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L. Frank Baum's work, including the Oz books, at the Central Library

Oz, Before the Movie

Before Judy Garland, the image people had of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz was created by Roycroft institution artist William W. Denslow, who partnered with author L. Frank Baum on the initial volume of the blockbuster series of children’s books of a century ago. Further volumes in the series—there were 14 in all by Baum—were illustrated in imitation of Denslow’s illustrations by the comparably capable John R. Neill.

An exhibit on Baum, his life and literary career and creations—including originals of all 14 books in the Oz canon, together with précis plot summaries—is currently on display at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library downtown. Also considering the continuing vitality of the Oz literary phenomenon, noting the Judy Garland (and Ray Bolger and Jack Haley and Bert Lahr) movie, which came out in 1939, and later illustration projects by the likes of Barry Moser and pop-up book artist Robert Saluda, who is said to have taken Nancy Reagan as his model for the Wicked Witch of the West.

The original Oz book was rejected by some public libraries on the basis of supposed lack of literary merit, but was an immediate popular success. Within two years there was a successful stage version of the story, and soon other spinoffs, like Parker Brothers’ offering of The Wonderful Game of Oz in 1921, a dozen years or so before the company hit it big with Monopoly.

Baum was raised on a farm in mid-state New York, but, as a somewhat sickly child, was sent to military boarding school to toughen him up. He spent a miserable two years there before suffering an apparent heart attack, whereupon he was allowed to return home to the farm. He seemed to like and take to farming, but also became interested in writing/publishing after his father bought him a small model printing press. From his farm home he published a little community newspaper. Later he published a trade journal on raising chickens, and eventually—through a commercial publisher—a book on care and management of a particular breed of chickens, called Hamburgs.

He had an active and inventive mind. A job as a traveling salesman led to jobs as a store window dresser, and the start-up of another trade journal, called The Show Window. At the same time, however, he was beginning to publish children’s books. The first one was Mother Goose in Prose, with illustrations by a young unknown at the time by the name of Maxfield Parrish. In a brief note in The Show Window, October 15, 1900, Baum wrote that “the generous reception by the American People of my books for children” have caused him “very reluctantly to resign as editor” of the trade journal. The first Oz book came out that same year.

Baum’s success over the next decade with the Oz books, and spinoffs such as they were, tempted an ill-advised venture into the movie business. In 1911 he moved to Hollywood, California, where he built a lavish and beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills, and almost immediately went bankrupt, forcing him to sell his copyrights on the Oz books.

Denslow actually shared the copyright on the first book, the one he illustrated, and the parting of ways of the two men occurred over a dispute over royalties on the stage version. Denslow was a Chicago-based newspaper and magazine editorial cartoonist when Elbert Hubbard hired him in 1896 as his first artist for his press works. Denslow and Baum probably were acquainted already—Baum lived in Chicago at the time—and soon began collaborations on several projects, including for The Show Window, and a volume of Baum’s poems, called By the Candelabra’s Glare, and a volume of his poems for children, called Father Goose, His Book.

Denslow was famous for his walrus mustache and for his signature on his artworks, consisting of a seahorse logo and the partial name “Den.” His (probable) portrait in sculptural relief in stucco can be seen above the main Gothic window on a gable of the Roycroft Chapel building in East Aurora.

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