Tomorrow is the birthday of L. Frank baum

L. Frank Baum (15 May 1856 – 6 May 1919) creator of Oz. Lyman Frank Baum was born to wealthy parents in Chittenango, New York where he grew up on the expansive estate “Rose Lawn”. His father Benjamin made a fortune in the Pennsylvania Oil Fields and his mother Cynthia was a descendant of the founder of Stanton, Connecticut.

  Sickly and prone to daydreaming Frank, as he preferred to be called was sent to the Peekskill Military Academy with the aim of toughening up. Two years later he returned home miserable. The rigidity of military life did not suit the precocious young man.

   Like so many future authors of the age Baum began printing his own private “family” publication called the Rose Lawn Journal. By the age of seventeen a second journal was being published that focused on stamp collecting. Both were done in partnership with his brother Henry. By twenty Baum had added a new vocation to his diverse undertakings; The breeding of fancy poultry which at the time was a popular hobby. True to his nature Baum published his own trade journal devoted to the subject. His diverse interest in new amusements would lend itself well to his later fantasy writing for children. Already he was becoming the “wizard”.

   During his early 20’s Baum became involved in the theater. It would be a passion that never abated and would be the source of his future fascination with moving pictures. It also displayed how poor of a money manager he could be. His involvement with the theater, as well as his many other ventures would lead to financial ruin time and time again. In 1880, while performing one his plays titled “Matches” his theater in Richburg, New York caught fire, taking with it many of Baum’s early theatrical manuscripts and the better part of his financial resources. Baum, along with his wife Maude (the daughter of suffragist and feminist rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage) left New York and headed West in search of new opportunities.

   By 1888 Baum was living in Aberdeen, Dakota Territory where he was the proprietor of a dry good store called Baum’s Bazaar where it served the community through an over-liberal issuance of store credit. It failed and once again Baum found himself in financial ruin prompting him to take on the job of editing and contributing to the Aberdeen Saturday paper. It would be his experience in South Dakota that would prove the primary element for the inspiration of “the Wonderful Wizard of Oz“.

   Typical of Baum’s business acumen the paper failed in  1891 forcing the family to move to Chicago which was then a filthy city of cattle pens and mud but with a promising future and unlimited potential. 1893 would bring the Great Exhibition and the famous “White City” that wouold transform Chicago from a western frontier city into a major metropolitan cultural center. He took a job reporting for the Evening Post and in 1897 began publishing a new trade journal devoted to window dressing. At the time department stores in larger cities employed elaborate and highly creative window displays, often featuring mechanical movement to lure in customer during the holiday season. Window dressing would play a large role in the Oz stories where things were not always what they appeared to be and behind the curtain one could find less magic and more clever artifice.

   In 1897 Baum published his own collection of traditional Mother Goose fairy tales illustrated by Maxfield Parrish which proved a moderate success. Baum however was not a great fan of European fairy tales with their violence and dependence on social class. His father Goose stories followed, providing stories more suitable to an American audience. It was a smash hit and after it became the years best seller catapulted Baum’s name into the national spotlight for the first time. Father Goose would become the name which Baum fancied himself and in many ways the identity he prefered over the titular Wizard of Oz, although his character was in more ways emulating of the Wizard.

   As the century turned Baum, in partnership with illustrator Denslow published “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” Overnight it became a sensation and created the first drive for mass marketing and product tie-ins. Within a year the first stage production would be put on, a trend that would continue. Even as far as the 21st century and the production of the Broadway musical, Tony award winning hit “Wicked”.

   As literature for children it was a watershed moment, creating an entire imagined world the likes of which had not been seen since “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. Here at last was a truly unique and recognizable American fairytale. Over the next two decades Baum would write 14 Oz books, along with many Oz articles and smaller pieces, Baum even dubbed himself the official Royal historian to the marvelous Land of Oz So popular was his imagined world it endured after his death under the care of Ruth Plumly Thompson who would go on to write 19 additional Oz books, John R. Neil who contributed another 3 followed by Jack Snow, Rachel Cosgrove and Eloise Jarvis McGraw making the total number of Oz books in print 40 (so-called the famous 40).

   There had been many film versions of Baums story, some of which were created by Baum himself in his own studio but in 1939 Victor Flemming directed “The Wizard of Oz” staring Judy Garland as Dorothy and Frank Morgan as the Wizard enshrining forever the remarkable creation of a remarkable American in the cannon of Children’s Literature and popular culture.

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