The Father of the Wizard Oz

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Two years after the Wizard ’s success, a Broadway producer named Julian Mitchell conceived the idea of doing the book as a musical extravaganza—quite as fantastic a notion as Baum’s original inspiration. Delighted, Baum wrote the script, keeping strictly to the book’s story line, but Mitchell had a few ideas of his own. The play as it finally appeared featured a chorus in the standard “beef trust” tradition; Dorothy’s little dog Toto was transformed into a comic cow named Imogene; and Dorothy herself, a hefty soubrette, fell in love with a “Poet Prince” in the grand finale. But the cast also included two unknown but talented comics: Dave Montgomery as the Tin Woodman and Fred Stone as the Scarecrow. Within weeks, Montgomery and Stone became the best-known comic team in America. Baum protested Mitchell’s innovations, but when the play ran nearly ten years and earned him some $100,000 in royalties (then a huge sum), he published a letter apologizing to the producer. “People will have what pleases them,” wrote Baum philosophically.

The life of Lyman Frank Baum—he always used the initial L because he considered “Lyman” affected—was nearly as bizarre as those of his Oz characters. His father, Benjamin Baum, was a hard-driving oil man of German ancestry. He dared oppose the formidable Standard Oil Company and won at least a partial victory in the Pennsylvania oil fields. (In Sea Fairies , Baum describes an octopus bursting into tears on being compared to the Standard Oil Company.) Benjamin Baum made a comfortable fortune and settled on a large estate at Chittenango, near Syracuse, New York. Here Frank Baum was born May 15, 1856, the seventh of nine children. His mother, Cynthia Stanton Baum, was of Scotch-Irish descent and a strict Episcopalian. She would not even allow the children to play baseball on Sunday and filled the house with learned, solemn individuals whom Baum later caricatured in the person of H. M. Woggle-Bug, T. E. (Highly Magnified and Thoroughly Educated).

Frank Baum was a shy, sickly child. Unable to play games with the other boys, he spent most oi his time acting out fantasies with a host of imaginary playmates created by giving personalities to everything from his mechanical toys to the chickens he loved to feed. One of these chickens appears in the Oz books as Billina. Once during a walk the boy saw a scarecrow and was terrified by the strange manlike creature. For months afterward, he repeatedly dreamed that it was chasing him. The dream was so vivid that he could later distinctly recall the phantom’s ungainly lope, his lack of co-ordination, and his final collapse into a heap of straw. That this ogre could ever change into the beloved, friendly scarecrow of the Oz books seems incredible, but one of Baum’s great talents was the ability to transform a bête noire into an amusing, sympathetic personality.

When Baum was twelve, his parents decided that the sentimental boy needed to be shaken out of his dream world. He was sent to the Peekskill Military Academy. The tough discipline was too much for the delicate youngster, and he had a nervous breakdown. From then on he was educated by private tutors. Baum was always to dislike the military. A favorite theme in the Oz books is the overstaffed army, composed of hordes of generals, colonels, majors, and captains commanding one browbeaten private who is expected to do all the fighting. But Baum was never capable of real hatred: even the officers are affectionately described. A general’s explanation for his abject cowardice is the reasonable statement that “Fighting is unkind and liable to be injurious to others.”

Naturally enough, the imaginative young man became enamored of the stage and, with money supplied by his father, started a Shakespearean troupe. By his own admission the only successful performance occurred when the ghost of Hamlet’s father fell through a hole in the stage. The audience, which happened to be composed of oil workers, was so delighted that the unhappy ghost had to repeat the stunt five times. Baum also tried his hand at playwriting, and one of his plays, The Maid of Arran , was a great success with audiences of immigrant Irish because of its sentimental picture of Ireland. Through his mother Baum had developed a highly romantic conception of the Emerald Isle, which may explain why the heart of Oz is called the Emerald City.

Returning home from one of his tours, Baum met a twenty-year-old girl named Maud Gage, daughter of the militant suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage. The young couple instantly fell in love—possibly because they were so different. The gentle Baum admired the girl’s bold outlook, and Maud felt a motherly interest in the eager young dreamer. Also, Baum was an unusually handsome man, slightly over six feet with wavy brown hair and a delightful twinkle in his eye. Mrs. Gage violently opposed the marriage, regarding Baum as hopelessly impractical, but in her resolute daughter the strong-minded old lady met her match. There was a stormy scene between the two, while the prospective bridegroom stood by helplessly. The couple were married in 1881.