Mention L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ and instantly you think of Dorothy and Toto, of Kansas and “home,” of ruby red slippers and the Wicked Witch of the West. There’s that ne’er-do-well wizard and that yellow brick road, too, and Dorothy’s trio of singular friends.
What you’d likely never think of is my second-home, CHICAGO.
Back in 1900, though, when the book was first published? Had its author L. Frank Baum clicked the heels of his oxfords, chanting all the while “There’s no place like home,” he’d have found himself returned to 68 Humboldt Park Boulevard on Chicago’s North West Side!
Chicago wasn‘t even Lyman Frank Baum’s third home when he, his wife and four sons moved here in 1891. He’d wound his way from upstate rural New York to South Dakota and through the Midwest, never the breadwinner he’d hoped and needed to be, leaving behind a trail of failed endeavors. Somehow, the fruitful life’s work that incorporated his love of family and his wont to daydream, fantasize, write and tell stories continued to elude him.
Still, he tried his best, editing window dressing magazines, traveling the country selling fine china. But during this time Chicago’s sights began to capture his imagination, especially the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The fair’s famed White City, lit by those new fancy lights, showed Baum a world that though it looked real, thanks to its plaster facades and technological offerings, it truly wasn’t. He’d always told stories to his sons and their friends, but now he invented humorous and fanciful tales like THE EMERALD CITY, set in a White City-like world, suddenly turned green. An early published children’s book, a collection of fairy tales titled THE ADVENTURES IN PHUNNYLAND, led to his successful MOTHER GOOSE IN PROSE that led to his even-more successful FATHER GOOSE that finally drew a sizeable readership. The book that followed, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, combines the fantasy of Phunnyland with the reality-based characters of FATHER GOOSE to give generations of readers, not to mention viewers and listeners, beloved child-true characters, the imaginative world they seek in story and America’s first original fairy tale.
After 1900, folks considered Chicago writer L. (because he hated his given name Lyman) Frank Baum a Modern Hans Christian Andersen. Today we’d label him the turn-of-the-20th-century’s J.K. Rowling. Both Oz and Harry Potter contributed to children’s literature in reader-changing ways.
Here in Chicago, no matter the shoe heels we click three times, we can easily transport ourselves to Oz to let our imaginations soar, or at least to Oz Park built in 1976. Bordering Webster and Larrabee Streets on Chicago’s north side, not all that far from the house in which L. Frank Baum wrote his first Oz book, each of the park’s corners boasts a statue of a beloved hometown-grown Oz character – Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion.
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Katharine M. Rogers, L. FRANK BAUM, CREATOR OF OZ, St. Martins Press, NY, 2002
Kathleen Krull, THE ROAD TO OZ, Knopf, NY, 2008
Leonard Marcus, MINDERS OF MAKE-BELIEVE, Houghton Mifflin, 2008