The Father of the Wizard Oz
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
In his next tale, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz , Baum wrote ruefully, “It’s no use, no use at all. I know lots of other stories but my loving tyrants won’t allow me to tell them. They cry ‘Oz—more about Oz!’ ” In this story, Dorothy and the Wizard are reunited when swallowed by an earthquake and work their way back to Oz via a series of underground kingdoms. With them are a farm boy named Jeb, a cab horse named Jim, and Eureka, Dorothy’s pet kitten. As a bird lover, Baum didn’t much like cats, and Eureka is a rather unpleasant personality, although Baum admired her independence, courage, and grace.
In The Road to Oz , Baum introduced Polychrome, the Rainbow’s daughter; Button-Bright, who is always getting lost; and the Shaggy Man. In his search for realism, Baum used a curious device. There are four countries in Oz, each with its individual color, and as the characters move from one to another, the pages of the book change to the appropriate shade. Baum was still complaining, “I would like to write some stories that are not Oz stories,” and at Ozma’s birthday party, he introduces characters from his other books —Queen Zixi, John Dough, and King Bud of Noland —obviously in hopes of weaning children away from the land of the Wizard. Finally, in The Emerald City of Oz , Baum made a determined effort to bring the series to a halt. Although Oz is almost impossible to visit, because it is surrounded by the Deadly Desert (Baum liked to call it “the Shifting Sands”), Glinda, the Good Sorceress, now makes the country permanently invisible. The book ends with a letter from Dorothy, “You will never hear anything more about Oz because we are now cut off forever from the rest of the world. But Toto and I will always love you and all the other children who love us.”
The panic that struck juvenile circles can only be compared to the consternation that hit London when Conan Doyle threw Sherlock Holmes off a cliff. For thousands of American youngsters, finding a new Oz book under the tree had become part of Christmas. A staff member at a children’s hospital wrote Baum that the books were such a valuable morale booster that “they are as integral a part of our equipment as a thermometer.” One of the most touching letters came from a mother whose little son had died of a lingering illness. “Only when I read your books to him could he forget his pain. As he died he told me, ‘Now I will see the Princess of Oz.’ ” In spite of such heartbreaking entreaties, Baum refused to continue the series. Instead, he wrote two books about the adventures of Trot, a little California girl, and her companion, Cap’n Bill, an old one-legged sailor. In Sea Fairies , the two have adventures with mermaids and in Sky Island go to a land above the clouds. To make the stories more appealing Baum brought in some Oz characters.
It was no good. The children wanted nothing but Oz, and Baum was no longer his own master. He had invested heavily in “Radio Plays,” hand-tinted transparencies designed to be shown by magic lantern in conjunction with motion pictures about Oz characters. (There was no connection with the radio, which had not yet been developed.) Baum was convinced that they would be a great success, but the process was too costly and the whole venture was a disaster. Several musicals that tried to duplicate the startling success of the Wizard failed also, partly because they lacked the magic of Montgomery and Stone. In 1911, Baum declared himself a bankrupt, listing his assets as “a five year old typewriter and two suits of clothing, one in actual use.”
He had no choice now but to return to the Oz books. He wrote eight more, beginning with The Patchwork Girl of Oz in 1913. He was now living in Los Angeles and, delighted with the new motion pictures, made eager attempts to enter the field. Backed by such Hollywood notables as Will Rogers, George Arliss, Hal Roach, Harold Lloyd, and Darryl Zanuck, Baum started the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, on a seven-acre lot opposite the Universal Film Company. This venture also failed, and Maud Baum, with her usual quiet but determined efficiency, demanded that in the future all royalty checks should be made over to her. As a result the family remained solvent; Baum could no longer describe himself (as he had to one journalist asking for biographical information) as “constantly bent and occasionally broke.”
Baum continued to turn out an Oz book a year, although he was suffering acute attacks of angina pectoris and his heart, never strong and now badly weakened by the strain of his repeated business failures, caused him constant trouble. Under such pen names as Floyd Akers, Laura Bancroft, Captain Hugh Fitzgerald, and Edith Van Dyne, he wrote a constant flow of juvenile novels, none of which even approximated the success of his fairy tales. The house he built near Sunset Boulevard he call Ozcot. Here he lived quietly, raising flowers and feeding the birds in his giant aviary. To children who came from all parts of the country to see the “Royal Historian of Oz” and listen to his stories, the house was a shrine. On May 5, 1919, he had a stroke, and died the next day. Maud Baum was with him to the end. His last words were, “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands.”