The Technicolor Life of L. Frank Baum, the Man Who Created Oz

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

by Kelly K. Ferguson

In December 1900, L. Frank Baum was a struggling, 44-year-old writer living in Chicago with his wife and four children. Christmas was only days away, and Baum was desperately searching for a way to buy presents for his family.

On a whim, Baum went downtown to ask his publisher for a royalties' advance for the five books he'd written that year. He walked out with a check for one of the books, and promptly stuck it in his pocket. He didn't bother to take a look at it.

When Baum arrived home, his wife, Maud, was ironing a shirt. He reluctantly handed her the check, and at the same moment, they both discovered that it was for $1,423.98—roughly $40,000 today. Paralyzed with disbelief, Maud burned a hole through the shirt.

That book, of course, was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Man Behind the Curtain

L Frank Baum
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Lyman Frank Baum was born in 1856 in Chittenango, New York. As a child, his weak heart limited his capacity for rough-and-tumble play. So, despite being the seventh of nine kids, he spent most of his childhood alone, indoors, and dreaming.

As a young man, Baum leapt like a flea from career to career. By his early 30s, he'd been a journalist, a printer, a postage-stamp dealer, and a champion poultry breeder, which led him into publishing, with his trade journal The Poultry Record. He also ran his own theater company, where he wrote, directed, and acted in his own plays.

Then, in 1881, Baum met his leading lady—Maud Gage, a sophomore at Cornell. But Maud's mother, Matilda, disapproved of the union. Matilda Gage was a feminist who marched alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the women's suffrage movement. She saw Baum as a flake who'd never amount to anything, and she told her daughter she'd be a "darned fool" to marry the itinerant actor. Yet, Baum's charm, sincerity, and uncanny ability to tell fantastic stories were no match for Matilda, and he soon won her over. He also became a feminist.

Frank married Maud in 1882, but troubles were around the corner. Baum's theater company went belly-up, and without local prospects, he looked west for opportunity. In 1888, he moved his family to the Dakota Territory, where he opened a store in the town of Aberdeen. (Years later, when Baum wrote descriptions of the Kansas prairie in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he was actually describing South Dakota.) His shop, Baum's Bazaar, sold Chinese paper lanterns, Bohemian glass, gourmet chocolates, and other exotic items. But Baum overestimated the frontier's demands for novelty shopping. In a few short years, he'd gone bust yet again.

At this point, L. Frank Baum was 35 with no career. He headed east for Chicago, where he received guidance from an unexpected source: his mother-in-law. Matilda Gage convinced Baum to pursue his one true talent, telling stories. In Aberdeen, children had stalked Baum, demanding story hour from the raconteur. Kids loved his tales because they weren't thinly disguised morality lessons. Instead, Baum's stories were fantasies filled with candy, toys, magic, and adventure. Heeding Matilda's advice, Baum decided to give writing a try.

Following the Yellow Brick Road

In 1899, Baum teamed up with illustrator W.W. Denslow and published Father Goose, His Book, a collection of pictures and verse. The collaboration worked so well that it inspired Baum and Denslow to try their hands at a full-length novel.

As a child, Baum had loved the European fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, but he loathed the dark, grisly endings. He envisioned a new American fairy tale in which ingenuity and spunk paid off. In Baum's words, he wanted to create a world where "wonderment and joy are retained, and the heartache and nightmares left out."

It was a great idea, but what would he call this utopia? Family legend holds that Baum scanned his office for ideas. While staring at his filing cabinet, he drew inspiration from a label on the bottom drawer marked "O-Z."

Baum's book was turned down by every major publishing house. Finally, a distribution company agreed to take on the novel about Oz, but only if Baum and Denslow agreed to shoulder the printing expenses. The bet paid off. Today, the masterful integration of color illustrations and text is heralded as a pioneering achievement in literature, a precursor to the graphic novel. Denslow's drawings were unique in that they not only reflected the plot, but also furthered it. His vibrant pictures spilled over from one page to the next.

More importantly, children loved Baum's story. By the end of 1900, Maude had burned a hole through her husband's shirt, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the best-selling book in America.

Oz Fest

Over the next 20 years, Baum would pen more than 70 books under several pseudonyms. Unfettered by gender restrictions, he often wrote under female names, including Suzanne Metcalf, Laura Bancroft, and Edith Van Dyne. Baum also tried his hand at science-fiction, demonstrating a knack for predicting the future on par with H.G. Wells. A running theme in Baum's work was the triumph of technology over distance and time, and many of his fictional inventions—televisions, satellites, cell phones, laptops—eventually became realities of everyday life.

In 1902, Oz was transformed into a Broadway musical, shortened simply to The Wizard of Oz.

At first, Baum was taken aback by some of the changes. For instance, Dorothy's faithful companion on the stage wasn't Toto, but a cow named Imogene.

But when the play became a Broadway hit, Baum softened. He tried to return to the theater to produce his own plays, but all his efforts, including The Whatnexters and The King of Gee Whiz, were flops. He also tried his hand at a vaudeville show, "Fairylogues and Radio Plays," but that foundered, too.

The truth was that Baum wanted to stop writing about Dorothy and do something new. He intended for the sixth Oz book, The Emerald City of Oz, to be the last in the series. In the story, Baum seals off his fairyland, proclaiming it unreachable from the outside world. But when a film project he was pursuing collapsed, Baum quickly found himself strapped for funds again. He wrote another Oz book, and from then on, Dorothy and the gang kept resurfacing every time Baum needed to pad his wallet.

It's a Twister

In 1919, Baum died of the same heart condition that had kept him indoors as a child. But even death couldn't stop the Oz stories from flowing. Baum wrote the 14th book in the series, Glinda of Oz, on his deathbed, and it was published posthumously. After that, various authors churned out 26 official sequels, which have been translated into 22 languages, from Tamil to Serbo-Croatian.

In 1939, the Oz legacy hit a turning point when MGM released The Wizard of Oz movie. Based on Baum's original storyline, the plot and characters remained relatively faithful to the book, although there were plenty of changes, too. Most of the quotables ("And your little dog, too!") were Hollywood additions, as were the musical numbers and dancing little people. And Dorothy's slippers, which were silver in the book, were changed to ruby in the movie to show off the new technology of color film.

The key difference between the two versions is that in the movie, Dorothy's adventure was "all a dream," while in Baum's book, Oz was very much real. In fact, later in the book series, Uncle Henry and Auntie Em move to the Emerald City to dine off jeweled plates and converse with talking animals. As it turned out, nobody really wanted to go home to Kansas.

The movie established Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion as cultural icons. Flying monkeys and yellow brick roads became part of the national psyche, and today, Oz's popularity shows no sign of waning. The movies, the spin-offs, the Broadway musicals, the plays, and—more recently—the pop-up book just keep cropping up. Much like Dorothy and the gang, Baum took the long way to finding his true calling, but there's no denying that he left behind an enduring legacy. By writing the quintessential American fairy tale, Baum proved that even late bloomers living in their own fantasy world are entitled to happy endings.

20 Facts About Eyes Wide Shut On Its 20th Anniversary

Warner Bros./Liaison via Getty Images Plus
Warner Bros./Liaison via Getty Images Plus

In the late 1990s, stories about what was happening on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s already-secretive film Eyes Wide Shut constantly made headlines. Everyone wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes with real-life celebrity couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and the 15-month shoot only intrigued people more. Finally, the film was released on July 16, 1999—more than four months after Kubrick had passed away. While there is still a lot we don’t know about the movie, here are 20 things we do.

1. Eyes Wide Shut is based on a 1926 novella.

Eyes Wide Shut is loosely is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story), which was published in 1926. Considering that the movie takes place in 1990s New York, it is obviously not a direct adaptation, but it overlaps in its plot and themes. “[The book] explores the sexual ambivalence of a happy marriage and tries to equate the importance of sexual dreams and might-have-beens with reality,” Kubrick said. “The book opposes the real adventures of a husband and the fantasy adventures of his wife, and asks the question: is there a serious difference between dreaming a sexual adventure, and actually having one?”

2. Production on Eyes Wide Shut began in 1996.

By then, Kubrick had been holding onto the rights to Traumnovelle—which screenwriter Jay Cocks purchased on his behalf, in order to keep the project under wraps—for nearly 30 years. Kubrick had planned to begin working on the film after making 2001: A Space Odyssey, but then got the opportunity to adapt A Clockwork Orange.

3. The studio pushed Stanley Kubrick to cast A-list names.

Terry Semel, then-head of Warner Bros., told Kubrick, “What I would really love you to consider is a movie star in the lead role; you haven't done that since Jack Nicholson [in The Shining].”

4. Stanley Kubrick wanted to cast Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger.

Kubrick liked the idea of casting a real-life married couple in the film, and originally considered Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. (He also liked the idea of Steve Martin.) Eventually, he went with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who were married from 1990 to 2001.

5. London stood in for New York City.

Though the film is set in New York, it was filmed in London. In order to construct the most accurate sets possible, Vanity Fair reported that Kubrick “sent a designer to New York to measure the exact width of the streets and the distance between newspaper vending machines.”

6. Some of the shots in Eyes Wide Shut required no set at all.

In order to give the movie a dream-like quality, the filmmakers used an old-school method of shooting—and a treadmill. “In some of the scenes, the backgrounds were rear-projection plates,” cinematographer Larry Smith explained. “Generally, when Tom’s facing the camera, the backgrounds are rear-projected; anything that shows him from a side view was done on the streets of London. We had the plates shot in New York by a second unit [that included cinematographers Patrick Turley, Malik Sayeed and Arthur Jafa]. Once the plates were sent to us, we had them force-developed and balanced to the necessary levels. We’d then go onto our street sets and shoot Tom walking on a treadmill. After setting the treadmill to a certain speed, we’d put some lighting effects on him to simulate the glow from the various storefronts that were passing by in the plates. We spent a few weeks on those shots.”

7. Eyes Wide Shut holds a Guinness World Record.

The film has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest constant movie shoot, with a total of 400 days, which was a surprise to the cast and crew. Cruise and Kidman had only committed to six months of filming. The extended shoot was a lot to ask of Cruise in particular, who was at the height of his career. He even had to delay work on Mission: Impossible II to finish Eyes Wide Shut. He didn’t seem to mind though. “We knew from the beginning the level of commitment needed,” Cruise told TIME. “We were going to do what it took to do this picture.”

8. The script for Eyes Wide Shut kept changing.

Todd Field as Nick Nightingale in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut
Warner Bros. via Getty Images Plus

According to Todd Field, who portrayed piano player Nick Nightingale (and is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker in his own right), “We’d rehearse and rehearse a scene, and it would change from hour to hour. We’d keep giving the script supervisor notes all the time, so by the end of the day the scene might be completely different. It wasn’t really improvisation, it was more like writing.”

9. Tom Cruise developed ulcers while shooting Eyes Wide Shut.

“I didn't want to tell Stanley," Cruise told TIME. “He panicked. I wanted this to work, but you're playing with dynamite when you act. Emotions kick up. You try not to kick things up, but you go through things you can't help.”

10. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman slept in their characters' bedroom.

In order to reflect their real-life relationship, Cruise and Kidman were asked to choose the color for the curtains in their on-screen bedroom, where they also slept.

11. The apartment featured in the movie was a re-creation of Stanley Kubrick's.

According to Cruise, “The apartment in the movie was the New York apartment [Stanley] and his wife Christianne lived in. He recreated it. The furniture in the house was furniture from their own home. Of course the paintings were Christianne's paintings. It was as personal a story as he's ever done.”

12. Stanley Kubrick temporarily banned Tom Cruise from the set.

Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise star in Stanley Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' (1999).
Warner Bros. via Getty Images Plus

Given his penchant for accuracy, it’s quite possible that Kubrick wanted to stir up some real-life jealousy between his stars in order to help them embody their characters. In a fantasy sequence, Kidman’s character has sex with another man, which motivates the rest of the film’s plot. Kubrick banned Cruise from the set on the days that Kidman shot the scene with a male model. They spent six days filming the one-minute scene. Kubrick also forbid Kidman from telling Cruise any details about it.

13. It took 95 takes for Tom Cruise to walk through a doorway.

Six days for a one-minute scene is nothing compared to the time Kubrick had Cruise do 95 takes of one simple action: walking through a doorway. After watching the playback, he apparently told Cruise, “Hey, Tom, stick with me, I’ll make you a star.”

14. Security on the set was tight.

Aside from Kubrick, Kidman, Cruise, and their tiny crew, no one was allowed on the set, which was heavily guarded. In May 1997, one photographer managed to capture a picture of Cruise standing next to a man that the photographer thought was just an “old guy, scruffy with an anorak and a beard.” That man was Kubrick, who hadn’t been photographed in 17 years. After the incident, security on the set was tripled.

15. Paul Thomas Anderson spent some time on the set.

One person Cruise did manage to sneak onto the set was his future Magnolia director, Paul Thomas Anderson. While there, Anderson asked Kubrick, “Do you always work with so few people?” Kubrick responded, “Why? How many people do you need?” Anderson then recalled feeling “like such a Hollywood a**hole.”

16. Stanley Kubrick makes a cameo in the movie.


Warner Bros.

He’s not credited, but the film’s director can be seen sitting in a booth at the Sonata Café.

17. Stanley Kubrick died less than a week after showing the studio his final cut of Eyes Wide Shut.

Kubrick died less than a week after showing what would be his final cut of the film to Warner Bros. No one can say how much he would have kept editing the film. One thing that was changed after his death: bodies in the orgy scene were digitally altered so that the movie could be released with an R (rather than an NC-17) rating. Although many claim that Kubrick intended to do this, too. "I think Stanley would have been tinkering with it for the next 20 years," Kidman said. "He was still tinkering with movies he made decades ago. He was never finished. It was never perfect enough.”

18. By the time Eyes Wide Shut was released, a dozen years had passed since Stanley Kubrick's last directorial effort.

Eyes Wide Shut came out a full 12 years after Kubrick’s previous film, 1987's Full Metal Jacket.

19. Eyes Wide Shut topped the box office during its opening week.

The film earned $30,196,742 during its first week in release, which was enough to take the box office’s number one spot—making it Kubrick’s only film to do so.

20. Tom Cruise didn't like Dr. Harford.

One year after the film’s release, Cruise admitted that he “didn’t like playing Dr. Bill. I didn’t like him. It was unpleasant. But I would have absolutely kicked myself if I hadn’t done this.”

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

Top 50 Best-Selling Artists of All Time

Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Victor Blackman, Express/Getty Images

Who are America’s all-time favorite musicians and bands? When it comes to the best-selling artists of all time, The Beatles still rule—yes, even a half-century after their breakup. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), these are the 50 best-selling artists of all time.

  1. The Beatles

Albums sold: 183 million

  1. Garth Brooks

Albums sold: 148 million

  1. Elvis Presley

    Elvis Presley is seen playing the guitar in his 1966 film, 'Spinout'
    Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 146.5 million

  1. Eagles

Albums sold: 120 million

  1. Led Zeppelin

Albums sold: 111.5 million

  1. Billy Joel

Albums sold: 84.5 million

  1. Michael Jackson

Albums sold: 84 million

  1. Elton John

    Elton John plays a concert in 2008.
    LENNART PREISS/AFP/Getty Images

Albums sold: 78.5 million

  1. Pink Floyd

Albums sold: 75 million

  1. AC/DC

Albums sold: 72 million

  1. George Strait

Albums sold: 69 million

  1. Barbra Streisand

    Barbra Streisand
    Terry Fincher, Express/Getty Images

Albums sold: 68.5 million

  1. The Rolling Stones

Albums sold: 66.5 million

  1. Aerosmith

Albums sold: 66.5 million

  1. Bruce Springsteen

Albums sold: 66.5 million

  1. Madonna

Albums sold: 64.5 million

  1. Mariah Carey

    Mariah Carey performs during the 2019 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 1, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada
    Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Albums sold: 64 million

  1. Metallica

Albums sold: 63 million

  1. Whitney Houston

Albums sold: 58.5 million

  1. Van Halen

Albums sold: 56.5 million

  1. Fleetwood Mac

Albums sold: 54.5 million

  1. U2

    The Edge and Bono of the rock band U2 perform at Bridgestone Arena on May 26, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee
    Jason Kempin, Getty Images

Albums sold: 52 million

  1. Celine Dion

Albums sold: 50 million

  1. Neil Diamond

Albums sold: 49.5 million

  1. Journey

Albums sold: 48 million

  1. Kenny G

    Kenny G performs onstage during the "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives" Premiere Concert during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall
    Noam Galai, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Albums sold: 48 million

  1. Shania Twain

Albums sold: 48 million

  1. Kenny Rogers

Albums sold: 47.5 million

  1. Alabama

Albums sold: 46.5 million

  1. Eminem

    Eminem performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards which broadcasted live on TBS, TNT, and truTV at The Forum on March 11, 2018 in Inglewood, California
    Kevin Winter, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 46 million

  1. Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

Albums sold: 44.5 million

  1. Guns N’ Roses

Albums sold: 44.5 million

  1. Alan Jackson

Albums sold: 43.5 million

  1. Santana

Albums sold: 43.5 million

  1. Taylor Swift

    Taylor Swift performs onstage at 2019 iHeartRadio Wango Tango presented by The JUVÉDERM® Collection of Dermal Fillers at Dignity Health Sports Park on June 01, 2019
    Rich Fury, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 43 million

  1. Reba McEntire

Albums sold: 41 million

  1. Eric Clapton

Albums sold: 40 million

  1. Chicago

Albums sold: 38.5 million

  1. Simon & Garfunkel

    Pop duo Simon and Garfunkel, comprising (L-R) singer, Art Garfunkel and singer-songwriter, Paul Simon, performing on ITV's 'Ready, Steady, Go!', July 8, 1966
    Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 38.5 million

  1. Foreigner

Albums sold: 38 million

  1. Rod Stewart

Albums sold: 38 million

  1. Tim McGraw

Albums sold: 37.5 million

  1. Backstreet Boys

Albums sold: 37 million

  1. 2 Pac

Albums sold: 36.5 million

  1. Bob Dylan

    Bob Dylan
    Evening Standard/Getty Images

Albums sold: 36 million

  1. Def Leppard

Albums sold: 35.5 million

  1. Queen

Albums sold: 35 million

  1. Dave Matthews Band

Albums sold: 34.5 million

  1. Britney Spears

    Britney Spears performs at the 102.7 KIIS FM's Jingle Ball 2016
    Christopher Polk, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 34.5 million

  1. Bon Jovi

Albums sold: 34.5 million

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