Discovering OZ: The Royal Histories - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz





by John Fricke




 [1900 was a major year for a relatively new author of children’s books; he saw publication of five of his titles within months of each other. Few people today, however, remember – or even recognize the names of – four of those L. Frank Baum tomes: THE SONGS OF FATHER GOOSE, THE ARMY ALPHABET, THE NAVY ALPHABET, or A NEW WONDERLAND (later reprinted as THE MAGICAL MONARCH OF MO). Yet it’s safe to say there are very, very few people who don’t know about book #5, THE WIZARD OF OZ, whether one references its characters, story, or legendary locales. Above you see the cover of the first edition of that book (although the adjective WONDERFUL would be dropped from its official title after three years). This volume has been, for decades, one of the most sought-after collector’s items in the field of juvenile literature.]

Welcome all to this inaugural blog for 2023 and our year-long celebration of the first fourteen “royal histories” of the Land of Oz. Every month or so, you’ll find two new links to DISCOVERING OZ on the OZ Museum’s Facebook page. The first of these will lead to a brief video vlog about one or more of the famous Oz books. The second link (posted a few days later) will carry you to a blog like this one, in which even more information will be shared about that specific novel.

This means that – all across 2023 -- you’ll learn how Dorothy, her friends, and L. Frank Baum’s magic kingdom originated and flourished in the original stories he wrote more than one hundred years ago. Remarkably, those tales and his reportage of the discoveries he made “over the rainbow” are as entrancing and as fresh today as ever before. Further, this series of “web logs” intends to provide a multitude of beautifully illustrated information to augment the inaccurate impression that the Oz saga is restricted to the plot presented by the iconic THE WIZARD OF OZ/Judy Garland movie -- and to encourage one and all to investigate the famous Oz book series. It’ll all be done, however, in what is intended to be an entertaining manner; after all, it’s OZ we’re discussing -- and if it isn’t fun, we’d be doing it wrong! 😊 (One warning, of course: Once you start reading the Oz books, you may never want to stop . . ..)

Frank Baum came somewhat late to his career as an author of children’s books. Through his twenties and thirties, he pursued such vocations as playwright, actor, songwriter, businessman, shop owner, newspaper editor, reporter, and traveling salesman. But at heart, Baum was an entertainer, and his at-home evenings were spent in fabricating fairy tales and nonsense rhymes to please his four sons and their youthful neighborhood compatriots.

[Above: L. Frank Baum, several years after he unexpectedly became the “Royal Historian of Oz.”]

By the 1890s, Baum and wife Maud Gage had settled in Chicago, where one of their regular visitors was Maud’s mother, the remarkable activist and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage. She carefully listened as Baum made up his stories; she saw the joy they brought children, and she ultimately told her son-in-law that he was a fool if he didn’t write down these fantasies and try to sell them.

Gratefully, Matilda lived to see publication of Baum’s first book for youngsters, MOTHER GOOSE IN PROSE, in 1897. She would have been even more delighted and proud had she witnessed the best-seller status achieved two years later by FATHER GOOSE: HIS BOOK, a strikingly colorful volume of silly verse that both captivated children and entertained adults. And vice versa.

[Above: The back and front covers of the first edition of FATHER GOOSE: HIS BOOK. Comically and cleverly illustrated and designed by W. W. Denslow, Baum’s book was a surprise novelty hit, winning rapturously appreciative reviews and eventually selling one-hundred-thousand copies.]

The success of FATHER GOOSE led to the raft of assignments and publications for 1900 that are referenced in the first caption above. It was THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, however, that gave Baum and illustrative collaborator W. W. Denslow both a firm grasp on immortality and a success story that has been resonating ever since. The full-length fable was definitely a joint effort for the two men (as was FATHER GOOSE), but in OZ, they were working to create an “American Fairy Tale” – Baum with his characters and locales and Denslow with a lavish, artistically conceptualized book design. The resultant combination dazzled all ages. (An interesting side note: There was some initial indecision and vacillation when it came to the book’s title, and it was announced as THE EMERALD CITY, FROM KANSAS TO FAIRYLAND, THE CITY OF THE GREAT OZ, THE GREAT OZ, THE FAIRYLAND OF OZ, and THE LAND OF OZ before the two creators and the representatives of Chicago’s George M. Hill Publishing Company agreed upon THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ.)

Baum’s imaginative genius did, indeed, develop a fantasy constructed of -- on one level or another -- American “staples.” Dorothy Gale of Kansas was both timeless and a quintessential Midwestern child of her era (and since): sunny, brave, and resourceful, combining common sense with a seemingly limitless capacity for friendship. Her companions had their origins in elements familiar to every youngster of the day. It was, after all, a time during which scarecrows reigned over farmers’ fields, tin containers abounded on household shelves, lions could be seen in circuses -- and a cowardly lion was an oxymoron to delight a child.

[Above: In this Denslow color plate from THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, all five of Baum’s principal characters hold forth in the Emerald City. Dorothy and Toto await the help of the Wizard, while the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion are happily preening at the representations of brains, heart, and courage the humbug from Omaha has already bestowed upon them.]

Those who know THE WIZARD OF OZ only by its motion picture presentation might be interested to hear of some of the many differences between that film and the book. The basic story is the same; in fact, as plans for the movie were solidified, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer abandoned many initially contemplated and far-flung plot and character ideas of their own before getting-back-to-Baum. Yet the studio “adapted,” as well. The Dorothy of the novel was a child of perhaps seven; MGM bought the OZ property as a vehicle for their superlatively and uniquely gifted contract player, Judy Garland – then sixteen but scripted in OZ to play Dorothy as a twelve-year-old. Much more radically, the Hollywood powers-that-be felt that an out-and-out fantasy might not be readily embraced by the adult filmgoing public of 1939, so they refashioned the entire story as Dorothy’s dream. Along those lines, MGM’s screenwriters invented her Kansas acquaintances – the three farmhands, the villainous Miss Gulch, and the humbug Professor Marvel – who could then logically turn up in Oz as fabrications of her Midwestern friends and challenges.

There are adherents for both the MGM and the “pure Baum” approach to the story, of course, but here’s additional counsel to those who haven’t read the original, delightful text. The book includes MANY more amazing adventures than the running time of a film could encompass: the attack of the Kalidah beasts; the (temporary) loss of the Scarecrow when his raft pole got stuck in river-bottom mud, and he was left stranded in the middle of a tributary; the evil plots of the Wicked Witch of the West, who unsuccessfully sent wolves, crows, bees, and her Winkie slaves to destroy Dorothy and Company BEFORE dispatching the Winged Monkeys; the Cowardly Lion’s conquest of a giant spider monster; an episode in which the Lion was rescued from the Deadly Poppy Field by thousands of tiny mice; and an interlude in which our heroine and heroes traversed the miniature “live” China Country – only to be threatened and (in the case of the Scarecrow) pummeled by the Hammerheads.

It’s a very exciting book!  😊

[Above: Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Judy Garland, and Jack Haley in the 1939 film musical classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ. They don’t have nearly as many escapades in the movie as Dorothy and her friends have in the full WIZARD OF OZ text.]

Any discussion of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ and its first appearance in bookstores of 1900 needs to pointedly offer that Baum’s inspiration and innovation as an author was brilliantly matched by Denslow’s – on virtually every page of the project.  In 1899, color artwork was considered an unnecessary and expensive luxury for American children’s books, yet Denslow and Baum were adamant that twenty-four pages of OZ would physically glow with brightly hued color plates, and that most other leaves would also feature art as an integral aspect of the text.


[Above: W. W. Denslow, circa 1899, at the time he would have been working on art for THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. A detail of the rear panel of the dust jacket for FATHER GOOSE: HIS BOOK may be glimpsed in the background. Despite the success of the latter book, however, Baum and Denslow had difficulty in finding a publisher for OZ. Both author and illustrator insisted on the elaborate and expensive color work they felt was an essential accompaniment to the story, its pictures, and its overall presentation; this worked against them. Beyond that, the idea of "an American fairy tale" supposedly seemed far-fetched to the publishing industry of the day. Such fantasy was thought to be the provenance of European myths and legends -- for example, the tales of the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen -- and not to forget the Britain-based and highly successful ALICE books by Lewis Carroll. However, Baum and Denslow persevered; to say their contribution has stood the test of time is one of history's greatest understatements.]


The artist prepared two dozen full-page drawings to appear as the OZ color plates, scattered throughout the book. The first of these served as the actual title page:



Additionally, Denslow contributed more than one-hundred line drawings, which would enhance page after page of the story itself. These were specifically designed for different usage in the book; in many instances, they accompanied the text to the point that they appeared underneath the actual typography on a page:


[Above: Denslow’s original drawing of the Tin Woodman, showing the soon-to-be legendary figure when he was hard at work and unexpectedly caught in the rain and rusted. The pen and ink portrait is among several other examples of Denslow’s OZ work in the possession of the New York Public Library. Accompanying it here is the two-color presentation of the art’s actual appearance on a page of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book itself; the storyline literally continues on top of it.]


As earlier noted, there’s no question that Denslow’s work immeasurably contributed to the book’s success; per the contemporary notice in the Louisville COURIER-JOURNAL, “The [book’s] pictures surpass anything of the kind hitherto attempted.” But virtually all the reviews for THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ were beyond favorable; among their quotes were references to Baum and Denslow as “those two quaint and whimsical geniuses,” while OZ was labeled “the most fantastically delightful child’s book of the year.” The Boston BEACON honored it with such adjectives as delightful, gay, amusing, and clever: “Its gaiety, brilliancy, cheerful humor, and wholesome imagination make [OZ] a valuable acquisition for people of all ages.” Finally, in a lengthy appreciation, the New York TIMES concluded, “It will indeed be strange if there be a normal child who will not enjoy the story.”



[Above:  Among Denslow’s other decorative approaches to the book, he illustrated and lettered a full-page picture to serve as an introductory herald for all but one of the twenty-four chapters in the original WIZARD OF OZ book. He followed this -- a page later -- with a hand-lettered initial word to launch each chapter, accompanied by another, individual drawing. The Chapter One pictorial launch for “The Cyclone” is shown here, along with the first page of the Chapter Six text.]


Public approval for THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ swiftly followed its publication date in September 1900. Approximately thirty-five thousand copies were sold across its first eighteen months; another 4,195,667 volumes were sold between 1903 and August 1956, when OZ went out of copyright and into the public domain. This meant that, from that date, anyone could publish Baum’s story, and multi-millions of additional copies have been marketed and sold since then. Additionally, there have been abridged storybooks, abbreviated reworkings for children, paint books, pop-up books, activity books, comic books, and graphic novels. The first known foreign language version of THE WIZARD OF OZ was published in France in 1932; beyond that, it has since appeared and could be read in (among other languages) Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, Tamil, Russian, Czechoslovakian, Italian, Dutch, German, Swedish, Hungarian, Danish, Slovenian, Afrikaans, Finnish, Persian, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Rumanian, Serbo-Croatian, and Rumanian.

OZ, however, swiftly traveled past the printed page. In 1902, Baum, Denslow, composer Paul Tietjens, producer Fred Hamlin, and director Julian Mitchell put THE WIZARD OF OZ on the musical stage and enjoyed one of the great theatrical successes of the early twentieth century. The show triumphed on Broadway and all over North America, and two companies toured across several seasons. In the process, it’s estimated that THE WIZARD OF OZ extravaganza grossed almost five-and-a-half million dollars and was seen by approximately six million people.

[The 1902-1909 stage version of THE WIZARD OF OZ used only the barest bones of Baum’s story, but the three principal characters remained Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and Tin Woodman. Above, we see Denslow’s interpretation of their initial encounter; also shown are Anna Laughlin as Dorothy, David C. Montgomery as the Tin Woodman, and Fred A. Stone as the Scarecrow, the first players to assay those roles in the theater. Children who saw the musical OZ were so enamored of these three book characters “live” that their in-person incarnations made an immediate and enormous hit -- especially Montgomery and supremely Stone. The former vaudeville duo became overnight stars in THE WIZARD OF OZ and played the show for its first four years.]

Now, more than twelve decades after its publication, THE WIZARD OF OZ retains a popularity and familiarity unique in pop culture history. As early as 1970, it was estimated that MGM’s motion picture of the story – despite its variations from the book itself – has been seen by more people than any other entertainment in the history of the world. It retains its supremacy as a definitive dramatic interpretation of Baum’s tale, although there have been – before and since Metro’s 1939 release – other OZ films, cartoons, and television programs, plus Broadway, off-Broadway, repertory, children’s theater, puppetry, and interactive stage variations. In terms of merchandising, THE WIZARD OF OZ characters and stories have been adapted for recordings, toys, dolls, games, ice cream, peanut butter, puzzles . . . and the list goes ever onward.



[Above: The MGM OZ songs were issued in studio – i.e., non-soundtrack – recordings soon after the 1939 film premiered. The only member of the film cast to appear (in two songs) was Judy Garland; session singers – including OZ composer Harold Arlen – did the other vocals. Yet the score was already so happily embraced by the public that such replacements didn’t matter. Since 1939, Arlen’s melodies and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg’s lyrics have played a major part in the longevity and fame of the movie.]


Such popularity has also subjected Baum and/or MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ to decades of “interpretations,” and it’s been examined and dissected from every angle: political, spiritual, sociological, historical, environmental, and sexual. None of that, however – nor the over-the-years changing tastes in entertainment or reading-for-joy – has negatively impacted on the delights to be found in Baum’s characters and story.


Ironically – and of course -- THE WIZARD OF OZ was never meant to endure in this (or any) manner. Under the aegis of the Good Witch Glinda, Baum had Dorothy and Toto bid good-bye to their companions in Chapter Twenty-Three of the book (and reunite with Aunt Em in Kansas in Chapter Twenty-Four). That was the intended finale of the little girl’s history. Denslow, true to form, accommodated his collaborator by emotionally drawing the poignant, Ozian farewell as the opening illustration of Chapter Twenty-Three:


So there was never supposed to be a sequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ, and it certainly wasn’t intended to launch a series. However, the all-pervasive magic of Baum’s land and its citizens was almost immediately felt – beyond those first-years sales of books or theater tickets.  In the next vlog and blog, we’ll see just why and how the saga of OZ continued -- and why it was initially founded upon the two characters who’d proved to be most popular with children.


See you then, and many thanks for reading!


P.S. By the way, there’s additional artwork attendant to this topic accompanying the January vlog, which is accessible -- as referenced above -- on the OZ Museum Facebook page!



Article by John Fricke


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