L. Frank Baum Biography

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Birth Name: L. Frank Baum
Born: 05/15/1856
Birth Place: Chittenango, New York, USA
Death Place: Hollywood, California, USA
Died: 05/06/1919

Born Lyman Frank Baum in the village of Chittenago, NY on May 15, 1856, he was the seventh of nine children by businessman Benjamin Baum and his wife, Cynthia. A shy child who struggled with health issues, Baum - who preferred to be called Frank rather than his actual given name - was home schooled and spent much of his childhood in his father's library. There, he discovered a wealth of classic fairy tales, but found their violent content and heavy-headed moral lessons distasteful, which prompted him to rewrite the stories in a more whimsical fashion for the enjoyment of his siblings and other children. This aversion to frightening elements in children's literature would later inform much of his own vast body of literature. Baum also developed a lifelong disdain for formal academics after spending two years at the Peekskill Military School, from which he was forced to drop out due to the strenuous physical activity. He soon began producing his own newspaper, the Rose Lawn Home Journal, with a small printing press purchased by his father. Baum wrote all of the editorials, fiction and poetry in the journal, which ran for several issues, and even sold copies before moving on to a second journal about stamp collecting.

In 1880, he began printing a monthly trade journal about poultry breeding, which led to the publication of his first book, The Book of Hamburgs, in 1886. During this period, Baum also tried his hand at acting, which became the first of many career choices that would lead to financial hardship. He briefly managed a theater in Richburg, NY that his father purchased for him; there, he wrote and produced a popular musical play, "The Maid of Arran," in which he also starred, before the theater and most of his original plays were consumed in a fire. After marrying Maud Gage in 1882, Baum relocated to South Dakota, where he tried his hand at a variety of businesses, from department store owner to newspaper editor, with little success, though the arid landscape of his new home would have a significant impact on his depiction of Kansas in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In 1891, Baum moved to Chicago with Gage and their four sons, where he struggled to sustain a living as an editor and door-to-door salesman, which took a serious toll on his health. In an attempt to reverse his fortune, Baum penned Mother Goose in Prose (1897), a collection of improvised revisions of classic nursery rhymes which he had told to his sons. The book was a critical success, spawning a follow-up, Father Goose, His Book that became the best-selling children's book of 1899.

The following year, Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), an elaborate fantasy that combined elements of European fairy tales - a witch, talking animals, an enchanted forest - and American storytelling in its main character, a girl from Kansas named Dorothy, and her quest to return home to her humble roots. An instant success upon its release, Oz was the best-selling children's book for the next two years, and spawned a Broadway musical adaptation in 1902 that, while bearing little resemblance to Baum's original work, proved a popular draw for audiences over the next nine years. However, Baum's next literary effort, Dot and Tot of Merryland (1901), failed to attract the same level of readership as Oz, prompting him to pen The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) to appease his readership.

For the next 14 years, Baum would write 15 more Oz books while also writing a slew of other fantasy novels for children, including The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902) and The Enchanted Island of Yew (1903), as well as a slew of book series written under a variety of noms du plume. However, none of these efforts proved as popular as his Oz stories, which were a financial godsend to Baum and his family during a period in which the author lost considerable sums of money through a variety of failed projects. A second musical, "The Woggle-Bug" (1905), was a huge flop, and his "Fairylogue and Radio-Plays" (1908), which featured Baum as an on-stage narrator interacting with a film version of his work as well as live actors. The project proved astronomically expensive to produce, and forced Baum to sell the rights to several of his early works, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, to recoup his expenses.

In 1914, Baum moved his family to California, where he started the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, a motion picture studio devoted to producing quality features for children. However, its first release, "The Patchwork Girl of Oz" (1914), which featured uncredited pre-fame turns by future producer Hal Roach and comic legend Harold Lloyd in bit roles, was a costly failure, which scuppered distribution for its three additional features. The company was eventually shuttered, though unlike his experience with the "Fairylogue" debacle, Baum suffered no financial losses, having kept his own money out of the project. He resumed writing the Oz books, releasing one a year until 1918. The following year, he suffered a debilitating stroke on May 5, 1919, which claimed his life the following day. Two additional Oz books were released posthumously before a number of authors, most notably Ruth Plumy Thompson, took up the series for an additional 19 books. In later years, his work was adapted for stage and screen on numerous occasions, most famously by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), which bore little resemblance to Baum's original work and in subsequent years, would overshadow his literary output in popularity and enduring fame.

By Paul Gaita