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ALL ABOUT - The wonderful word of Oz
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ALL ABOUT - The wonderful word of Oz

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can, without doubt, be called one of the world's most beloved stories of all time. It's referenced in countless books, movies and stage productions, from the film The Matrix to television's Family Guy, and even a reference in the book Disco Bloodbath. But the journey started with a man who just wanted to write a simple story, and the yellow brick road to immortality was paved.

Lyman Frank Baum was already an accomplished author of children's books when he published a story called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. The world was fascinated with this alternative universe, and the book became an instant classic, so much so that, over the next 13 years, Baum published 14 sequels in the Oz series, even going so far as to produce a successful stage production, with two early black-and-white films to follow. Theories quickly developed, suggesting the story as an allegory for Baum to facilitate his ideas of women's suffrage or Native American rights. His many essays and short stories outside of Oz made his position on these subjects clearly known. One idea even suggested that the characters represent the then-current political figures Teddy Roosevelt and JP Morgan, that the book is an allegory for the USA's monetary politics, or even its foreign affairs at the time.

When asked, Baum always replied that the truth was much simpler: "Oz" came from a file cabinet labeled O-Z, the name "Emerald City" from the World's Fair in Chicago called "The White City," and the yellow brick road from a side street paved in yellow bricks. The stories themselves, Baum would explain, were written for entertainment and for income. But history has given him more credit. Literary scholars often cite the Oz series as beginning of the cleansing of children's lit. Up till then the stories were filled with stereotyped evils penned by Brothers Grimm or by Hans Christian Anderson. Baum's tales smoothed over a lot of the violence when presenting his works to children.

In 1939, MGM took the beloved book and made it a cinematography phenomenon. Being among the first seven films to use color filming, the studio transferred literature into a legend. The iconic classic, starring Judy Garland (not the first choice), suffered many changes before hitting the big screen. It originally met with (mostly) favorable reviews and won several Academy Awards, including Best Song. The film began its annual holiday showing in 1956 and became a "family tradition" in the early 1970s, becoming MGM's first videocassette release in 1980. One of three pairs of ruby slippers was anonymously donated to the Smithsonian Institute in 1979. Two other pairs are rumored to exist, one belonging to Liza Minnelli and another to a private collector.

But this infamous story continues with many more incarnations. After the death of L. Frank Baum, the estate solicited Ruth Plumly Thompson to continue penning the series. She wrote 21 more Oz novels until her own death in 1976. In 1992, Geoff Ryman published his twist on the Oz tale with Was. This book interlaced three stories, giving a much different perspective on the classic. Dorothy Gale is a spoiled young orphan who comes to live with her rural country relatives in Kansas. After much abuse by her Uncle Henry, she becomes a terrorizing bully until a teacher named Frank Baum offers her some escapism with his fanciful tales. The second part tells of young actress, Frances Gumm, being pushed by a relentless mother and an adoring, gentle and Gay father until she becomes Judy Garland. The third tale involves a man dying of AIDS and his determined fascination of finding the real location of Oz.

The biggest advance in written Oz history since the originals were released came in 1994. Gregory Maguire published his novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Offering the story from a different perspective, Maguire gives a history to the green gal of the original tales. Naming her Elphaba (a scramble of "L. Frank Baum"), Maguire tells of family secrets, witchcraft universities (before Harry Potter), and a land under political rule that sets the scene for a girl from Kansas to drop in unexpectedly. He transforms what we know of the Wicked Witch and makes the reader feel compassion, if not sympathy, for her causes. She is misunderstood and so is the story that we have always been told. With two sequels (Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men) and rumors of a third, Maguire has built upon the countryside of Oz, as vast and detailed as Baum could have imagined. The book Wicked, in turn, served as inspiration for the Broadway musical currently going on its sixth year.

There are more than 40 Oz books in the series, with more than 23 additions by various authors, and hundreds of general references in others. Books continue to be written explaining our fascination with this magical land and its inhabitants. The '80s saw an explosion of publications defining Oz. Histories of the movie and full-color books have been released. Paper doll cutouts of all the characters can be found. The Wizard of Oz Cookbook saw the light of day, boasting "Wicked Witch Waffles" and "Yellow Brick Road Brownies." Finding Oz (by Evan Schwartz - 2009) offers an explanation of how L. Frank Baum came to write the original tales, and who the man behind the curtain really was. This magical escapism has become part of our lives; we always look forward to returning over the rainbow.

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