L. Frank Baum: The Wizard Behind the Curtain

Who was L. Frank Baum and where did his story come from? In celebration of his birth, we explore the imagination of the author who created the beloved children's book series.
Judy Garland was originally outfitted with a blond wig to play the role of Dorothy Gale in "The Wizard of Oz."

Judy Garland was originally outfitted with a blond wig to play the role of Dorothy Gale in 'The Wizard of Oz' (Photo: Getty Images)

If you were to ask any random American about L. Frank Baum, you would most likely be met with a quizzical look. Is that the company that makes clothes for camping? A politician who once ran for Congress? A law firm that advertises on late-night TV? The guy who invented chewing gum?

No, none of the above. But simply murmur the names “Dorothy and Toto,” and it would be hard to find one living person who wouldn’t immediately recognize the most famous products of L. Frank Baum’s imagination. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the book that made Baum a household name at the turn of the 20th century, has proven to be as timeless and as culturally influential as any children’s book ever written, even if the name of its author doesn’t inspire the same level of recognition now as it once did.

Of course, the staying power of Baum’s book can partially be attributed to the second life it received courtesy of Hollywood. The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 film based on Baum’s stories, remains a perennial favorite, beloved by every generation that has come along since its initial run over 75 years ago. Baum didn’t live to see that film, but he wasn’t insensible to his story’s adaptability to other mediums; during his lifetime he would be involved in a musical stage play and early silent films based on his most famous book.

Who was L. Frank Baum and where did his story come from? In celebration of his birth, we take a look at the wizard behind the curtain, the man who gave the children of his day – as well as the children of ours – an unforgettable imaginative world to explore.

Writer in Training

L. Frank Baum Photo

L. Frank Baum, circa 1911. (Photo: By George Steckel [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856 to a well-to-do family near Syracuse, New York. Although young Frank (he hated being called Lyman) had nothing to worry about financially, he wasn’t blessed with the best of health. Born with a weak heart, he was often absent from school, and eventually he was educated at home. Although he was a pleasant, upbeat child, his circumstances naturally inclined him to reading, writing, and solitary hobbies like stamp collecting. However, his many siblings (nine altogether!) made sure that he didn’t spend too much time alone.

For some reason, young Frank developed a keen interest in chickens, and he spent a lot of time hanging around the chicken coop on his parents’ estate. After an attempt to tough out military school failed badly, he got serious about chicken breeding and became something of an expert on the Hamburg variety (he would later write a book about it). He also kept writing. He and his brother Harry regularly published a family newspaper that they wrote, edited, and printed themselves on a small, inexpensive printing press their father had bought them to encourage their literary inclinations.

As he grew older, Frank began to see writing as a gateway into the theater world. He had always written poetry and plays, and he wondered if he could parlay these skills into a career as a playwright and actor. During a stint in his early 20s when he was managing a local theater, he put on one of his own plays, The Maid of Arran, which he also starred in. The play proved to be enough of a hit that the company Frank put together was able to tour with it after its initial run. His life in the theater met a premature end, unfortunately, when a theater fire destroyed all of the show’s costumes, props, and scripts. Disheartened, Frank decided that theatrical life was too unpredictable for his taste and looked into other options.

Hard Times and New Beginnings

Frank gave up the theater, but not before meeting and romancing Maud Gage, who would become his wife in 1882. Maud was the daughter of prominent suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was not in favor of the marriage. Frank and Maud married anyway, and Frank endeavored to get serious about a “real” career now that he and Maud were starting a family. For a few years he worked selling oil for axles and gears until giving up and suggesting to his wife that they go west, where a better opportunity beckoned. Locating an empty country store in the Dakotas, the Baums set up a novelty and toy store. Shopkeeping was not Frank’s forte, however, and the store didn’t last; he soon tried his hand at starting a local newspaper, but that was not successful, either. As prolific at home as he was in types of employment, Frank soon had four sons to support and he was not meeting expenses. He headed back east to Chicago, where he landed a job selling china. The family soon followed.

L. Frank Baum Goose Books Photo

The Baum-Denslow Mother Goose book used as free premium for breakfast cereal. (Photo: Scanned from 'Atlantic Monthly' magazine, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons)

While having a large family to raise forced Frank to work at a job he didn’t much enjoy, it also allowed him to indulge his creative side. Always a fan of fantasy stories, Frank would spin yarns to lull his children to sleep. (It is said that Frank was such a good storyteller that the children of neighbors would sneak over to the Baum house to hear the stories, too.) On a visit, Matilda overheard Frank telling his stories and suggested that he start writing them down. Frank did just that, and although his initial attempts to find a publisher met with so many rejection letters that he started a special journal called his “Record of Failure,” he persevered. At last his effort paid off: His first book Mother Goose in Prose was published in 1897 and it was quite successful– successful enough, in fact, to spawn a sequel, Father Goose, His Book, one of the best-selling picture books of 1899-1900. It seemed that the good-hearted but professionally unlucky Frank had at last found his calling: children’s book author.

The Inspirations Behind Oz

Frank’s signature achievement would follow in 1900: The Wonderful World of Oz. Frank often explained the book as a burst of inspiration that came out of nowhere, inspired by looking at the second drawer of his file cabinet which read “O–Z.” More believably, the book was an aggregation of many elements both nostalgic and contemporary. During his childhood, for example, the road to Frank’s school was, in fact, laid with yellow brick. Scarecrows would have been a familiar sight in the fields not far from town, and the rusty joints of a tin woodsman would have been just the kind of mechanical object in need of the oil that Frank once sold. Tornadoes were a familiar sight out on the Great Plains of the Dakota Territory, and the notion of all-powerful wizards was not altogether bunk in the age of patent medicines and spiritual revival.

Wizard of Oz Photo

'Wizard of Oz.' (Photo: Getty Images)

Some of the key characters arose from an even more personal source. Dorothy, the book’s heroine, got her name from Frank’s niece, who passed away at age five, an event that upset Maud greatly. Similarly, it’s said that Glinda the Good Witch was based on Frank’s mother-in-law, who before her death in 1898 had become a figure of support and encouragement to the Baums. The book’s “It’s good to be home again!” (changed in the movie to “There’s no place like home!”) was directly inspired by the Baums’ return to the east from the west, where they never felt quite at home – Frank even wrote about it in an article for a Chicago paper. Chicago itself may have been the inspiration for the Emerald City of Oz. It was the location of the so-called White City, the nickname for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which was the biggest World’s Fair ever held in America. Perhaps coincidentally, Frank also saw Thomas Edison, the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” at the Exposition, and his impression of the intense inventor lingered for weeks afterward.

Dorothy’s pilgrimage through Oz may also have a spiritual dimension. Theosophy was a popular religious-philosophical movement of the period which posited that through intense meditation, the mysteries of the universe could be revealed. Theosophists believed in reincarnation and a mystical connection with God. Matilda Gage had passed on her interest in Theosophy to the Baums, and Frank was an avid member of the Theosophical Society. Looking at The Wonderful Wizard of Oz through this lens, the Yellow Brick Road could be seen as the mystical path to enlightenment on which Dorothy (a name literally meaning “gift of God”) travels with her companions, who clearly reflect different aspects of her own human personality: brain, heart, ego. Dorothy’s goal is to “go home,” or reach Nirvana, with the help of “the Wizard” (or guru), who holds the key. Of course, in the end, the key to self-actualization is not with the Wizard, but within Dorothy herself, just as it is in Theosophical thinking.

The Yellow Brick Road Comes to the Great White Way

Although The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s spiritual subtext is interesting to explore, there is little question that the book succeeded simply because it told a wonderful new tale for children. And succeed it did: The first print run of 10,000 copies sold out in a month, and it went through printing after printing after printing. Colorful, memorable illustrations by W.W. Denslow cemented images in the mind that only Hollywood’s depictions could supersede. The book even received a rave review in The New York Times. Already successful as a children’s author, Baum soon became a household name.

The world of 1900 was not as different from now as we might think, and just like now, a popular book could inspire adaptations in other media. Soon, Baum became involved in writing a stage musical based on his best-selling book. Drawing on his theatrical experience, he was able to craft a version of the story that with the help of tuneful songs and elaborate costumes made The Wizard of Oz (the first shortening of the title) a Broadway success that ran for almost a year. The musical later toured the country before returning to Broadway for a second run.

Never intending to revisit the land of Oz once the Broadway show was finished, Baum was overwhelmed by the never-ending flood of mail he received from children requesting a sequel. In response, he produced The Marvelous Land of Oz (later called just The Land of Oz) in 1904, which was also made into a stage play. A prolific writer to say the least (he wrote under a multitude of pseudonyms so that his work would not flood the market), Baum soon realized that he had created a cottage industry. Although he sometimes wished to step away from the world that he created, the Oz “brand” was established, and over the next 15 years, he would write a new Oz book almost every year until he died, including such titles as Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, The Road to Oz, and The Emerald City of Oz.

Oz Goes On

The last years of L. Frank Baum’s life were mostly happy ones, even if things got bumpy financially and his health became more tender. Baum always had ambitious ideas for his franchise, drawing up plans for an Oz amusement park off the coast of California (never realized) as well as getting his characters into the new medium of motion pictures. An innovative touring presentation he put together in 1908 featuring slideshows, music, and live performance that he narrated himself lost a lot of money; he was forced to sell the rights to his first nine Oz books, and even then, he still had to declare bankruptcy in 1911. But, ever hopeful, the Baums moved to Hollywood in 1914 to see if Oz might be successfully developed for the screen. Four short films by the Selig company had been made earlier without Baum’s participation (one of which, made in 1910, still exists), but Baum wanted to do it on his own. His Oz Film Manufacturing Company would make three Oz features, beginning with The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Unfortunately, they were only modestly successful and the company soon ceased operations. Still, Baum’s books, both those written under his own name and those he wrote for quick money, helped keep the family living comfortably at Ozcot, the home in Hollywood where Baum lived until his death in 1919.

It would be 20 years before MGM’s The Wizard of Oz would re-stamp Baum’s visions on popular culture for a second time, but the intervening years were not Oz quiet, even though the wizard behind the curtain was gone. Maud licensed other authors to write books using the Oz characters, and in 1925, a popular silent film version was made that is probably most famous now for featuring Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man. When MGM’s Technicolor extravaganza came along in 1939, of course, the characters of Oz became cultural icons. Maud, who lived until 1953, was active in promoting the movie and her husband’s legacy during this period. The Baums’ marriage had been a loving one, and she remained faithful to the work that had occupied so much of his life.