CHRISTMAS AT THE BAUM HOUSE . . . AND SANTA CLAUS & THE OZIANS!

By John Fricke

Above: This is one of Mary Cowles Clark’s gentle and evocative color plates from THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS, L. Frank Baum’s only major book publication for 1902. For the first six months of that annum, the author was overwhelmed by preparations for THE WIZARD OF OZ as a musical extravaganza for the stage. After the show premiered in June, much of the rest of the year was involved in planning its (what would be) glorious future. So there was just the one new Baum fantasy book for children in 1902 – but what an achievement. The incomparable “imaginist” created an entire, whimsical, and tender backstory for the infant Claus; for “the first toy”; for “the first Christmas tree”; and for the fact that the eventually aged and failing Claus was actually granted immortality by the only powers in the world who could bestow it. Seek out one of the modern-day reprints of Baum’s THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS – or order it through Chittenango’s All Things Oz Gift Shop and Museum! — and enjoy it; it’s good reading any time of the year.

Whether on a regular or a drive-by basis, many of you who visit this blog are by now aware that Chittenango native L. Frank Baum — the man who “discovered” Oz — was a great one for family. (For any who might not be aware of that fact, it’s quite simply true!) Whether as a boy amidst his parents and siblings, especially brother Harry and sister Mary Louise, or as a proud husband to Maud Gage and father to their four sons (and favored uncle to at least a couple of nieces), Frank Baum found the emotional center of his life in home, hearth, and loved ones.

Not surprisingly, it then also quite honestly holds true that such domestic dedication on Baum’s part was ever more apparent on festive occasions and at holiday times. His earliest biographers, eldest son Frank Joslyn and the Chicago TRIBUNE’s night editor Russell P. MacFall, make a special point of mentioning that “No matter how lean the purse – and it was lean [on many occasions in the late 1880s and well into the 1890s] – there was always money enough for a family celebration” (page 63, TO PLEASE A CHILD, Chicago: The Reilly & Lee Co., 1961).

If you read last year’s holiday blog here, you might recall son Harry Neal’s own Christmas recollections. He first wrote them up for THE BAUM BUGLE, publication of the International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. (ozclub.org) in the mid-1960s. Harry also mentioned some of these memories in passing, “in person,” at one of the Oz Club conventions during that era, and I always recall my own preteen or teenage awe when he happily recounted that, “One Christmas, we had FOUR Christmas trees – one for each of the four boys – in the four corners of the [living] room!”

For TO PLEASE A CHILD, Frank Joslyn summoned up his own delights as both a boy and a young man, looking back at his dad’s unique dedication to and “staging” of Christmas at home. It was coauthor MacFall, however, who served as spokesman for their third-person presentation in the finished text, writing that “Santa Claus was not merely folklore in the Baum household, for the four boys had plenty of evidence that their father was familiar with the old saint and shared his spirit. Every Christmas, while they were young, Baum would bring home a fir tree and hide it. After the boys were in bed on Christmas Eve, he would carry it into the living room, and he and

Maud would spend hours decorating it with glass ornaments, tinsel, strings of popcorn, and tin clamp-on holders for the candles. Then, on Christmas morning, while Maud kept the children at the breakfast table, he would slip out the back door, and in through the front to light the candles. After that, he would rush through the back door, ringing a string of sleigh bells as the boys ran into the living room to see the tree and the presents piled underneath it.”

Above: Mary Cowles Clark drew these endpapers for Baum’s THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS back in 1902, and her presentation of the traditional Christmas Eve jaunt seems identifiable, recognizable, and (best of all) emotionally true, even 120 years later.

The reflections in TO PLEASE A CHILD continue, “As the years passed, and the two older boys became more sophisticated about such things, the tree was brought in during the late afternoon, and the sleigh bells were rung as supper was finished on Christmas Eve. To Baum, these things were essential and important, for they symbolized the affection with which the parents cherish their children and the love that binds families together.” Reiterating their earlier thought, the coauthors concluded, “In the lean years, [Frank] and Maud would limit themselves on food and clothing so that their sons would not be disappointed by what they found under the tree.”

Speaking personally, I’ve long since come to realize that the Baum connection to the holidays encompasses similarities to my own. My brother, sister, and I were blessed with the same kind of parents as Harry Neal and Frank Joslyn (and Robert Stanton and Kenneth Gage):  Wally and Dotty Fricke made sure – whatever the budget or lack thereof – that our Christmases as children were, to quote Irving Berlin, “merry and bright.” Of course for me, beginning in 1957 (and also including other special occasions or annual events), the merriest and brightest possibilities as gifts were Oz-related. Maybe that was why it made clear, perfect, no-need-for-any-explanation sense to me that Frank Baum made Santa Claus himself an integral part of Oz in at least two of his books — one that I received on my birthday in 1958 and the other that arrived on Christmas Day 1960. By that time, I may have, however unwillingly, edged into “the age of not believing.” (Disney fans will recognize that as the title of one of Angela Lansbury’s numbers in the Sherman Brothers’ score for Disney’s BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS.) Yet it took absolutely NO effort whatsoever for me to delightedly put myself in reverse at the moments in those books when Santa Claus turned up as THE special guest of Princess Ozma’s birthday party in THE ROAD TO OZ — or when several of The Most Famous Oz Celebrities paid a visit to Santa at his own workshop and home in the Laughing Valley (just across the Deadly Desert from Oz) in THE VISITORS FROM OZ. I always believed in Oz; I went back to believing in Santa.

John R. Neill’s full-page drawing of the finale of Ozma’s birthday demonstrations was done in black-and-white for THE ROAD TO OZ (1909) but colorized thirty years later for an abridgement edition of that title, issued in conjunction with the release of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Judy Garland musical film version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. As shown above, the Wizard’s magic bubble machine has been commandeered by Santa to afford himself a ride home from the festivities: “There isn’t a spot on earth that I haven’t visited, but I usually go in the night-time, riding behind my swift reindeer. Here Is a good chance to observe the country by day-light, while I am riding slowly and at my ease.” When some of Ozma’s other guests hear Santa’s declaration, they decide to use bubble-transport to return to their homes as well. So the Wizard provides the conveyances and Santa – who, of course, knows where everyone lives – handles the directional guidance. As pictured, the patron saint of children has his back to Neill and is about to depart for the Laughing Valley after doing his duty by the other guests and sending them off in advance. The Wizard of Oz stands to Santa’s right at the lever that controls the underground-and-platform bubble mechanism and machinery.

Both of those Baum books provided this boy — at eight and ten years old — the most wondrous kind of “willingness to suspend disbelief.” (I’m using here the theatrical definition of what an audience must bring to an entertainment experience to achieve maximum commitment and reaction.) Immediately, and as I grew up, I more and more came to realize that it was my logical responsibility to offer (where deserved) such surrender. And as I was increasingly immersed in his created or
“discovered” worlds, I came to understand that Frank Baum always warranted it. This was further underscored as I went on to learn about his lifelong fascination with the world of entertainment; as I read about and realized his gift for interpersonal communication; and as I came to appreciate his professional charisma and capability of engaging any audience of any age — through a printed page.

Frank Baum brought Santa Claus back to me on an unmistakable, unshakable level of reality. In THE ROAD TO OZ, the man from the Laughing Valley is portrayed as far and away the most important of all the celebrities gathered to celebrate the beautiful girl ruler of Oz. Mr. Baum reports in his text that the members of Ozma’s august welcoming committee “rose to their feet and bowed their heads In respectful homage, even before the [Emerald City] High Chamberlain knelt to announce [the] name . . .

a man so easy to recognize and so important and dearly beloved throughout the known world.”

In the course of his two days in the Emerald City, Santa Claus is first given place-of-pride and honor at one end of Ozma’s birthday banquet table, while she herself reigns from the other. He is the one selected to make “a pretty speech in verse, congratulating Ozma on having a birthday, and asking everyone present to drink to the health and happiness of their dearly beloved hostess.” The great man then contributes to the after-dinner entertainment; to Ozma’s triumphant, commemorative “great procession” the next day; and to the immediately following festivities and magic show emceed by the Wizard himself. (Please see the illustration above!)

THE VISITORS FROM OZ (1960), though credited to Baum, was actually Jean Kellogg’s rewritten series of excerpts from Baum’s 1904-1905 newspaper serial, QUEER VISITORS FROM THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ. Yet the stories were basically and unquestionably his, beautifully re-illustrated in color and black-and-white by lifelong Baum collector and historian Dick Martin. The “visitors” in question include the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Jack Pumpkinhead, Sawhorse, and Professor Woggle-Bug, who tour America in the flying Gump. As the finale of their adventures (which include a stopover in Kansas to reunite with – or meet — Dorothy and Toto), the travelers decide to stop to see Santa and to add to his Christmas Eve holdings the miniature toy replicas they’ve made of themselves as gifts for children.

Above: Dick Martin’s sketches of Oz characters are, as ever, replete with his respect for their prior illustrated appearances, as well as the love he had for Baum and the man’s impact on his own life. As such, these images from THE VISITORS FROM OZ were also apt to please many of us who loved Oz, Baum, and Neill. Here, the Tin Woodman and Jack Pumpkinhead create toy versions of themselves to join similar handiwork that resembles their cohorts: the Scarecrow, Sawhorse, Gump, and Woggle-Bug.

There’s more than that, of course, to their encounter, but Baum’s decision to align the Ozians with the cherished and jolly old man brought THE VISITORS FROM OZ saga to a genuinely satisfying conclusion. It bridged Baum’s minimal (not to say non-existent) gap between the United States and Oz, and seemed at the same time to be accepted by countless children as somehow simultaneously encompassing fantasy, reality, America, Oz, and tradition.

For the key to L. Frank Baum’s holiday and Christmas cheer, however, I think we need to return to one of the quoted statements above from TO PLEASE A CHILD. In speaking of Santa Claus, the coauthors noted that Frank Baum “shared his spirit” – a spirit and credo that Baum actually puts forward in his THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS book: “In all the world, there is nothing so beautiful as a happy child.”

That brings me to a simple (if personal) conclusion. However one wants to phrase it – “Baum is right up there with Santa Claus!” or “Santa Claus is right up there with Baum!” – I think the bottom line and the overwhelming fact remain that both gentlemen rank among the major joy-inducers of recorded time. Frank Baum gave us Oz (and Company), plus Santa’s history. And he took Santa to Oz. And he took Ozians to visit Santa. Baum also left two of his sons with holiday memories that still resonated with them decades and decades after the man so affected them.

Which man, you might ask? Well . . . either Frank or Santa. At this point in my life, in this particular writing, and at this particular moment, they seem at least semi-interchangeable.

So . . .. What is there to say, again and again, but “Thank you, Mr. Baum.”

To which I’ll add this P.S.: A blessed, healthy, Ozzy, Baum-y, and being-held-close holiday season to all who might read this – with my every good wish and my personal and maximum gratitude.

Sincerely,

John