Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Man Behind the Curtain

Illustration by W. W. Denslow
The Tin Man wants a heart. The Scarecrow wants a brain. The Lion wants to find his c-c-courage. And Dorothy? She just wants to go home.

We know the author L. Frank Baum because of his big success--The Wonderful Wizard of OzBut for most of his life, Frank seemed to fail at everything he tried. And not just little boo-boos. We're talking epic fail.

Once upon a time (well, May 14, 1856, to be precise), Lyman Frank Baum was born to rich parents, who lived on a rose-covered estate in New York state. Great beginning to the story, but then those pesky plot complications beset our hapless hero.

At age 18, Frank decided to try acting as a career. One company took him on—but only on the condition that he would bring along a trunkful of very expensive costumes. The cast members kept “borrowing” his costumes, but Frank still didn’t get to act in any of the plays. 

So he started his own theatrical company. He wrote the plays and played all the lead roles. Only one production was a hit—The Maid of ArranBut first his bookkeeper stole all his money, and then the props were burned in a fire.

Frank raised poultry for a while. Then came another disaster. He tried being a traveling salesman, selling lamps and oil. One day he returned to the office to find the head clerk dead. He had shot himself after gambling away Frank’s money.

Baum's Bazaar, 1888

When he was 26, Frank married Maud Gage. The Baums moved to South Dakota, where Frank failed first at operating a store, "Baum's Bazaar," and then at running a newspaper.

Frank and Maud had four sons, and Frank spent a lot of time playing with them and making up stories for them. Soon the children were inviting their friends over to hear the stories their dad told. Frank noticed that the kids paid attention when the stories had action, but they weren’t as interested in sissy stuff like romance between princes and princesses. 

Eventually Frank’s mother-in-law suggested that he should write his stories down, and he wrote a book of stories (Mother Goose in Prose) and a book of nonsense rhymes (Father Goose). But what to do next? 

L. Frank Baum
For a long time, Frank had been telling stories about an imaginary place called “The Emerald City,” featuring a little girl named Dorothy and her dog Toto. One night a girl asked Frank where all of these characters lived, and his eye fell on a filing cabinet labeled O—Z. He announced that they all lived in the Land of Oz. He turned his stories into The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and it was published in 1900.

Movie poster
One year at Christmas time, the Baum family was in need of money. Frank stopped by his publisher’s, hoping to get a check for $100 to help them with holiday expenses. He popped the check into his pocket without looking at it and went home. 

His wife was ironing when Frank handed her the check. Smoke rose from the burning shirt as Maud stared at the check for several thousand dollars! At last Frank Baum was a success.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz topped the charts in children's books for two years, and Baum went on to write thirteen more books about the Land of Oz. Eventually he retired to Hollywood, to a mansion called Ozcot. He still told stories to children who came to visit. He died of a stroke in May of 1919, just nine days before his 63rd birthday, and other authors continued writing books in the Oz series.

Theatrical, musical, and movie adaptations have been made of Baum's work. The book and Broadway musical versions of Wicked are based on Oz. The main character’s name-- Elphaba--is derived from LFB, Baum’s initials.

Frank Baum was not an overnight success. He worked hard throughout his life--sometimes failing, sometimes being cheated--but in the end, his persistence paid off, and--like his heroine Dorothy--he found the right path, the one that leads home.

"There's no place like home."

The Stark Raving Mythopath recommends The Dreamer of Oz, a made-for-tv movie, starring John Ritter as Frank Baum, and The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum, by Kathleen Krull.


  1. As always, a delight to visit The Stark Raving Mythopath!

  2. Very nice. I've read about a third of the book Wicked- on which the play was based- and I have to say it is really rather terrible. A bit crass for my taste. But, I love the Wizard of Oz. It will always have a happy spot in my childhood.

    1. Ooooops. Which proves I shouldn't go spouting off about books I haven't read! Sorry. :-) Maybe the theatrical version is better? But again, I have no first hand experience.

  3. Thanks, Patty! I will order "The Dreamer of Oz" from Netflix today! Had never heard of Baum's background. Enough to give a girl hope!