His life up to then had been a series of hits and misses. But so certain was L. Frank Baum that he’d turned out something extraordinary when he published his first children’s novel in 1900 that he saved and framed the stub of the pencil he’d used to write it.
Even he couldn’t have imagined the more than century-long spell that “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” casts to this day.
The story of a plucky Kansas farm girl, her three unlikely allies and a wicked, water-phobic witch in the enchanted land of Oz still resonates from Hollywood and Broadway to museums, a calendar full of festivals, eBay and, premiering in Kansas City in October, an ambitious “Oz” ballet.
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Baum’s book spawned dozens more books — 13 written by him — and more than 50 movie and television adaptations. One of the most successful of those spinoff books, Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” begot a blockbuster stage musical that’s now the sixth-longest running production in Broadway history (closing in daily on “Les Misérables”), and that is being made into yet another big-screen adaptation.
It’s highly anticipated but won’t — can’t — supplant the iconic 1939 movie that seared its richly colored images of Oz and its inhabitants into the minds of generations to follow. It also entered the lexicon. “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” “There’s no place like home.” “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”
Here in Kansas City, a new stage production premiered this summer at Providence Medical Center Amphitheatre. There’ve been radio series, ice shows, even an underwater show in Weeki Wachee, Fla., that cast mermaids in the roles of Dorothy, the Scarecrow and Baum’s other major characters.
You want to immerse in all things Oz? The Oz Museum in downtown Wamego, Kan., draws about 40,000 people annually to a community of about 4,700. Artifacts are more difficult to acquire, its director says, because of a steady demand for Oz collectibles and prices that are “growing exponentially.”
Oz plates and figurines, greeting cards and Christmas ornaments, board and video games. They’re all out there, page upon online page.
Baum’s great-grandson, Roger S. Baum, is part of the wave, writing 19 of his own Oz books. “There’s something beautiful about the fact that it’s still going like that,” he says.
Why is it? The novel is 118 years old. The MGM film that gave Judy Garland her most memorable role turns 80 next year. The screen version of “Gone With the Wind” turns 80, too, but even it (the best-picture Oscar winner over “Oz”) doesn’t have the same cultural transcendence.
“It’s truly an American fairy tale,” says Roger Baum, a stockbroker turned writer who’s working at age 80 on still another book in his successful Oz series. “Many of our fairy tales come from England and Germany and so forth, and here (at the turn of the 20th century) you had an American author writing American fairy tales. You can think of it as a genuine piece of Americana.”
Clint Stueve, who oversees the Oz Museum as executive director of Wamego’s Columbia Theatre, points to fortuitous timing.
“When the book came out,” he says, “it was the first to highlight illustrations. We take that for granted with children’s books now, but it captured a lot of attention from children and parents at that time.
“With the movie, MGM was the biggest studio and put all of its resources into making a statement piece right when Technicolor became available. It rode the first wave of re-entering movies on television (debuting on the small screen in 1956), and then home video in the ’80s. It’s been at the forefront of each of the waves when our consumption of media changed.”
At the core of Oz obsession is the storytelling of L. Frank Baum, who transfixed kids in his Chicago neighborhood with his fantastical tales before he put them in writing.
“It’s a classic, and it has all the qualities of a classic. Just as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ does,” says Septime Webre, who created and choreographs the upcoming Kansas City Ballet production.
“It’s a really great story about good and evil and perseverance and wishing for something and attaining it. But it also happens to be an amazing adventure story … and if we know anything from today’s Hollywood films, adventure sells. There’s enough danger and scariness to keep us going and wondering what’s next.
“The characters are outrageous, but we can relate to the Scarecrow’s very simplistic desire (to have a brain). There’s the touching sweetness of the Tin Man. And the Lion’s sort of ironic, thinking he has no courage but he’s the most courageous of all of them. There’s simple humanism built in throughout the book.”
Webre’s appreciation of “Oz” dates to his childhood in the Bahamas and later south Texas, he says. He devoured all of Baum’s “Oz” books, played out the stories with his sister and seven brothers at an abandoned house “that looked like it had been plopped down by a Caribbean hurricane,” and began staging “Oz” productions with a marionette show when he was 12.
Webre now is artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet, moving there after 17 years in charge of the Washington Ballet. His Kansas City Ballet production Of “Oz” opens at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 12.
“This is my ninth or 10th full-length ballet,” he says. “I had to go through all of those previous experiences before getting to the place where I felt I could tackle a work like ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ with integrity, so the work would stand on its own and not essentially take a free pass from the successes of the book and the movie.”
Oz-mania does have its limits. Somebody last month launched a Kickstarter campaign to underwrite a series of illustrated Oz-takeoff books with a purportedly fresh take — “a multidimensional plot-twister as told from Toto’s perspective that includes an updated original cast and a host of other wondrous quirky social misfits.” It raised $101 of a hoped-for $36,400 before the plug was pulled Aug. 30.
There also are a few Kansans who aren’t overly appreciative of Baum’s depiction of the state as flat, drab and tornado-ridden or could live without being asked “where’s Toto” or hearing another “we’re not in Kansas anymore” reference (which, by the way, comes from the movie and not the book).
“Sometimes, people get weary of those comments,” says the Oz Museum’s Stueve. “But you think of all the states and all the things they’re identified with. I think we’re pretty fortunate to be associated with ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It’s a very classic, moral tale, something everybody can identify with to a degree. It’s not anything we should be ashamed of. It’s something we can be proud of.”
Kansas officially is. The state’s tourism slogan is “There’s No Place Like Kansas.” Years back, it was “The Land of Ahs.” In Kansas, and worldwide, love for Oz seems eternal.
“Would Granddad be surprised?” Roger Baum says. “In his latter years, he was getting so many letters from kids … by the hundreds. He may have had an inclination that this was something special and figured it may go on quite a while.
“I don’t know if he’d think it would go on for a hundred years.”
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. The library’s Kaite Mediatore Stover will lead a discussion of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9, at the Kansas City Ballet’s Bolender Center. To attend, email Stover at email@example.com.
The Kansas City Ballet will present “The Wizard of Oz” Oct. 12-21 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. See kcballet.org or call 816-931-8993.
The 1939 “Wizard of Oz” movie is based on L. Frank Baum’s book, but Hollywood took some liberties, changing the famous shoes from silver to ruby red (that looks better in Technicolor) and aging Dorothy from a child to a teenager. This excerpt from near the end of the book reveals some of the changes:
“’The Silver Shoes,’ said the Good Witch, ‘have wonderful powers. And one of the most curious things about them is that they can carry you to any place in the world in three steps, and each step will be made in the wink of an eye. All you have to do is knock the heels together three times and command the shoes to carry you wherever you wish to go.’
“’If that is so,’ said the child joyfully, ‘I will ask them to carry me back to Kansas at once.’
“She threw her arms around the Lion’s neck and kissed him, patting his big head tenderly. Then she kissed the Tin Woodman, who was weeping in a way most dangerous to his joints. But she hugged the soft, stuffed body of the Scarecrow in her arms instead of kissing his painted face, and found she was crying herself at this sorrowful parting from her loving comrades.
“Glinda the Good stepped down from her ruby throne to give the little girl a good-bye kiss, and Dorothy thanked her for all the kindness she had shown to her friends and herself.
“Dorothy now took Toto up solemnly in her arms, and having said one last good-bye she clapped the heels of her shoes together three times, saying:
“ ‘Take me home to Aunt Em!’ ”