“FOR MORE FUN . . . MORE ADVENTURE . . . READ AN OZ BOOK!”

FOR MORE FUN . . .MORE ADVENTURE…READ AN OZ BOOK!

by John Fricke

The images above show the title page of — and an advertisement for the sixth Oz story in — a 1965 publisher’s brochure about The Oz Books. Meanwhile, the headline of this month’s blog quotes a decades-old promotional slogan put forward by that same publisher, The Reilly & Lee Company of Chicago, back in the day when all forty books of the “official” Oz series were in print and accessible.

That’s right: Forty!

I know some of you reading here are already aware that there was more than one Oz book. Given the success of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ in 1900, the wondrous L. Frank Baum (soon to be heralded as “Royal Historian of Oz”) penned thirteen full-length sequels, issued between 1904 and 1920. Others of you might treasure memories of some — or all — of the twenty-six additional titles, written by six other storytellers after Baum’s passing; these appeared between 1921 and 1963. But most of those who today seek diversions for their children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews, or younger brothers or sisters bypass even the sole Oz book of which they’re aware: Baum’s original WIZARD. In fact, they often completely bypass books in general, opting instead to supply or permit electronic entertainment: television, video games, phone apps, and the like.

Well, times change; I understand that. And pending the merit of the specific “product” in question, there’s a level of worth in all of it. But the joys to be found in reading the Oz books — or reading them aloud to children — are well worth exploring and reviving.

That’s a fact that — I have to admit — I’ve never forgotten. But it was powerfully brought to the forefront of my mind a few weeks ago with the passing of the extraordinary Harlan Ellison. He was a man of strong and sometimes controversial opinion, yet primarily and gloriously a writer of immense imagination, ingenuity, and accomplishment. He was also a champion when it came to encouraging perusal and consumption of the written word — specifically (on one memorable occasion) when discussing the Oz books. Take a look; this video lasts less than three minutes, but Harlan is Most Definitely a Man With a Mission! https://youtu.be/4hH6Gs0ncT8

That video was produced as one of Ellison’s “Watching” segments, originally telecast over the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) cable channel on their show, BUZZ, just twenty-five years ago next month. Agree or disagree with all he said, one can’t deny that Harlan’s passion for Oz is extremely well-founded.  (For those who might wonder, the theme park he references – and a design for which is shown again above — unfortunately never came to be: the result of local Kansas politics shortly after Ellison taped his commentary.)

I’d planned this month’s blog as an homage to The Oz Book series. Then, when Harlan passed on June 28th, it seemed like some sort of magical benediction and opportunity to let someone of his informed and intelligent words speak FOR me – at least to a certain extent. Beyond his directives, however, I’d like to add just a few personal recollections.

Every Oz fan out there — and most of the world’s human beings! — have their own, individual touchstone and connection to Baum’s original story and creations. Mostly, I think, the introduction has been supplied by teleshowings or home video viewings of the 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Judy Garland musical movie. But others did, indeed, first discover Oz via editions of the books. Or through other dramatizations: THE WIZ, RETURN TO OZ, JOURNEY BACK TO OZ, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, WICKED . . . or maybe now the new and current DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD OF OZ cartoon, courtesy Warner Bros. and Boomerang.

Yet there is SO much more to be found in the fundamental, vintage AND timeless (dare I say pure?) Oz. I admit – delightedly, freely, and proudly – that Judy & Co. provided my launch when I was five years old. But by age six, I’d graduated to Baum’s full text. (There were SO many more characters and countries! Or, to recap the headline above: More fun! More adventure!) Then, at seven, while browsing through the children’s section of Gimbel’s Book Department in downtown Milwaukee, I found this on one of the shelves:

Some of you have heard me tell this story before. But it was, for sure, a major and pivotal moment in my life. An accident? No – a gift from God. I first saw the spine of the book: THE ROAD TO OZ/Baum; those five words, and those two magic letters: O-Z. And when I pulled the volume from the shelf, I pretty much levitated, at least emotionally. You can see the book cover, just above. In the preceding twenty months, the four characters pictured there had become my best friends. To see them again, so beautifully and glowingly drawn by John R. Neill, and to realize they’d had more adventures (and More Fun!) provided a thrill that I recapture every time I remember that summer afternoon of shopping. Awed, I leafed through the book – but what next took precedence over my thought processes was the first glimpse of the back flap of the dust jacket. Three words topped off a long list: The Oz Books – and the roster showed thirty-eight additional titles . . . all of which ended in “. . . OF OZ” or “. . . IN OZ.”

There’s so much more to tell, but I’ll be succinct. I welcomed THE ROAD TO OZ for my eighth birthday. A few weeks later, for Christmas, I received five more titles; I believe they were TIK-TOK OF OZ, RINKITINK IN OZ, KABUMPO IN OZ, JACK PUMPKINHEAD OF OZ, and THE WONDER CITY OF OZ. It didn’t matter that these five books were written by three different authors. At that juncture, it didn’t even matter that I wasn’t reading the stories in chronological order. All that mattered was the opportunity at hand: to pick up each hardcover volume, turn to page one of chapter one, and then — more than anything or anywhere else — I went where I wanted to go.

It was history. It was hoztory.

It was home.

      

There’s an obvious message to this meandering, of course. Harlan Ellison DECLAIMS it, from his heart, in the video. I’ll be a bit gentler: Read the Oz Books. For your own pleasure. For your own brief, joyous escape. For their innocence. For a reminder that “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” For whatever reasons are personal and your own.

Most of the forty – and all fourteen of Baum’s – have been reprinted in one format or another. Many are currently available. The Chittenango “All Things Oz” Gift Shop and Museum has a goodly supply, including some no longer easily found elsewhere.

So, read ‘em aloud to youngsters. Read ‘em to adults. Enjoy the humor, the heart, the openminded embrace of diversity, the power of devotion and commitment to others – and to their individual worth.

Enjoy the Fun; the Adventure — and the Magic. Oz has it all . . . for everyone.

 

DECADES OF ENTERTAINMENT . . . & COUNTLESS MAGICAL GUESTS

May 2018

OZ-STRAVAGANZA!

DECADES OF ENTERTAINMENT . . . & COUNTLESS MAGICAL GUESTS

by John Fricke

A week from today, on Friday, June 1, Chittenango launches its forty-first annual celebration of native son, L. Frank Baum — the genius (yes, that’s right!) who created the wonderful world of Oz, its inhabitants, its geography, and its legends. When local librarian Clara Houck launched all of this more than four decades ago, the “festival” consisted of a children’s costume parade around a parking lot — with ice cream to follow. Now, OZ-Stravaganza! (as it’s come to be known) offers a full three-day weekend for tens of thousands of fans, and with international celebrities as its honored attendees.

Certainly, this year’s special-guest roster is an unprecedented amalgam of extraordinary talents, ceremoniously topped by Stephen Schwartz, the Oscar and Grammy Award-winning stage and screen songwriter. His Oz-themed musical, WICKED, achieves its fifteenth anniversary on Broadway in 2018. Appearing both separately and with Mr. Schwartz will be two of the New York stars of that show, Tiffany Haas, who played Glinda, and Michael McCorry Rose, who played Fiyero. (Tiffany is shown above, with one of her Elphabas, Anne Brumel.)  Additionally, Baum’s great-granddaughter, Dr. Gita Dorothy Morena and her nephew Austin Mantele, will recall their famous ancestor and his accomplishments. Steve Margoshes, another musical luminary, will discuss his burgeoning list of Oz compositions and introduce a new one, aided by students from Manlius High School. Gabriel Gale, the new “Royal Historian,” debuts the second volume of his AGES OF OZ book trilogy, published by Simon & Schuster, and costume designer Shawn Ryan offers recreations of famous wardrobe as first seen in Oz stage musicals from 1903 to the present day.

There’s more information about OZ-Stravaganza!  and its 2018 participants in last month’s blog and at the fest website:  Oz-stravaganza

But, in a reminiscent mood, I think this is also a perfect opportunity to point out that the star power of the festival harks back to the late 1980s, when Chittenango first played host to the one-and-only “Munchkin Coroner” of the famous 1939 WIZARD OF OZ movie, Meinhardt Raabe. So much did he enjoy Frank Baum’s birthplace that Meinhardt paved the (yellow brick . . .) way for local organizers to invite the participation of such other MGM Munchkins as Jerry Maren, center member of the “Lollipop Guild” trio, and Margaret Pellegrini, the “Flowerpot Hat” Dancer and “Sleepyhead.” Shown below are (foreground, from left:) Jerry and his wife, Elizabeth; Margaret; and Meinhardt and his wife, Marie. Oz collector Michael Mikicel (left) and I “stand guard”; this photo was taken circa 1991.

Numerous additional Munchkins made their way to Chittenango across the 1990s and into the new millennium: dancing townswomen Fern Formica and Ruth Duccini, soldiers Clarence Swensen (with wife Myrna) and Lewis Croft (with wife Eva), first trumpeter Karl Slover, and fiddler Mickey Carroll. Caren Marsh Doll, a notable Hollywood dancer in screen musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, was also a regular for several years. Caren served as one of Judy Garland’s OZ stand-ins on the MGM movie set while lights were focused, camera angles adjusted, and wind machines tested. Christiana Rickard, niece of MGM Scarecrow, Ray Bolger, shared memories of her beloved relative on a couple of occasions, and just last year, OZ-Stravaganza! saluted Jane Lahr, whose legendary father, Bert Lahr, played the Cowardly Lion in the OZ film. (As an Ozzy treat, here’s a photo of Jane at Bonhams in New York City; her father’s original costume was auctioned there for more than three million dollars in 2014.)

Of course, THE WIZARD OF OZ was a world-renowned book almost four decades before MGM transferred it to the screen, and in addition to Dr. Morena, many of Frank Baum’s other family members have come to Chittenango to honor their magical forebearer. His niece, Cynthia Tassini, was a happy participant; Baum’s classic 1910 book, THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ, was dedicated to her. Granddaughters Ozma Baum Mantele (dedicatee and namesake of 1917’s THE LOST PRINCESS OF OZ) and Janet Baum Donaldson both attended, as did great-grandsons Robert Baum (with wife Clare) and Roger Baum (with wife Charlene).  In addition to their festival work, Bob and Clare traveled to area schools and service organizations to depict Frank and his wife, Maud, in charming playlets. Roger — for almost forty years — has followed in the storytelling footsteps of his great-grandfather, enchanting children with his own new Oz books and movies.

From more recent OZ motion pictures, Chittenango has hosted actors and creative team members from OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL and AFTER THE WIZARD. Bringing OZ-Stravaganza! full circle, there were also past occasions when this year’s theme, BROADWAY COMES TO OZ, was implemented in other ways. Perhaps Bronson Pinchot will always be best remembered as “Balki” on the hit television sitcom, PERFECT STRANGERS. But to theatergoers, he’s also a Broadway musical star – besides being a lifelong Oz fan. For fest-goers, Bronson looked back at an Ozzy passion that began when he was a child. Felicia Ricci, a national touring Elphaba from WICKED, sang here one year, and author Gregory Maguire, author of the WICKED book series, thrilled a festival audience with a look-back at his triumphant writing career.

The list goes on and on; certainly not everyone can be re-celebrated in one blog. But the final nod for now must be given to two cast members from THE WIZ. That phenomenal 1970s Broadway smash was remembered here by one of its Cowardly Lion replacement actors, Ken Page (whose later credits include the voicing of Mr. Oogie-Boogie for Tim Burton’s animated triumph, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS). Very memorably, no less than THE WIZ himself also graced the festival stage: Andre De Shields, the originator of the musical’s title role. (Below, Andre poses with International L. Frank Baum and All Things Oz Historical Foundation trustee Marc Baum and his wife, Jennifer.)

I think it’s safe to say that that Chittenango has long since proved to be a wondrous, enchanting “Land of Oz” all on its own – a statement underscored by the many exceptional people who have joyously accepted invitations to visit and celebrate L. Frank Baum. To be sure, he’s the mystically-powered originator who put both OZ-Stravaganza! and the Emerald City on the map!