Wednesday, May 15, 2013

If Ever a Wiz there Was—Prairie Radical L. Frank Baum

The recent release of the highly successful Disney film Oz The Great and Powerful has revived interest in the Oz tales and their quirky author.  Not that interest ever really flagged.  The 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz remains the most popular film of all time, beloved by every new generation exposed to it.

But both films, however entertaining, obscure the raging Prairie Populism and open feminism that the creator of the stories espoused.  Indeed feminist critics lambasted the new film for refocusing the story on a man—the charlatan/wizard—at the expense of the self-driven female characters at who drove the action in his stories.  Indeed two of the four main female characters in the film—Theodora and Evanora turn out to be hideous villainesses, and one, the originally lovely and guileless Theodora, flips to evil with remarkable ease when faced with nothing more than typical male thoughtlessness.   A third character is literally a broken doll that is mended by the hero.  Sweet Glenda the Good is remarkably passive.

Those feminist critics are right.  The writer would not have been pleased.
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 sibling.  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 and stock characters and monsters of the European tales and which reflected American attitudes and outlook. 
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 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, Matches. 
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. 
But it was his next book in1900 which really established him—The 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. 
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 additions 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. 
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 re-orient 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 hold 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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