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‘American Oz’: A superb PBS portrait of L. Frank Baum and the dreams that he dared to dream

The documentary examines the ‘Wizard of Oz’ author’s many careers, his Chicago years and his sometimes-terrible beliefs.

L. Frank Baum (pictured circa 1908) worked in poultry breeding, theater and baseball before writing “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
Library of Congress

By the time 35-year-old L. Frank Baum and his family moved to Humboldt Park in Chicago in 1891, Baum already had lived quite the rollercoaster life, having tried everything from fancy poultry breeding to writing and acting in theatrical productions to running an upscale gift shop to publishing a newspaper to founding a baseball club called the Hub City Nine.

Always, Baum held onto his dreams of becoming a writer. And in the 1890s, he found a measure of success with a book reimagining Mother Goose rhymes as prose.

Then, in 1900, at 44, Baum published a book that would become arguably THE great American fairy tale, a book that would spawn hugely successful adaptations and interpretations through the decades and all the way into the 21st century.

It was titled “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

“American Oz” is the latest entrant in PBS’s “American Experience” series, and it is the definitive video biography of Baum, from his privileged upbringing on an estate in New York through his dogged pursuit of the American dream through his many failed endeavors to the wildly successful “Oz” (and its many sequels).

We also learn of Baum’s political and social activism.

Which was sometimes admirable, as when he campaigned for women to have the right to vote decades before that became a reality.

And sometimes deplorable, for example when he wrote a newspaper column calling for Native Americans to be exterminated and “wipe[d] from the face of the Earth.”

L. Frank Baum (top center) is surrounded by characters from “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays,” a traveling multimedia stage show based on “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
PBS

Clips from the 1939 classic film “The Wizard of Oz” and the brilliant W.W. Denslow’s illustrations from the original story are sprinkled throughout the documentary, which makes a convincing case that Dorothy’s adventures were inspired by Baum’s own experiences. Kansas was a substitute of sorts for the Dakota plains, where Baum and his family lived for a time and found life to be harsh and unforgiving. When Baum attended Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893 and marveled at the gleaming, sparkling facades of the White City — which was magical and dreamlike, yet totally fabricated — might he have drawn upon that experience when he imagined the Emerald City?

Drawing on interviews with authors and historians, myriad photos of Baum, readings from his letters and papers, snippets of newspaper clippings and a bounty of stunning pictures (and later film clips) from the late 19th and early 20th century, “American Oz” is a gorgeous tapestry of a specific time and place in which many Americans were looking to expand their world beyond the small towns where they had grown up, moving out West or to large Midwestern cities in the hopes of not just carving out a living but achieving true success. (One person interviewed says Chicago was the great American city at the turn of the century.)

As the documentary illustrates, L. Frank Baum was the epitome of that American dreamer — moving from place to place and starting various entrepreneurial endeavors, even as he had a wife and children to support.

We’re also reminded of how unusual it was at the time for a girl to be the hero of a fairy tale. Dorothy wasn’t a princess waiting for her prince to come and rescue her. She was an orphan girl living with her world-weary aunt and uncle on a farm in Kansas — until being transported to a fantasy New World equal parts amazing and terrifying, where she had to meet challenge upon challenge in her quest to return home.

Bert Lahr (from left), Ray Bolger, Judy Garland and Jack Haley starred in “The Wizard of Oz,” the classic film that helped immortalize L. Frank Baum’s story.
Warner Bros.

“In the first Christmas season of the 20th century, [‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’] became the best-selling children’s book in America,” we’re told.

And, of course, that was just the beginning. The book was turned into a popular stage musical (with many changes to the original material) that played in Chicago and New York City, went on a seven-year tour and was the basis for a number of silent films — and, oh, yes, a little musical called “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, a film that went over the rainbow and beyond to become one of the most beloved and lasting classics in cinema history.

Later generations would see “The Wiz” and “Wicked,” as Baum’s illustrated children’s book from 1900 proved to be timeless in a way not even he might have imagined.