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Frank Baum's Life After Leaving Peekskill

Frank Baum's experiences after leaving Peekskill in 1870 were in many ways his own journey to OZ.

After at age 14, he returned to his home in Chittenango, New York, near Syracuse. In his early 20s, he organized a touring musical theater company. He acted, directed and produced highly imaginative stories that ran on a commercial circuit. 

Mr. Lyman Frank Baum (at age 26) married Maud Gage, and they produced four sons. As a husband and father, he was a fanciful and sometimes impractical family man concerning money. Maud usually held him and things together. He and Maud moved to Chicago where he went into dry good business, with the help of family connections. 

Frank later dedicated his Wonderful Wizard of OZ book to Maud. The inscription is: "This book is dedicated to my good friend and comrade, my wife." By the way, Frank Baum was not communist in his use of the word 'comrade.’ Nor was there any deliberate attempt to weave political messages into his fictional stories. They were created and popularized as pure entertainment.

After Chicago, the family located to the frontier of South Dakota, where Frank set up a store for novelty items as “Baum’s Bazaar.” He also became owner and editor of an Aberdeen, South Dakota newspaper.  As a community leader, he organized a baseball team and built a stadium. All of this was great until a severe drought hit South Dakota that ruined many farms and businesses, including Frank Baum's.

These difficult experiences in bleak landscapes became a model for Dorothy's gray, black and white, treeless Kansas in story. The family moved back to Chicago.  Dorothy’s line in the film story expresses this relief: "Toto, I don't think we are in Kansas anymore." Based in Chicago, Frank Baum used his natural talents as a traveling salesman to keep his family together. He sold curious items such as lamps, trinkets, and fireworks through several states.

An important national event took place at Chicago in 1893. The World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition clearly became the model for the Emerald City. This spectacular fair attracted 27 million visitors, including one who visited several times, Mr. L. Frank Baum.

The spectacular trending setting fair was a big deal in every way. The first Ferris wheel and penny picture postcards became standard American items. Peekskill's own speechmaker Chauncey Depew spoke at the opening dedication. Many countries were represented with their 200 exhibit halls and palaces. The entrance was a visually stunning re-creation of a classical column forum surrounding a large lagoon.

Electricity, then a new thing to the world, was showcased at the huge fair. That Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison there revealed his "kineto-scope," the prototype of the motion picture camera. In the 1890s, only 10 percent of Americans had electricity. As a first experience for many people, they were treated to spectacular light colored fountain displays, and night-time illuminations that dazzled everyone.

The day-time white plaster buildings were blinding to visitors when the sun reflected one to another.  Visitors at first were even given green tinted glass to offset the glare from the "The White City,” as it was nick-named. Later a light green spray paint was applied to surfaces. This was an Emerald City in fact and in fiction.

Frank Baum’s lack of formal education always bothered him, which was another reason he preferred fantasy. The Wonder Wizard of OZ story "came to him" as a writer’s inspiration in 1898. It borrows from traditional folk tales about gnomes, wizards, good and bad witches. The contemporary "Harry Potter" books and films also use such supernatural elements. The central character Dorothy Gale was patterned after a Baum niece named Dorothy Gage, who died in infancy in 1898.

The OZ children’s book was published in September 1900, with color plate illustrations by William Denslow. This was perfect timing as Christmas sales were energetic, and several reprints were made. Their first royalty check that year was over $3,000. Frank and his illustrator split the royalty earnings equally. 

Frank’s wife, Maud was astounded and pleased. The income was like a gigantic present to her. They took a trip to Europe in 1905 to tour France, Italy, Switzerland and Egypt. The family then wintered at the imposing Hotel Coronado in San Diego.

Frank Baum was awarded an international "Medal of Distinction" for fairytale and folklore. The previous recipient was Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. Frank became recognized as an American Hans Christian Anderson.

These are among among memorable lines from the book: WIZARD: “I am OZ, the great and terrible. Who are you, and why do you seek me? DOROTHY: I am Dorothy the small and meek. I have come to you for help." The "wizard" in the "Wonderful Wizard of OZ" is not even a wizard. He explains: "I'm a good man, but a bad wizard."

Dorothy is the story’s hero and main character. She is one who frees people in Munchkin land from the witch of the East, destroys the West Witch with the water bucket. The Wizard is afraid or unable to challenge the remaining bad witch, so he sends Dorothy to do the deed for him. Dorothy doesn't want to kill anyone, and says so. It is convenient that Dorothy doesn't kill her. The water kills her, and who was to know the result? Dorothy didn't directly kill the East Witch either. Her house did that by accidentally falling from the sky.

The symbolic characters each miss something in their lives: a heart, a brain, courage, a home. Dorothy leads them to their fulfillment as beings. This may be the appeal to audiences around the world. Many of us feel there is something missing in our everyday lives. Sometimes, more than one thing.

The Baum family permanently moved to California in 1910. Frank settled in Hollywood the same year it became part of Los Angeles. He had so much money because he sold the Wizard of OZ book rights to the Bobbs & Merrill Co. publisher.

As a wealthy author, Frank gave diamonds and emeralds to his wife, and built a new home, named Ozcot in 1911. Frank created the OZ Film Manufacturing Company with two partners three years later. They bought a 7-acre lot, built a stage and studio on Santa Monica Blvd. They produced "The Patchwork Girl of OZ" - an early silent film with a cast of 130 people. The cost was $23,500. It uses "film tricks" and was distributed by Paramount Pictures Co. all over country.

Silent film comedian Harold Lloyd had a small part in Frank’s film, as did Charlie Chaplin's future wife, Mildred Harris. Reviewers praised the OZ movie as "original and rich," a photo-extravaganza" "The greatest production ever shown on screen." When the Patchwork Girl of OZ played at Kansas City, a 13 year old young boy named Walt Disney later recounted that one of his favorite books came to life on screen.

L. Frank Baum died in 1919 at age 63, and buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. This bit was spoken as a Eulogy: "He was not a churchman, but he lived a religion of delight…with him the spiritual was a living experience."

Frank and Maud were married and emotionally bonded for 37 years. His dying words to her were that she was the only woman he ever loved. He also asked her to stay at Ozcot in Hollywood after his death with these words: "This is our house, Maud. I would like to think you are staying here where we have been so happy. Maud: I shall stay here as long as I live." Frank’s wife outlived him by nearly 30 years, dying at age 91.

Maud became the direct connection to getting the OZ story known around the world as new buildings appeared around Ozcot, such as Grumman's Chinese Theater a mile away. This is where hand and foot prints were pressed into cement entryway. The Hollywood Land sign was put up in 1923 with 50-foot letters, and 4,000 light bulbs.

Hollywood in the 1920s saw its film industry businesses become extremely active, with hundreds of small companies taking advantage of the natural sunlight. An estimated 40 million went to movies every week in that era. Some of these studios still exist as Universal, Warner Bros, Fox and MGM. Sound technology systems began in 1927.

Along came the economic banking troubles and economic troubles of the 1930s. A severe drought across the western states led to a "dust bowl" and migrations of displaced farmers. The MGM Studio decided this was good time to create not just a fantasy story, but one that moved from dull tones into full color singing and dancing, Judy Garland, and special effects. All the actors were fans of the best selling OZ story.

The entire film was made inside studio sound stages. The Wizard of OZ production used 600 actors (including 124 'little people') and 1,000 costumes. Maud Baum came to visit the studio set, as she was living nearby. She in fact became a paid consultant for the musical film, and met the principal actors. She lived at the Ozcot home until 1953.

An apparently true and magical moment happened with actor Frank Morgan, who played the traveling entertainer in Kansas as Professor Marvel, the OZ gatekeeper, and the Wizard. Mr. Morgan bought a suitable long coat in a Los Angeles second hand store. He reached into the pocket to find sewn into the coat a label with the name: "L. Frank Baum". Amazing, isn’t it?

* Written by John J. Curran, 2012

(Sources: FINDING OZ, by Evan Schwartz, 2009; THE REAL WIZARD OF OZ by Rebecca Loncraine, 2009)

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scarlett antonia March 09, 2014 at 09:46 PM
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