[Above: A lifetime of Oz-related letter-writing was unleashed by an innocent – if wildly wholehearted – question to the publishers of the book above.]
There's a great deal to be said for the expediency and convenience of email; it certainly simplifies the lives of everyone who jumps into the electronic fray. I first did that just twenty-one years ago, and it's not only brought a lot of pleasure but made possible a much greater ease in transacting business -- such as submitting these blogs!
Yet with a hopefully pardonable amalgam of nostalgia and rapture, I’d like to present here a very fond look-back at the era in which "snail mail" was the only way to go -- and how that type of communication when I was a preteen brought my first Oz friends and much Ozzy information. No small part of the adjunct joy in all of this came with the fact that several pen pals among the early Oz community had actual Oz stationery that they'd created, designed, or had fashioned for them. The artwork was, at least initially, as magical to a young fan as the written content.
My earliest correspondence came from and through members of The International Wizard of Oz Club, and my knowledge of that organization stemmed from a postcard I received in January 1961, just after I’d turned ten. I’d written to The Reilly & Lee Company of Chicago, publishers of all the Oz books, to inquire as to the origin of the L. Frank Baum text they’d published in late 1960 as THE VISTORS FROM OZ. By then, I knew my Oz titles very well, yet this was a new one to me and not numbered among the famous thirty-nine (at that time) in the official series. This was their response:
That postcard made for a triple thrill: New Oz facts! An address for an “International Wizard of Oz Club”! And while the Reilly & Lee “letterhead” wasn’t specifically Ozzy, it WAS the logo of the producers of all of THE books themselves!
I was a very happy kid.
It took me another eighteen months to establish contact with the Oz Club itself, but in July 1962, the indefatigable Fred M. Meyer reached out…and I’ve never let go. Fred was then the executive secretary (by title) and backbone (by nature, behavior, and devotion) of the organization, a position he more than fulfilled for nearly forty years. He WAS the Club for countless thousands of members, cultivating all ages and encouraging their ongoing interest. Beyond that, his personal stationery was topped by an original, previously unpublished John R. Neill drawing (circa the 1920s) of my favorite Oz book character, the Scarecrow:
A month later, I began a correspondence and friendship that continues to this day. (In three words: what a blessing.) Justin G. Schiller founded the Oz Club in 1957, as a fourteen-year-old boy in Brooklyn, NY. By August 1962, he was preparing for his sophomore year at Ithaca College upstate, but he took the time to write and welcome me to the Oz organization “family.” His stationery was adapted from the W. W. Denslow title page drawing of the original THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book of 1900:
In response to a fervent fan communique of my own in January 1962, a bonafide Oz legend returned my greeting on HER letterhead – which also incorporated a couple of John R. Neill Oz book illustrations:
Ruth Plumly Thompson penned more “official” Oz titles than any other author: nineteen of the (ultimately) “famous forty” and then two more which were issued by the Oz Club itself. I never had the privilege of meeting Miss Thompson in person, but we shared letters, cards, postcards, and very-kind-on-her-part mutual admiration across the next dozen years.
In the face of all of this illustrated communication, I decided that I wanted to get on the bandwagon myself. My “major” 1962 Christmas present from my parents was a box of five hundred sheets of offset-printed John Fricke Oz stationery. For illustrations, I traced a Denslow Cowardly Lion from THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ and drawings of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman originally done by Dick Martin for THE VISITORS FROM OZ book that had – however indirectly -- started this whole process:
[I hand-lettered my contact information on the stationery, and the middle name above may require a bit of explanation. I’d long since observed that John R. Neill sometimes signed his Oz book illustration as “Jno R. Neill”; out of curiosity, I then looked at a list of abbreviations in the back of a dictionary and discovered that this was, indeed, the accepted, shortened form of our first names. By the time I was nine, I’d sometimes write “Jno” as my own signature. (I wasn’t very original….) On one such occasion, I teased my best friend by lightly penciling “Jno” on one of the white boards of his backyard fence. To get me to stop, he gently jiggled the fence, causing my pencil to add a zigzag slash at the end of those three “Jno” letters. I inadvertently made a perfect “Z,” and I was awed: I’d discovered my own “Oz name”: JNOZ!]
(Hey…I was nine; what do you want!?)
As I’d selected two of Dick Martin’s pictures for my stationery, I think it’s safe to say that his talent absolutely wowed me. I’d already begun to write to him in 1962 as well; he responded on his Oz stationery, which carried “Dick depictions” of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Dorothy, Tik-Tok, Glinda, and the Wizard. I then met Dick – and Fred and Justin – when I attended my first Oz Club Convention in Indiana in June 1963, and much of the conversation that weekend came in anticipation of the fact that Reilly & Lee planned to bring out a new, full-length Oz book in the autumn: MERRY GO ROUND IN OZ by Eloise Jarvis McGraw and her daughter, then known as Lauren McGraw Wagner. It was the wonderful story of a merry-go-round horse from Oregon who found her way to Oz. Naturally, Dick had done the illustrations, so between the thought of a new story and a raft of new Martin artwork, I was pretty much het-up beyond measure. Recognizing this and in total comprehension of my fervor, Dick did an immeasurably gracious and generous thing. In October, when he received his ten complimentary copies of the book from the publisher, he had the two authors autograph them. Then he added his own signature and inscribed and presented those volumes to Oz friends and fans of his choice. The correspondence below – on his Oz stationery and with an original sketch of Merry Go Round herself – announced that a copy of the book was coming my way. Dick remains one of my life-long heroes -- for many such gestures of friendship -- and this remains one of my all-time favorites letters:
So, here’s to electronics, as they make possible our communion here! But here’s to the United States Postal Service as well…and to the Oz publishers, Oz Club, and Oz Club members whose old-fashioned correspondence – and dazzling letter paper! – paved a rainbow road that this “kid” gratefully travels to this day.
Article by John Fricke