Monday, May 15, 2017

The Wonderful Wizard Was a Prairie Radical

L. Frank Baum looking far more prosperous than he ever was.  No matter how much money the Oz books and their stage adaptions made him, he promptly lost the cash in one failed business venture after another.

The 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz remains the one of the most popular films of all time, beloved by every new generation exposed to it.
But however entertaining, it obscures the raging Prairie Populism and open feminism that the creator of the original stories espoused. 
L. Frank Baum, one of America’s the most prolific and enduring children’s authors, was born on May 15, 1856 in Chittenango, New York.  His father had made his fortune in the Pennsylvania oil boom and manufactured lubricants.  His mother was an outspoken feminist.  The family lived comfortably in a large home. 
Frank, one of ten children, was a sickly boy with a heart condition.  Protected from strenuous activity, including usual childhood rough house play, he was tutored at home and spent most of his time reading and playing fantasy games with his siblings.  Although enthralled with the magic of fairy tales, he was repelled by the frightening violence of the Brothers Grimm and by the heavy moralizing.  At an early age he decided that he wanted to create magical stories for modern children that dispensed with the violence, stock characters, and monsters of the European tales and which reflected American attitudes and outlook.  

Baum as a very unhappy military school cadet in 1868.
After an unhappy two year brush with military school, Baum dropped out and decided to make his own way in the world.  He first took up journalism and quickly had some success, becoming a reporter on the New York World and shortly after founding a newspaper in Pennsylvania.  He also took up raising exotic chickens, edited a magazine for poultry farmers, and wrote a book on the Hamburg breed in which he specialized. 
At the age of 25 Baum went to New York to study acting and appeared in several shows.  Because of his family’s wealth Baum was pursued by producers to invest in their shows with promises of good roles.  His life-long interest in the theater brought him repeatedly to bankruptcy.  Baum’s father built him his own theater, or “Opera House” in Richberg, New York where he founded his own company and began writing plays for it. 
The Maid of Aaran was a modest success in 1882 which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in.  He also composed the music.  The songs were integrated into the story, almost unheard of in American musical theater at the time.  While touring with this show, the Richberg theater burned down during a performance of another play, the ominously titled Matches. 
Baum--young actor and playwright, 1881.
The same year he married Maude Gage, the daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, one of the leading Suffragists and feminists and close associate of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who Baum adored and who deeply influenced his political and religious thought—he was a consistent advocate of women’s rights and became, like Matilda, a Theosophist.  
With a new family to support, Baum left the theater to try his hand at business.  First he worked as an axle grease salesman for his father, and then in rapid succession he tried and failed at other businesses and occupations changing careers as “other men change their shirts.”  He opened a general merchandise store in Aberdeen, Dakota Territory where his willingness to extend credit to drought strapped local farmers led to failure.  He then returned to journalism as the editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper which, though nominally Republican was a staunch advocate for voting rights for women and was familiar with and sympathetic to emerging Populism.  His mother in law lived with his wife and growing family—four children—during this period. 
When the newspaper failed in 1891 the family moved to Chicago where Baum wrote for the Evening Post.  He founded and edited a journal for professional Window Dressers, published his first book—on breeding Hamburg rabbits, and became a traveling salesman.  Mathilda Gage encouraged Baum to write and publish the tales he was already telling his own children.
 His first effort in 1897, Mother Goose in Prose was a success with illustrations by leading artist Maxwell Parish.  With Parish in demand by leading national magazines, Baum teamed up with artist W.W. Denslow for Father Goose, His Book, which became the bestselling children’s book of 1898.  
In 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz made Baum famous.  The characters were symbolic--the Scarecrow stood for embattled farmers, the Tin Man industrial workers, and the Cowardly Lion the working class unaware of its own power and cowed mirage of invincibility of the robber barron ruling class--the Wizard himself.
But it was his next book in1900 which really established himThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It was a sensation and the public demanded more.  And Baum gave it to them.  Baum collaborated with producer Fred R. Hamlin and composer Paul Tietjens on a “musical extravaganza” based on the book.  It opened in Chicago then on to Broadway for a very successful run.  The show toured the country for ten years. 
Modern critics have recognized the themes of populism in the Oz books and noted his strong female characters, both heroines and villainesses.
Baum returned to Oz in 1904 with the publication of The Marvelous Land of Oz and there after produced a new Oz book almost every year until he died—a total of 16 titles in all, the last published posthumously.  Several times he tried to end the series, but returned to it by popular demand or when one of his business ventures failed again. 
Meanwhile Baum wrote other children’s books under his own name and various nom-de-plumes.  In addition there were numerous short stories, poetry collections, adult novels, and theater pieces, and screen plays.  The output was prodigious. 
Braun moved his family to Hollywood in 1911 and was forced into bankruptcy the following year by the expenses of an odd lecture, film and theater piece called The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays and weak sales of some of his non-Oz books.  He had to sell the rights to many of his earlier works to recover and redoubled production of Oz books. 
But the siren call of the theater was irresistible to Baum.  He joined and wrote most of the material for Harry Marston Haldeman’s group The Uplifters, which also featured Will Rogers.  Baum’s last full scale play was The Tic Toc Man of Oz, which was successfully produced in Los Angeles but could not find a producer in New York.  

His Magesty the Scarecrow of Oz was one of  the most succesful of the films writen and directed byBaum for his own movie studio.  The earliest version of Wonderful Wizard of Oz came to the screen in 1902 and there was another version in 1910.  After Baum's death comic Larry Semon starred in another version in 1925, all long before the MGM Technicolor musical extravaganza in 1939.
Baum also was interested in motions pictures and in 1914 founded his own company, The Oz Film Manufacturing Company to produce Oz films.  Several were made to critical acclaim, but box office failure.  An attempt to reorient the company to adult audiences as Dramatic Feature Films by Baum’s son Frank Joslyn Baum ended in failure by 1917. 
The failure of his cinema dreams took a toll on Baum’s always fragile health.  On May 5, 1919 he suffered a stroke and died just days short of his 63rd birthday.

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