Music Was No Balm for L. Frank Baum

By John Schauer

In 2005 and again in 2016, Ravinia audiences were treated to a screening of possibly the most beloved movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz, with the musical score performed live. But as old as that screen classic is—the film was released in 1939—it was not the earliest film adaptation of one of the 13 Oz novels that Lyman Frank Baum would eventually write. The earliest attempt was part of a project the author himself oversaw 31 years before Judy Garland sailed over the rainbow—and it was seen at Ravinia over a century ago.

Baum, who moved to Chicago in 1891 and eventually awarded himself the title “Royal Historian of Oz,” had been involved in stage adaptations of his best-selling children’s books as early as 1902, only two years after the publication of the first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Most of his theatrical projects were not successful, and his 1905 plans for an Oz-themed amusement park in California never came to fruition. Then in 1908 he created an elaborate multimedia stage presentation, The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays, which opened on September 24 of that year in Michigan and on November 20 and 21 was mounted in what is now known as the Martin Theatre at Ravinia.

Baum with the cast of ‘Fairylogue and Radio-Plays’ (1908)

The production was an elaborate testimony to Baum’s prodigious imagination, combining film, hand-tinted magic lantern slides, and live actors. Attempting to convey the uniqueness of the event, the flyer advertising it gushed, “It is really difficult to explain to you exactly how Mr. Baum intends to interest and entertain you. … There’s wholesome FUN and laughter in it—not a stupid moment, we promise you. There’s ART in it—a splendor and magnificence and wealth of coloring seldom equaled in stagecraft. There’s WONDERMENT in it—groups of strange characters never before seen in plays or real life; marvelous transformations and magical effects; wizardries to make you gasp.”

Baum himself appeared as an adventurer giving a travelogue lecture on the Land of Oz, at times stepping into the film and plucking out characters who would then materialize as live actors. The film portion boasted the first—or at least earliest documented—original orchestral score ever created for a film. The lavish production was a critical and popular success, but was so expensive to mount that even with sold-out houses it lost money and the tour ended prematurely and the tour ended prematurely on December 16 in New York, where it traveled after the Ravinia engagement.

There is some irony perhaps in Baum appearing at Ravinia, a primarily musical venue, because in his later books, he betrays a surprising lack of appreciation of, if not downright antipathy toward music. In the seventh Oz book—The Patchwork Girl of Oz, published in 1913—the title character, a stuffed fabric figure named Scraps, is brought to life by a magical powder, but not before the magician accidentally spills some on a phonograph, which escapes and tries to join the small group of protagonists heading for the Emerald City. The phonograph offers to play them some music and explains, “The only record I have with me … is one the magician attached just before we had our quarrel. It’s a highly classical composition.” When Scraps asks what that is, it replies, “It is classical music, and is considered the best and most puzzling ever manufactured. You’re supposed to like it, whether you do or not, and if you don’t, the proper thing is to look as if you did.” Once it begins playing what Baum describes as a “dreary tune,” one character, a Munchkin boy named Ojo, covers his ears and Scraps laughs and yells, “Let’s run!” to escape. The phonograph overtakes them and asks, “What’s the matter? Don’t you love classical music?” to which Scraps replies, “No, Vic. We will passical the classical and preserve what joy we have left. I haven’t any nerves, thank goodness, but your music makes my cotton shrink.”

The phonograph then suggests turning over the record, which has a ragtime tune it describes as “the opposite of classical.” Unfortunately, this is no better received than the first. Scraps yells, “Stop—stop! That’s the other extreme. It’s extremely bad!” and Ojo threatens, “If you don’t shut off that music I’ll smash your record,” after which the travelers and the phonograph part ways.

Since Baum apparently approved of neither classical repertoire nor the popular music of his time, one must wonder what the author, who died in 1919, would have made of the iconic musical film now universally known and loved. Fortunately Ravinia, through its extensive series of kids’ concerts and family programming, has strived for over a hundred years to correct Baum’s misconceptions and musical prejudices by showing children that great enjoyment can be derived from music of every kind. It can be fun to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, but it’s always great to return to Highland Park, where the full spectrum music is celebrated for audiences of all ages. That’s a magic even greater than ever transpired in the Land of Oz.

Original Ravinia program from 1908: