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Oz’s Real Wizard: L. Frank Baum

The real Wizard of Oz: author L. Frank Baum.

Have you ever met anyone old enough to drive who hasn’t seen The Wizard of Oz? Me neither.

The Wizard of Oz was made by MGM in 1939, and could easily claim the title of “America’s Favorite Film.” The movie was based on the wildly successful early twentieth century children’s books that were conceived in the imaginative mind of L. Frank Baum.

While the movie will always be a perennial favorite, and the books will never be out of print, I thought it was a good time to get re-acquainted with the man who created the magical Land of Oz.

Lyman Frank Baum was born in upstate New York in 1856 into a world of privilege. A weak heart prevented him from overexertion as a child, but he compensated by exercising his imagination in the creation of stories. As an adult he tried his hand at several trades, working at various times as a salesman, printer, and poultry breeder. But he could never keep far from the stage.

In 1880, his father built young Frank (he hated the name Lyman) a theater, where he acted, directed, and penned several successful plays. Within a few years he had married Maud Gage, the daughter of a famous feminist activist, and after the theater closed, the Baums moved to the Dakota Territory where they opened a store. Baum was popular with his frontier customers, especially the children, who would gather at the store begging for him to tell them one of his tales of magical lands. In spite of his storytelling, (and perhaps because of it), the business failed and Baum found himself editing a newspaper which also soon folded.

Baum and his growing family settled next in Chicago, where in 1897 he had his first success in authoring children’s books with Mother Goose in Prose. In 1900, he would write The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one of the most successful children’s books of all time.

Baum would write 13 sequels in the Oz series over the next twenty years, along with several other works. He quickly tired of writing Oz books but was persuaded to write more by letters from countless children. He ended up writing them for the remainder of his life and the last Oz book, Glinda of Oz, was published a year after his death in 1919.

Ozcot, Baum's Hollywood home.

Baum eventually settled in Hollywood in an estate called Ozcot and founded the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, which brought the Oz books to the screen in a series of silent films. Future legends Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach acted in some of these early motion pictures.

By all accounts, Baum was a pleasant man who had a life sprinkled with great failures and even greater successes. As a fierce supporter of women’s rights, he was ahead of his time, but his ideas on how to deal with Native Americans were positively barbaric.

Perhaps such contradictions should be expected from a man whose body resided in the real world, but whose mind lived in the Emerald City.

(I will write more soon with stories from the area of Indiana where I was born (near the village of Toto), where the Baum family often vacationed.)