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'Oz' Expert: If Ever Oh Ever a Wiz There Was Weekend Chat

November 02, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's no yellow brick road to find the way, but starting Friday the Los Angeles Central Library is transforming itself into the wonderful land of Oz.Through Feb. 24 the Library's Getty Gallery will be home to "A Century of Oz," an exhibition featuring more than 400 items related to L. Frank Baum's classic stories.

Celebrating the centennial of the publication of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," the exhibition is presenting what apparently is the greatest number of Oz material ever publicly displayed. Among the rare items will be the Wicked Witch's hourglass and a Munchkin costume from the classic 1939 film, a fine copy of the first Oz book and the first editions of Spanish-language Oz books. All the items come from the Willard Carroll Collection, considered the world's finest.

There will also be special events held in conjunction with the exhibition.

Michael Patrick Hearn, the world's leading expert on Baum and "The Wizard of Oz," will discuss the novels and read from his new book, "The Annotated Wizard of Oz: Centennial Edition" (W.W. Norton & Co., $40) on Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday, "Wizard of Oz Day" features puppet shows, videos and music. And on Nov. 21 at the Library's Taper Auditorium, writer John Lahr will read from his acclaimed book about his father, "Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr."

Hearn, 47, speaking by phone from his New York City home, recently discussed the never-ending appeal of "Oz" and L. Frank Baum.

Question: How does one become the foremost expert on "The Wizard of Oz"?

Answer: I have just read more about L. Frank Baum and the movies and the books and also his successors and illustrators. I joined the International Wizard of Oz club when I was 10 years old. What happened was that my older sister would check the books out of the library--I was too young to check them out by myself--and I became fascinated with them. The library only had a few of them, and I found out there were 40 in the series--Baum wrote only 14. My parents would buy two for my birthday and two for Christmas. Then I found out that Baum wrote other things, and I got interested in trying to hunt [them down] at secondhand bookshops.

Q: I had no idea there were so many "Oz" books.

A: It was an enormously successful series. And when Baum died, the publishers couldn't let it die with him, so his widow arranged with the publishers so they could hire other writers so they could continue the series.

Q: Did Baum originally set out to write them as a series?

A: Originally, when Baum wrote "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" he had no intention of writing a sequel. In 1904, he did a second "Oz" book, "The Marvelous Land of Oz," that he turned into a musical. He had done a musical of "The Wizard of Oz" in 1902, and it was an enormous success. He wanted to follow it up with another musical, and he thought the easiest way was to do another "Oz" story. He wrote the book and turned it into a musical. Unfortunately, [the musical] was a big bomb, but the book was just as successful as "The Wizard of Oz" and encouraged him to continue the series. He tried to stop the series after he did six titles, but he went bankrupt a couple of years later. His other books weren't selling, so he returned to "Oz."

Q: Did he write other children's books?

A: He did all sorts of books. The first book he published was on chickens. He was involved in all sorts of professions. He was a chicken farmer at one time and wrote this long article for a poultry magazine, and it was later brought out as a pamphlet. He also did a trade magazine for window trimmers called "The Shop Window."

Q: No wonder he went bankrupt writing articles on chickens.

A: He went bankrupt because his imagination ran away with him. He was always interested in new technology. In order to promote those "Oz" books, he got together this slide and film show called "Fairylogue and Radio Plays" and went around the country lecturing. It was an enormously expensive undertaking, and it was not a success. All the expenses came out of his own pocket, and he had to declare bankruptcy.

Q: Your first version of "The Annotated Wizard of Oz" was published in 1973. What new material is in the centennial edition?

A: There are a lot of new illustrations. There are also a lot of new notes, a lot of new information. I have been working on a biography of Baum, so I have unearthed a lot more information about him.

There also has been so much written about "The Wizard of Oz" since "Annotated" was published in 1973. I sort of made discussion of "Oz" legitimate when "Annotated" came out. After that, it was taught in college classes. Gore Vidal wrote an article. There isn't a year that goes by where there aren't several new interpretations of "Wizard of Oz."

Q: What have been some of the new interpretations?

A: There has been everything from political to economic to feminist.

Q: Like Dorothy being a strong feminist role model?

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