A nondescript Peekskill street paved with yellow brick was transformed by a sensitive, imaginative dreamer into the sparkling central thoroughfare of a fantasy world that has become a favorite of children of all ages – the land or Oz. In the process, L. Frank Baum, whose abbreviated enrollment in Peekskill Military Academy was less than stellar, integrated the Hudson River community into the literary and cultural heritage of the United States.
“Peekskill’s Connection to the Wizard of Oz Author and Story” was traced by City Historian John Curran during our Society’s annual luncheon November 19, 2010. Mr. Curran repeatedly showed how L. (for Lyman) Frank Baum dealt with the harsh realities of his life by escaping to much more vivid fantasies, with the yellow brick of West Street – a segment of which still exists behind the Standard House near the city train station – the key link between drab experience and colorful imagination.
Baum, who was born in upstate Chittenango in 1856, arrived by steamship at the Lower Dock in 1868 to begin his only formal schooling as a member of Peekskill Military Academy’s Class of 1870. The yellow brick of West Street led from the dock onto Water Street. Beyond, PMA stood atop Oak Hill, currently the site of Peekskill High School. His first year of schooling was uneventful but during his second year the sickly daydreamer was complaining about the severity of the teachers, including one incident in which he was physically disciplined after an attack of rheumatic fever. Despite withdrawing early from PMA, he donated books to the school in 1905 and sent three of his four sons to a military academy, Mr. Curran noted. And, he added, Baum drew heavily on his brief but intense experiences in Peekskill when, years later, he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Baum’s Peekskill years were followed by a mix of writing, magazine publishing, poultry breeding, retailing and theater. In 1882 he married Maud Gage, a woman who was as practical as he was not. After a stint retailing dry goods in Chicago the Baums moved to South Dakota in 1888, where he sold novelties, organized a baseball team and edited The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Prolonged drought spelled the end of these activities, but the bleak South Dakota landscape was transformed a decade later into the bleak Kansas where the Oz story begins.
The Baums returned to Chicago in 1891, where Frank was based as a traveling salesman and continued his writing. The buildings of the White City at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World Fair, are credited with inspiring the Emerald City of the Oz books, aided by green-tinted spectacles, as reality continued to be transformed in Baum’s fertile imagination. Another component of the story behind Oz was the death in 1898 of his infant niece, Dorothy Gage, who would become the model for Dorothy Gale, the young heroine of the Oz adventure.
The transformed experiences of Baum’s life coalesced in 1900 as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz rolled off the press and became a runaway success as a Christmas gift item. A royalty check of more than $3,000 brought his family financial security and enabled Baum to develop a musical version of the story that played in 1903 at the Majestic Theater in Manhattan and in 1905 at the Peekskill Colonial Theater on Park Street.
Frank and Maud moved to Hollywood in 1910 and the following year built a home named Ozcot. The Oz Film Manufacturing Company followed, and its productions included the silent The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Baum died in 1919, a few days before his 63rd birthday. Maud, eight years his junior, lived until 91.
As the nation sank into the Great Depression in the 1930s, MGM, which had acquired the rights to the Oz story, decided that the years of economic gloom were an ideal time to bring Baum’s fantasy to the big screen, moving from the grays and sepias of Kansas to the vibrant colors of Oz, offering respite from reality to millions of struggling Americans. Maud Baum was a consultant to the 1939 film, which featured 600 actors (including 124 “little people”) and 1,000 costumes.
The film proved to be a fitting reflection of its creator. “In his own life and in his writings, Frank Baum preferred fantasy and the fantastic over everyday reality,” Mr. Curran said. “His driving personal engine throughout his life was his inventive and playful imagination.”