May 22, 2015 – HE WAS BAUM…THE GREAT AND POWERFUL! (AND INSPIRATIONAL)
[At left: The Royal Historian of Oz: L. Frank Baum. (Photograph courtesy great-grandson Robert Baum.) Center: Six of his characters, as depicted at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture studio, Culver City, CA, in 1939; “timeless,” “magical,” and “incomparable” don’t even begin to say it. At right: The front dust jacket of the first book to vigorously fuel my own Baum obsession, circa 1958-59. I initially heard of – and located -- THE WIZARD OF OZ AND WHO HE WAS in the stacks at the main branch of The Milwaukee Public Library and took it out again and again across the next few years. Their copy, however, was missing its paper cover wrapping, which considerably set me (initially at age eight) on edge. One of the interior textual acknowledgements noted that there was a “poster reproduced on the jacket,” and I MAJORLY wanted to see that presumably-Ozzy poster! Decades later, long-time Oz Club compatriot Scott Cummings happened to be selling the volume you see illustrated here. As a result, and way up in my fifties, I finally owned THE WIZARD OF OZ AND WHO HE WAS…with its dust jacket.]
Last Friday was May 15th, which made it the one-hundred-and-fifty-ninth birthday anniversary of L. (for Lyman) Frank Baum, the man who created and makes possible All Things Oz. This would have been celebrated here on the actual date, but that particular blog, by necessity, completed a chronological, three-week arc about the convoluted production history of JOURNEY BACK TO OZ, an animated feature film ultimately released in the United States in 1974 after more than a decade of delays.
May 15th marked another anniversary, as well: It was exactly one-hundred-and-fifteen years ago on that date that Chicago presses were churning out the very first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, the tale that started it all. The earliest known Baum autograph in a copy of that title was dated two days later and signed to his cherished sister, Mary Louise Brewster. It consisted of all the assembled pages but didn’t have its cover; in his inscription, Baum explained, “This ‘dummy’…was made from sheets I gathered from the press as fast as printed, and bound up” -- i.e., sewed – “by hand. It really is the very first book ever made of this story.”
So (and hopefully) better late than never: Here’s a quiet and heartfelt birthday gratitude to the man whose imagination, communicative power, and “talent to amuse” have immeasurably delighted and emotionally propelled the lives of billions of people across one-hundred-and-fifteen years. And although pretty much all forty-eight past installments of these “The Wonderful World of Oz” entries have acknowledged -- on one level or another – the debt owed to that man by me (AND by literature AND by pop culture AND by childhood AND etc.), today’s reminiscence is going to more-personally travel that same road.
Baum’s lifelong fascination with reading, writing, and theatrical entertainment certainly found a kindred spirit in (and exponentially unleased) my own. As past readers here might recall, the Fricke fixation began at age five when, pretty much by chance, I watched the network television premiere of M-G-M’s Judy Garland film version of THE WIZARD OF OZ on November 3, 1956. It led me to an ongoing and ever-fermenting passion for books, research, journalism, and -- as Garland herself would later punch the phrase -- “show BIZ.” Although I’d been singing for people since I was two, my first major public performance came in fourth grade, when I (for lack of more accurate verbs) produced, directed, and acted in the 65th Street School production of Baum’s THE LAND OF OZ in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We just did the first four of the script’s seven scenes, as originally adapted in 1928 for The Junior League Plays series by Elizabeth Fuller Goodspeed. Our mounting was very rudimentary, which is a polite way of saying that props, costumes, and settings were almost nonexistent. But I was encouraged in all of this by Dorothy Neher, my fourth/fifth grade teacher, primarily because she was: a) that kind of educator; and b) she had a lifelong devotion to Oz as well.
I don’t recollect actually or actively guiding my peers, but there must have been some attempt at that, as THE LAND OF OZ strictly was a student effort. Certainly, I did the casting, with – I think! -- Mombi the Witch, Jack Pumpkinhead, General Jinjur, The Scarecrow, and The Tin Woodman played, respectively, by Patty Zwalina, Gail Girdes, Jean Hummel, Faith Dukor, and Sherry Siegel. (For the life of me, and with apologies to posterity, I can’t remember who appeared as The Sawhorse….) I assigned myself a dual-role showcase: first as protagonist Tip, the little boy who is really the transformed Princess Ozma – and no cracks, please; we never got that far in the plot! No, my additional character was that of “Uncle” L. Frank Baum, shown on stage in a prolog and epilog to the Oz saga itself. I wrote that bookend sequence, such as it was, and at its onset, sat in a rocking chair, surrounded by classmates who enacted the parts of Baum’s four sons and the neighborhood children whom he famously entertained night after night with his fantasy stories. We started with a singalong chorus of “Over the Rainbow,” which firmly and anachronistically threw all chronology out the window. Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg didn’t write the song until 1938, Baum had died in 1919, and he had published THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ (on which the playlet was based) in 1904. But it then was my favorite song, so in it went! After “Rainbow,” the onstage kids caterwauled on cue for “dad”/”Mr. Baum” to tell them a story. I asked if they wanted to hear something familiar “or my new manuscript.” There was great hue-and-cry for the latter, which segued neatly into the first scene of the show itself. I know I had to scurry behind a curtain to tear off my “grown-up clothes,” slip into Tip’s shirt, shorts, and cap, and rip off the construction paper mustache (which I’d attached, somehow, with duct tape, in an effort to look more like all the photographs I’d seen of ol’ “Uncle Frank”).
After our four segments, the curtain closed, and I came out “in one” to summarize the rest of the plot. It wasn’t what you’d call a Grand Finale, but it wrapped up the narrative and gave me the opportunity to trumpet the merits of Baum and the Oz series.
(I wuz relentless…!)
Backtracking a bit, I’d originally found the script for THE LAND OF OZ among the Oz-related holdings at the downtown Milwaukee Public Library, which I know I’ve extolled in previous blogs. My debt to that edifice, however, can never be calculated; the hours I clocked there – and the preliminary research and joy made possible by their resources and staff – were an integral part of my preteen and teenage years on an (at least) weekly basis. For whatever my admission today might be worth, I also want to indicate that I didn’t come to this recognition as an adult; I felt it when still a boy, given a general desire (beyond Oz) for books and reading…even before I could really read myself.
Among my other early library discoveries was their copy of THE WIZARD OF OZ AND WHO HE WAS, brought out in 1957 by the Michigan State University Press, and built around a lightly-annotated reprinting of Baum’s complete text for THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. It was, though, the fifty-plus pages of “extras” that provided the real boon, as the volume also contained a proud appreciation of the Land of Oz, its denizens, its topography, and its policies by Russel B. Nye; an essay-length and happily declarative biography of Baum by Martin Gardner (who later became an occasional pen-pal); and a checklist of Baum’s published work, as it was known to that date. It was through the gentlemen’s writings – and, especially, the checklist -- that I believe I first came to learn about some of Baum’s other fantasies for children, his pseudonymous novels for adults, and his pseudonymous, diverse “series” of stories for teen boys and/or teen girls. Armed with all of that information, I besieged -- with (if conceivable) renewed vigor – Milwaukee’s used book and second-hand stores, seeking titles I never before would have associated with “the father of Oz.”
The listing also included the names of a dozen or so other tomes or publications that included references to or material about Baum. Armed with such a bibliography, I headed straight for the card catalog (those were the days!) and traced as much of the data as possible. There was no problem with this; the librarians in the common rooms were by then pretty much acclimated to the weird, redheaded, freckled kid of seven or eight or nine or ten as he clambered around and clamored for stuff that few (if any) others his age desired to unearth.
I did hit one principal challenge in this specific process. THE WIZARD OF OZ AND WHO HE WAS bibliography referenced a 1955 article about Baum in the COLUMBIA LIBRARY COLUMNS, a journal which was published several times annually by that university between 1951 and 1996. As an archival tool, however, the bound editions of the magazine were kept in the locked and sacrosanct Rare Book Room of the Milwaukee Public Library – hidden from the everyday collections, shelving, and resources. The chamber itself was much away and apart from my usual haunts; its door seemed constructed of unusually solid wood, with a small, cut-in window of reinforced, wire-crisscrossed glass way up near the top. If I looked incongruous a few months later, impersonating a middle-aged man (paper mustache and all), I was no less conspicuous that prior summer when, at age nine and garbed in shorts and a polo shirt, I tentatively knocked and sought entrance to that quieter-than-death inner sanctum. I was far from their usual clientele, and truth be told, the librarian in charge saw absolutely no reason to admit me. Eventually, there must have been some comprehension of my ardor and reason for being there, because I DID get in. But it DID take a while; there was a LONG, patient session of explanation and assimilation; and it WAS a process. (Imagine -- if you care to -- Opie of Mayberry storming the Bastille, and you’ll get the idea….)
But…I owe all of that determination to Frank Baum and an inbred, inherent appetite -- championed by parents, teachers, and librarians -- to discover as much as I could about him. The accumulated knowledge was thrilling, and there’s no doubt that my preoccupation with (and gratitude for) Baum, the other Oz authors, and Oz itself were one of the prime propellants in my preteen and subsequent emotions.
Another stimulus was the library itself, or for that matter, any library at all. Even in those early years, the Milwaukee lending systems already had provided with me with so much. Given that thankfulness, I had a sudden brainstorm, and I was motivated -- on the closing day of school when I was ten – to ask our teacher for permission to make an announcement. I cheerfully took the front of the room and told the class that all the books I had at home were going to be available for any fellow students to borrow to read over the summer.
I’d prepped the treasured Oz volumes in advance – plus my others about tornadoes and the weather (and a number of my parents’ books) – by pasting in the little stiff-paper pockets that held standard-form library “check-out” cards. And I enthusiastically told those thirty or so classmates that I’d be there to welcome them five days a week, starting the next morning.
(Tympani, fanfaronade, and spotlight, please: I was in the library business!)
And, as the Amish might put it, “it mightily wondered me” that next day when…no one showed up!
(“That next day”? EVER!)
I vividly recall standing in, pacing around, or sitting down on our front and side yards, primed to greet the throngs. But, in my own quiet way, I guess I somehow knew not to expect a crowd, so it really wasn’t any kind of colossal disappointment. I quite quickly came to a more gentle realization and lesson-learned: people were individuals. Not everybody looked at June, July, and August as a time to visit a library or read – and their (or any) personal preferences warranted respect.
As for me, that summer – like a couple before and every other since – was one way or another about Mr. Baum and Oz. So in this, his birthday anniversary month, I THANK HIM for the ceaseless jubilation, for the eternal inspiration, and for so many special and genuinely sweet remembrances.
One of these memories is, in its own way, a permanent one, as well – at least as long as the volumes themselves last. As I type this, there’s a bookcase just behind me over my left shoulder. And on two of its shelves rest my now-age-old and semi-battered reading copies of the Oz series.
Every one of those books that I’d received prior to June 1960 bears a neat, little legend on its flyleaf, inked by a hand-assembled rubber stamp:
“Fricke’s Public Library”.
Article by John Fricke