First published in 1900, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) quickly became a best-seller. The book, about a Kansas girl named Dorothy who’s transported by a tornado to the Land of Oz, spawned a slew of sequels and a 1939 silver-screen adaptation that’s the most-watched movie in history, according to the Library of Congress. Find out more about “Oz,” including how Baum struck literary gold in his 40s then later attempted to end his famous series, why the movie version wasn’t a blockbuster when first released and what color Dorothy’s magical slippers are in the original book (hint: they’re not ruby red).
Baum was 44 when “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was published and by then he’d tried his hand at a variety of jobs. As a young man in upstate New York, he bred prize-winning chickens, published a trade journal about poultry and was as an actor and playwright. One of his plays, “The Maid of Arran,” toured a number of U.S. cities in the early 1880s, with Baum in a leading role. However, following some shady dealings by his bookkeeper, plus a fire that destroyed a theater owned by Baum, he tabled his show-business dreams and went to work as a salesman for a company that made lubricating oil. By the early 1890s, he’d moved to Chicago and was employed as a traveling salesman for a glassware firm. While away from home, he invented stories to tell his four sons, and when his mother-in-law heard some of these tales she encouraged him to try to publish them. The result was Baum’s first children’s book, “Mother Goose in Prose,” which failed to sell well when released in 1897. Meanwhile, Baum had grown tired of life as a traveling salesman and founded a well-received trade magazine about window trimming (he got the idea after observing poorly organized store-window displays during his time on the road). In 1899, he published his second work for children, “Father Goose, His Book.” An unexpected best-seller, it got his literary career rolling and helped generate interest in “Oz,” which he was already working on.
When “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” debuted, it was praised for its lavish illustrations, created by Philadelphia-born artist William Wallace Denslow. Baum and Denslow met in Chicago in the 1890s and Denslow did some drawings for “The Show Window,” Baum’s trade magazine, before the two teamed up on “Father Goose,” the surprise 1899 best-seller. Their next project, “Oz,” for which they shared the copyright, quickly became a best-seller; however, the pair’s relationship soured, with each man believing he deserved the credit for the book’s success. Although they released one more children’s book together, 1901’s “Dot and Tot of Merryland,” they never collaborated on another “Oz” book. After clashing over royalties from a popular 1902 musical production called “The Wizard of Oz” (the first time “wonderful” was deleted from the title), the men parted ways. Denslow continued to work as an illustrator (the Scarecrow and Tin Man characters from “Oz” showed up in some of his designs) but his career eventually went into decline after he developed a drinking problem. He died in 1915 in New York, four years before Baum.
The success of the first “Oz” book led Baum to produce sequels, but he grew tired of the magical place he’d devised and tried to end the series with his sixth book, “The Emerald City of Oz,” in which Dorothy takes Aunt Em and Uncle Henry to reside permanently in Oz. However, by the time the book was published, in 1910, its author was facing serious financial problems due in part to his heavy investment in “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays,” an expensive, short-lived traveling show in which Baum narrated silent-film clips of his famous characters, while accompanied by an orchestra and stage actors. Baum filed for bankruptcy in 1911 and signed away the film rights to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” to help pay off his debts. Still in need of money, he resumed writing about the Land of Oz, and “The Patchwork Girl of Oz,” his seventh novel in the series, debuted in 1913.
Baum (his first initial, “L,” stood for Lyman, a name he disliked; in person, he went by Frank) also churned out dozens of books using various pen names. Among this work was a popular series for teenage girls, “Aunt Jane’s Nieces,” for which he used the nom de plume Edith van Dyne. The 14th and final “Oz” book written by Baum, “Glinda of Oz,” was published in 1920, a year after his death. Children’s author Ruth Plumly Thompson was hired to continue the series and penned 19 additional “Oz” books.
In 1888, searching for new business opportunities, Baum moved with his family to the frontier town of Aberdeen in the Dakota Territory. There he opened a novelty-goods store called Baum’s Bazaar; however, the area soon experienced a severe drought and the local economy cratered. After Baum was forced to shutter his store in early 1890, he became owner of a local newspaper, the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, for which he penned editorials that championed issues such as women’s suffrage. Baum’s views on the subject were influenced by his strong-willed wife, Maud, and mother-in-law, Matilda Gage, a leader in the women’s rights movement who had collaborated with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Baum advocated for an 1890 referendum on women’s suffrage in South Dakota, which was admitted to the Union in 1889, but the measure was defeated. When Baum later began writing children’s books, many of his main characters were tenacious, self-reliant girls. In 1920, a year after Baum’s death, American women gained the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified.
Baum moved to Hollywood in 1910, just as the film industry was getting started there. He went on to co-found the Oz Film Manufacturing Company to make movies based on his books for which he still held the film rights. He and his partners built a studio and in 1914 turned out a handful of silent films, but the elaborate productions were ahead of their time and failed to find a wide audience. The company shut down the following year.
One of Baum’s sons co-wrote a “Wizard of Oz” adaptation that made it to the big screen in 1925. The cast included Oliver Hardy (who became half of the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy) as the Tin Man; however, the film was panned by critics. It wasn’t until MGM’s 1939 production that “Oz” found cinematic success. Baum’s widow, Maud, attended the film’s Hollywood premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre that August.
MGM was inspired to make a silver-screen adaptation of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” following the box-office success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the world’s first animated feature film, which was released by Walt Disney in 1937. A 16-year-old Judy Garland starred as Dorothy in the 1939 movie, which debuted to mostly favorable reviews and earned six Academy Award nominations. It won two Oscars, for best song—“Over the Rainbow”—and best score, but lost the best picture category to “Gone with the Wind.” (Five different directors worked on “Oz,” although the credit went to Victor Fleming, who also helmed “GWTW.”) The big-budget production, which included some 600 actors and nearly a thousand costumes, cost $2.8 million to make. However, it initially brought in about $3 million at the box office, and when distribution costs and other expenses were tabulated, “The Wizard of Oz” wasn’t considered profitable. Television is what transformed the movie into an American classic. “The Wizard of Oz” aired on national TV for the first time in November 1956, and beginning in 1959 was shown once a year until 1991. Watching the annual screenings became a tradition for many families.
Dorothy wore silver shoes in Baum’s story, but for the Technicolor film Judy Garland sported ruby red slippers because it was believed they’d stand out better against the yellow brick road. Several pairs of the now-legendary pumps were used during the 1939 production; after filming wrapped they went into storage on MGM’s Culver City, California, lot and were forgotten. The shoes were unearthed in 1970 during preparations for an auction of MGM costumes and props. Four authentic pairs are known to exist today: One pair was auctioned off then donated to the Smithsonian in 1979, while another pair sold at auction in 2000 for $666,000. In 2012, actor Leonardo DiCaprio was the main benefactor behind the purchase of a pair for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Also in the movie but not the original book: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” One of the most famous quotes associated with the Land of Oz, it was dreamed up by Hollywood screenwriter Noel Langley, not Baum.