By: John Fricke
If you’ve ever heard anything about L. Frank Baum’s childhood, you’re aware that – as a boy — he lived on a beautiful estate called Rose Lawn, near Syracuse, NY. Its gardens, flowers, lawns, paths, and mansion-like home made for a happy environment; here Frank wrote and printed his own small newspaper, or read or daydreamed for hours on end.
As an adult, his living quarters weren’t continually that plush. His imagination and varying professions led him to (mostly) rented houses, deluxe (or not) hotels or apartments, or fashionable or rustic summer dwellings. He and his family lived everywhere from the Syracuse area to Aberdeen in Dakota Territory, to Chicago, Macatawa, MI, and Coronado, CA. Finally, in 1910, he arrived at the home shown in the photographs just above and below; he christened it “Ozcot.”
It was an apt designation. By then, Baum was the renowned “Royal Historian of Oz,” primarily famous for the first six books in the Oz series and the outrageously successful THE WIZARD OF OZ stage musical (very loosely adapted from the story of that title). Never a savvy money-manager, he had lost a small fortune on another theatrical venture, the multi-media FAIRY-LOGUE AND RADIO PLAYS (1908); by 1911, he was forced to declare bankruptcy.
The saving grace in this is that he had already transferred all of his property, including book rights, to his wondrous wife, Maud Gage. Thus, when she came into an inheritance from her mother, Maud and Frank borrowed additional funds from a wealthy friend and bought a lot in quiet Hollywood, CA. There, they built Ozcot, and – possibly for the first time since his youth – Baum once again had a long-term home of his own: a large, two-story bungalow with an immense back yard. There he could garden, keep an aviary, and breed and raise what turned out to be prize-winning chrysanthemums and dahlias.
Given the Southern California climate, Baum could comfortably write outdoors much of the time, and his years at Ozcot witnessed a remarkable professional output. Baumian enterprises between 1911-1919 included the two “Tiny Trot and Cap’n Bill” fantasy books, THE SEA FAIRIES and SKY ISLAND; the LITTLE WIZARD STORIES OF OZ (six short tales about favorite characters from the marvelous land); his final eight full-length Oz novels; continuations of his “series books” for teenagers; the production of the reasonably successful stage musical, THE TIK-TOK MAN OF OZ; the launch of the short-lived Oz Film Manufacturing Company; and a score of other book and theatrical endeavors that were developed but never completed or mounted. (This latter statement excepts the four complete shows he wrote for The Uplifters, a by-invitation-membership club for businessmen, originally based at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.)
Obviously, Baum’s life at this time was as vividly, participatorily active as possible; apart from his work, there were golf games, flower show excursions, family outings, and the like. But Ozcot was there, at the end of the day – or at the finish of a business trip or road-show tour — to provide a peaceful foundation and retreat. Sixty years later, veteran Hollywood journalist/scenarist Adela Rogers St. Johns remembered Baum’s “extraordinary twinkle of joie de vivre” when she chanced to “meet him taking a little soul-and-back-stretching stroll down
Bronson Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard.” At such moments, one writer appraised the other, and she felt that Baum’s jaunts were spiritually “companioned no doubt with the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, and of course, Dorothy.”
It was a beautiful, peaceful neighborhood, as borne out by a recent social media posting that described the area and, specifically, the Baum home: “Hollywood . . . at the time was mostly citrus groves. In 1910, the street was known as Magnolia but was renamed Cherokee two years later. On the second floor, [Baum] had a long, enclosed porch with a view of the distant mountains; downstairs, at one end, [was] a large sunroom where he grew flowers. In his garden, he planted roses, dahlias and chrysanthemums, [and] before long, he was recognized as a champion amateur horticulturist in Southern California. He built a large bird cage, big enough for a zoo, and there kept hundreds of rare and exotic song birds.”
Across the last two years of his life, Baum faced multiple health complications: angina attacks, gall bladder removal, an inflamed appendix. His weakened condition kept him bedridden for months – but he continued to write his books, answer letters from children, and rest securely (if not always comfortably) in the home he and Maud established for themselves.
He died there at Ozcot on May 6, 1919, just days before his sixty-third birthday. Maud remained in residence — keeping up Frank’s gardens and their homestead as she was able – until her own death in 1953, after which Ozcot was razed. But joyous memories about the place continue to surface. A few years ago, local resident and film actress Ann Rutherford recalled her own frequent walks past Ozcot in the late 1930s and into the 1940s. The flowers remained eye-catching and stunning, and if Maud was in the yard, the two women would often visit. Rutherford was then a well-known Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer actress, most familiar to moviegoers as “Polly Benedict,” Mickey Rooney’s girlfriend in the ANDY HARDY series. It was thus a given that she would attend the premiere of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ; a few months ago, this blog featured a photograph of Maud and Ann at that event. Just below, you’ll find another in which they’re present, if not preeminent!
I mentioned above that “joyous memories about” Ozcot “continue to surface.” One of these, just this past week on Facebook, actually prompted this month’s blog topic, and I quote it here: “My grandmother, who lived nearby [Ozcot], and her little friends used to go to [Mr. Baum’s] house, and he would come out and tell the children stories about Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, while they sat on his porch and had lemonade and cookies. He would tell the children to hang Log Cabin Syrup cans in the trees — and that the Munchkins would come and live in them. When my grandmother went to Hollywood High (where she graduated in 1919), she said there were still some of those cans hanging in the trees in Hollywood!”
What could be more typically Frank Baum than a directive – and outcome — like that? (The question’s rhetorical, but in case you know of any homeless Munchkins, here’s a 1914 container of the type he was describing! 😊 )
to L. Frank Baum, and to his final “there’s no place like home” in this life. As
someone who wasn’t born for more than thirty years after Baum’s passing, I grew
up loving Oz in the 1950s, 1960s, and ever after. The more I’ve learned about Ozcot
across all this time, the more I’ve wished I could have been one of the
children who visited him there – or wrote to him there.
AND got an answer!