By John Fricke

[Above: Decades ago, this sign was posted adjacent to the road that circles Bass Lake, Indiana. It welcomed everyone to the “Wizard of Oz Lodge,” a small summer vacation hotel as well as home to the first International Wizard of Oz Club Convention exactly sixty years ago this September. The Club gatherings, which continue to this day, were forerunners of Chittenango’s OZ-Stravaganza! and other festivals around the United States.]

A few months ago, this blog celebrated “Ozcot,” the Hollywood, California, home built for themselves by L. Frank Baum (Royal Historian of Oz) and his wife, Maud, in 1910. Other recent blogs about the Baums have referenced that property, as well.

But there was another Ozcot – a small summer lodge maintained and run by Harry Neal Baum, the third of Frank and Maud’s four sons. It was a multi-story, clapboard building on the shore of Bass Lake, Indiana, and Harry and his wife, Brenda, opened it to vacationers, Sunday diners, family reunions, and small conventions. The Oz Club was only four years old when it held its first weekend gathering there, September 8-10, 1961. This drew a couple of dozen people (roughly one-fourth of the Club’s membership at that time!), and the initial conference managed to program a number of activities that have been integral aspects of Club get-togethers ever since, i.e., a costume contest, musical entertainment, special guest speakers, and the like.

Its success was also enough to launch the idea of making such informal Ozzy socializing an annual event for collectors, partisans, and friends. I didn’t become an Oz Club member until the following July (1962), thus missing the second convention by just a month. (They’d switched the date from September to the third weekend in June to accommodate those potential attendees who would have school conflicts in the autumn and be unable to get away.) I spent the next eleven months totally gearing up for June 1963, and thanks to comprehending and compassionate parents, away my mom and I went. (My dad stayed at home with my seven-year-old brother and not quite two-year-old sister.) It took us two trains – we changed in Chicago — to get to North Judson, Indiana, which was the nearest mini-depot to Bass Lake. At age twelve, however, and after seven years as an increasingly frenzied Oz and Baum devotee, any trip by any means would have been worth it to me: I was about to arrive “in” Oz for the very first time . . . .

[Above: With Bass Lake just behind the camera (and photographer) at the 1962 Oz Convention, this photo captures Ozcot and its screened porch entrance in the background. The dining room annex is at right. Upfront and seated are Florida twins David L. and Douglas G. Greene (then eighteen); standing between them is Justin G. Schiller (nineteen), who founded the Oz Club at age fourteen in 1957. The Greenes were two of its fifteen charter members (sixteen, really, as Justin most definitely has to be included!]

On detraining, we were met by Fred M. Meyer, secretary of the Club and my basic “correspondence conduit” to its doings across the preceding months. He simultaneously greeted a woman and her three children; the oldest of these was about my age, and I eagerly turned to him to initiate an Oz conversation. He was polite and pleasant but immediately turned me over to his mom, Martha Liehe; she was the fan, and the kids were just along for the ride – “training it” all the way from Denver, no less!

True confession here: Indiana’s “Ozcot” wasn’t a vacationer’s dream. There was no air conditioning, and those of you who know Indiana in June may now recoil in horror. Additionally, there were steep staircases to the upper floors, a sometimes-erratic evening meal schedule, just a handful of bathrooms, and – as convention attendance increased between 1963 and 1968 – increasingly jammed sleeping quarters.

And did it matter?

NOOOOOOOOOO!  😊

There was a screened-in porch, facing the lake, by which one entered the lodge. Once in the actual building, the central staircase was directly in front of you. To the left was the parlor, with its baby grand piano, Maxfield Parrish print(s?) from the illustrations he did for L. Frank Baum’s MOTHER GOOSE IN PROSE, and shelves and shelves of books. The treasures among those were copies of Oz and other volumes by Baum, which he himself had had rebound in leather and “stamped” in gold for his personal library some five decades before.

The room to the right was designated as the primary meeting area. There were tables of Oz and fantasy books for sale by fellow conventioneers. There were Oz dolls and Oz toys and Oz peanut butter glasses on the shelves. There were posters on the wall from the 1902 stage production of THE WIZARD OF OZ, from the 1949 reissue of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 WIZARD OF OZ film, AND the wood-carving “Sign of the Goose” that Baum himself made and painted more than sixty years earlier to herald his summer home in Macatawa, Michigan. (That year of my first convention, 1963, also saw a display of a dozen or more beautiful – and astoundingly detailed – maps of Oz and its surrounding countries, designed and drawn by various enthusiasts.)

[Above: This is the poster that thrilled me when I initially rounded the corner into the Ozcot meeting room on Friday afternoon, June 21, 1963. It was the first real MGM OZ movie-connected item I’d ever seen.]

Across the weekend, chairs traveled in and out of that room to accommodate seating for the thirty or so in attendance. It was our “auditorium” for the evening showing of silent Oz movies: a portion of THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ (1914) and THE WIZARD OF OZ (1925). Suffice it to say, this was a rare and highly anticipated treat in those pre-home video days; I’d been reading about those films for five years – but now I’d actually SEE them! During Saturday afternoon, we gathered in the same spot for the equally awaited auction of rare and collectible material, although – in those days – prices only occasionally soared into the double digits. (And then it would take a first edition, or a rare title, or original Neill artwork to do so.) There were Ozzy discussions all day and deep into the night in the meeting room, the parlor, and on the porch – plus an Oz quiz based on all the books in the series, and unfamiliar songs from the early Oz stage musicals pounded out on the piano.

Brenda Baum was an indefatigable hostess, seemingly everywhere at once and simultaneously overseeing the housekeeping and the kitchen. (As per Ozcot publicity, meals were served by college girls wearing “Dorothy of Oz” dresses – i.e., checkered gingham.)  Harry Neal Baum was then 73 but going strong. In succeeding years, one could see that he was beginning to slow down a bit, and he eventually passed away in June 1967, just days before that year’s Convention. Yet Brenda drew all of us to her – “the Ozmaniacs,” in her parlance – and the Club held its last Ozcot meetings in 1967 and 1968. We then followed Brenda to Michigan for a number of years, where she served as hostess at the Castle Park resort.

[Above: Our original OzCon “den mother,” Brenda Baum (by then Turner) returned to the Midwest in 1987 for the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of The International Wizard of Oz Club – held that year in Zion, Illinois. She was honored on this occasion with the organization’s highest commendation: The L. Frank Baum Memorial Award “for Outstanding Contributions to the Saga of Oz.” All-around good guy and book dealer Herm Bieber is in the rear, as is the partly obscured David Maxine, now of the extraordinary and often Oz-related Hungry Tiger Press.]

Prior to my first meeting with him in 1963, Harry Neal Baum and I had already exchanged letters (and imagine, please, the level of pleasure that suffused a preteen at receiving a handwritten communication from one of the sons of L. Frank Baum). 😊  When we met, Harry also autographed my copy of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS, which his father had dedicated to him in 1902. But for everyone, the 1963 “Harry highlight” came when he rose from the dinner table on the first evening of the OzCon to make a brief speech of welcome (and gratitude for all the Baumian allegiance). He then shared some charming personal history about an entertainment in Macatawa circa 1900, when his dad worked up a patter song for Harry and younger brother Kenneth (both preteens) to perform during a local amateur night. He clearly recalled that they’d worn matching white sailor suits, sat on a bench, stared unsmilingly at the audience, and (alternating lines) sang, “I was walking ‘round the ocean on a Sunday afternoon/When I met a lobster salad, but I didn’t have a spoon . . . . ” The nonsense verses went on from there; Harry sang ’em all for the enraptured conventioneers. After their song, the two boys apparently did a little dance, and although Harry didn’t try to recreate that, he did note that, at the time, they were “still seated on the bench and staring straight ahead – and moving only our feet and lower legs in simple steps.” Meanwhile, Oz Club artist Dick Martin had heard the anecdote at least a year earlier and convinced Harry to write up the story, both for posterity and publication in the Club’s BAUM BUGLE magazine. It appeared in the December 1962 issue, with this Dick Martin illustration:

So much came of that weekend for me. It marked the onset of my regular attendance at Oz Club conventions, to which I pretty much unabatedly returned into the 1990s (and still do, though on a more random basis). In those early years, the friendships begun or renewed at Bass Lake continued by old-fashioned mail for the next eleven months, followed by the “Oz family reunion” for three glorious days every June throughout the 1960, 1970s, and 1980s. Additionally, my collection incrementally grew at every meeting via treasures from the Club auction in the 1960s — some items of which I retain to this day: an MGM pressbook for the 1955 reissue of OZ; a huge packet of photostats of L. Frank Baum and Oz research material (dating back, in some cases, to the turn of the century); and color plate editions of the early Oz books.

Perhaps the most remarkable acquisition – circa 1965 or so — was a 1930s edition of THE WIZARD OF OZ, including several dozen primarily unidentifiable autographs on the book’s fly leaf and left endpaper. The list was headed by the name, “Stella Royale – MGM,” and Club auctioneer Dick Martin was his customarily self-stringent soul in refusing to make any claims (or acknowledge even the remote possibility) that the book had actual OZ film-related provenance. (In those days, no one knew enough about the movie’s unbilled performers or behind-the-scenes workers to identify them by name.) I remember winning the volume in the auction for $3.50 or thereabouts, and I bought it primarily because it came with a 1939 colorized postcard of Judy Garland’s Stone Canyon house that had been tucked into the book’s pages. Upon further examination, however, I noticed that two of the signatures on the flyleaf were familiar to me; even as a teen, I’d done enough MGM OZ research to recognize the names of “Bobby Connolly” – who had been the movie’s choreographer – and “Cowboy,” which was the nickname given to one of Connolly’s assistants on the film, Arthur Appell. In later years, thanks to the research of Steve Cox (author of THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ), I could confirm that Stella Royale and another twenty or so of the book’s autographs were indeed those of some of the “little people” who appeared in MGM’s motion picture. This was an unexpected treasure (by everyone!), to be sure.

Apart from the years to come of far-reaching Oz friendships and eventual projects, my future took another remarkable “hit” during that June weekend in 1963. One of the major Ozians on hand was Russell P. MacFall, night editor of the Chicago TRIBUNE and recent coauthor of the Frank Baum biography, TO PLEASE A CHILD. After noting my enthusiasm and passion across the first twenty-four hours of the Convention, Russell approached my mom; she was outdoors, reading, and enjoying a few days of non-Oz, non-housewife vacation of her own! He talked with her about my interests and inquired about potential career paths, to which Dotty summarized “journalism, music, or theater.” Russell smiled in response (I heard about all of this on the way home) and said something to the effect that, at age 12, I probably wasn’t as yet considering colleges. He continued, though, and suggested that, when the time did come, she and my dad and I should consider Northwestern University in Evanston (which is where Russell and his family lived). “Mr. MacFall” told my mom that NU had excellent departments in all three of the subjects in which I was vitally interested.

[Above: June 1963: Russell MacFall and Dotty Fricke – my mom – pose with the stuffed and profoundly welcoming figure who graced the roadside at Ozcot. If you look very closely at the middle right edge of this snapshot, you can see just the left-hand rim of the posted sign that appears at the top of this blog.]

The idea that Russell planted that day remained omnipresent for the next five years, until it was time for me to write to colleges in late 1968. I applied to five, all out of Wisconsin, but it was Northwestern that was my first choice, and I was accepted there as a freshman, beginning in September 1969. (This is another reason I’m always available to discuss the magic of Oz. 😊)

By then, I’d long since been encouraged by Fred, Dick, Justin, Russell, the Greenes, and numerous others to expand my Club participation — and especially to write for THE BAUM BUGLE. This eventually led to two stints as the magazine’s editor-in-chief (1984-87, 2017) and to serve at different times as Club president, vice-president, and Board member.

There’s one more telling point to make about those early Oz conventions – and, in particular, the conventioneers. As noted, my mom and I trained to Oz in 1963; a year later, she stayed in Milwaukee, and my dad drove the two of us to Indiana for the weekend. The highlight that second year was the actual tornado that spun across Bass Lake during the Friday night dinner hour, in full view of those gathered. The massed “Ozmaniacs” – once again, college age to senior citizens; I was the only teen – obliviously pressed themselves to the big glass windows that took up most of the wall space in Ozcot’s dining room annex. They were determined to WATCH this veritable, churning wall of water, even though (or becoz?!)  it was headed directly for the lodge. My father, meanwhile, was scrambling around, asking Brenda if the building had a basement! Even before she had time to respond, the funnel blessedly veered to the right at virtually the last moment. It demolished a house further down the beach, and sent the Ozcot Scarecrow, as seen in the photo above, flying away.  He was retrieved the next day and then restuffed — after his garb (a pair of Harry’s blue pajamas) had been laundered and dried.

[Above: Ozcot 1964 (from left): Dick Olsen, with whom I later worked at the Northwestern University Library; Cal Dobbins, an Indiana resident who happily shared his fascination with – in addition to Oz — vintage newspaper cartoons and silent films; Hank Blossom, who annually traveled from the Virgin Islands with his wife to attend the Indiana convention; Irene Fisher, a wondrous artist and then life-long, classy, and treasured friend; Wally Fricke, my dad; and me, at age thirteen. The Wizard of Oz Lodge dining room annex is at right; the windows just behind us are those to which the conventioneers plastered themselves to watch an approaching tornado that weekend.]

That’s not the telling point, however! I’ve always recounted the “parental parts” of this story with the tongue-in-cheek explanation that, “My mom took me the first year, and my dad took me the second year – because neither of them could figure out what kind of adults would get together for a weekend to talk about THE WIZARD OF OZ!” Long before either made the journey, though, they’d read all my correspondence from many of the gentlemen mentioned above.  Dotty and Wally had a solid sense of what an amazing array of personalities, “intelligences,” and kindnesses were at hand. And the point is that – after they’d each been to a Convention to see this for themselves – they thereafter sent me, at age fourteen and beyond, on the train by myself to Oz.

My mom and dad knew that I was not only safe there — I was home.

That’s what Oz people were like. And to this day, there are equally remarkable souls among the throngs that turn out for the Club conventions and the Oz festivals!

To wrap up the hoztory: By 1964, there were regional, one-day, Club-based conventions popping up around the country; eventually – and in addition to the “founding” event in the Midwest — there were other full weekend celebrations on the East and West Coasts. These days, there are two annual fellowships: one of them wholly Club organized, which darts about the continental United States landscape from Oregon to Illinois to Louisiana to upstate New York and etc. The other grew out of the Club and takes place in locations along the West Coast.

Add to those the weekend or one-day Oz festivals every year all over the USA, and it seems apparent that the charisma of Baum’s country and characters continues its extraordinary outreach. (Hey, I’m in my fifty-ninth year of this merry madness!) Both the festivals and the Club Conventions have their partisans; the rabid (and savvy and hep) fans, of course, embrace it all. 😊

Chittenango is far and away the longest-running and most mammoth of all the public event festivals, although last year, its OZ-Stravaganza! had to be canceled in the face of the pandemic. This year, though, the programming went on and was presented virtually. (This means that recordings of the presentations are available to see via the All Things Oz Facebook page!) Next year, there’s every hope and plan to once again “go live,” and entertain the tens of thousands of Oz fans and families who pour into L. Frank Baum’s birthplace village for the parade, the celebrities, the programs, the contests, the auction, the music, the food, the vendors (Oz and otherwise), and – now, as well! –the wondrous, all-refurbished All Things Oz Museum.

But in this momentary lull – with the “other” Ozcot in Indiana on my mind (and a raft of recollections attendant to it) – I wanted to use this month’s blog to travel back to those early days of Oz camaraderie. It never subsides, to say the least, but I hope you enjoyed the trip and the looking back; this is my vivid “memory mélange” of . . . THE WAY WE WOZ.  😊

Thanks for reading!