occasional variations in spelling or the irregularity of its margins.
Soon thereafter, THE BUGLE’s professional sheen was immeasurably heightened when Chicago-based illustrator and Oz collector/historian Dick Martin came onboard to provide fanciful, classic cover art for each of the three annual editions of the publication, beginning in 1959. By the time Justin began his college career in autumn 1961, Martin was installed as designer, art director, and typist for the now vastly attractive fanzine. Meanwhile, Fred Meyer – a junior high school teacher in Escanaba, Michigan – took over as Club secretary, and much of the quick-to-burgeon membership registration across succeeding decades can be credited to his efforts. For nearly forty years, Fred both defined and glowingly surpassed the adjective “Oz-sessed,” generously and selflessly bringing the magic of Oz to countless men, women, and (especially) children.
I know. I was one of those children.
I’d originally come to Oz via the first national telecast of the Judy Garland film in November 1956. Between 1957 and 1962, I’d managed to acquire – for birthdays, Christmases, Easters, and ANY even remote “occasion” – most of the Oz books. But I didn’t know of an Oz Club until it was referenced in a postcard I received circa January 1961 from The Reilly & Lee Company of Chicago. They had published the Oz series since 1904, and at age ten, I was writing them with Oz-related questions. At some point, they sent me Justin’s address, and -- wildly impassioned (for a preteen, anyway) -- I wrote off to him a couple of times that year. Any response he offered must have gone astray, however, as I never heard from him at that time.
But in his preparations for college a few months later, Justin forwarded to Fred the mail that he had accumulated in Brooklyn from Oz buffs over the preceding seasons. In summer 1962, when Fred returned to his family home in Kinderhook, Illinois, for school vacation, he wrote invitational letters to any and all of those prospective advocates. (Many of us later discovered that this was the kind of thing Fred did on a daily basis, whatever the time of year. When school was out, however, it was far and away his full-time pursuit.)
On Saturday, July 21, 1962, I was waiting in the family station wagon with my kid brother, Michael. Our parents were on the way out of the house to join us, with baby sister Patty in tow; we were taking her to have her “one year” portrait photograph taken over at Milwaukee’s dazzling Capitol Court shopping center.
[I should explain that, at this juncture in my life, I was an established mail-nut. In additional to correspondence with Reilly & Lee, I’d written to (among others) Judy Garland and -- not knowing he was dead -- Louis B. Mayer at M-G-M. At least one other Oz book publishing company also had received a genuinely polite Fricke communique, informing them that their new facsimile publication of the first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ was missing a color plate. In that instance, I received a return letter from the president of the company and a complimentary copy of the corrected edition of the book.]
Back to July 21, 1962: Just before everyone was loaded into the family car, I noticed that the mail for the day already had been delivered, and that there was a large, white, 9”x12” envelope curled in the newspaper wrack beneath the mail box. So I bounced over to collect it and was excited to discover that it was, indeed, addressed to me.
But then I froze on our front doorstep. Just to the left of my address on the face of the envelope was affixed a preprinted sticker. It bore three unexpected, unforgettable words, and it’s the massive understatement of my life to say they went directly to my eleven-year-old heart.
The sticker read, simply:
“OZ MAIL – RUSH!”
(to be continued)
P.S. For those who don’t need to first hear the rest of the story (and good for you!), please feel free to immediately investigate -- and JOIN -- The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc., at ozclub.org. The dues no longer remain at $1.00 per year, but THE BAUM BUGLE is now a forty-to-eighty page magazine, produced three times a year, with full color covers and an unprecedented trove of Oz news and material in every issue.
Article by John Fricke