L. Frank Baum was lousy at business — he went bankrupt several times — but was a wonderful writer whose children’s books, including “The Wizard of Oz,” have thrilled children and adults for more than a century, Fred Krebs said here Monday night.
Krebs portrayed Baum at the second of three Iola Reads programs, with its focus on “The Wizard of Oz.”
Krebs, a Johnson County Community College instructor, has been in Iola numerous times for library, historical society and Buster Keaton appearances. The event was at the Flewharty-Powell Annex to Iola Public Library.
In his first-person portrayal as Baum, Krebs said his stories had several recurring themes: Don’t be sad; always be joyful; never give up; think about thinking.
“Also, treat other people with respect and fairness and be their friend,” he said.
BAUM BEGAN to write children’s books in 1898-99 with a new version of Mother Goose. He made the tales funny and the book immediately became a bestseller.
“A couple of years later Maxfield Parrish illustrated a Father Goose book,” which helped make it a hit, Krebs said. Parrish was an iconic artist, known for his distinctive and vibrant saturated hues and idealized neo-classical imagery.
Then, in 1900, came Dorothy, Toto, the Kansas cyclone and American literature’s best known children’s story.
Krebs spent a good share of his time retelling the familiar story, with zeal and animation that often drew chuckles from the small but rapt audience. He flew with Dorothy as her aunt and uncle’s house was spun by a cyclone from gray and dreary Kansas to the Emerald Kingdom.
He met the scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion, danced down the yellow brick road, and persevered with Dorothy before she magically returned to Kansas.
“The book sold 15,000 copies in the first few weeks and 35,000 in two years,” remarkable numbers for the time, Krebs said.
He said Dorothy got her name from a niece of Baum’s wife, who died as a child. The yellow brick road was etched in Baum’s memory from when he attended a military school in Syracuse, N.Y., which had a yellow brick road.
“The Wizard of Oz” was the first of 14 Oz books Baum wrote, many based on stories he told his four sons before he began to write. “I looked at things around me and figured out how to make them magical,” Krebs said in character.
Also, he recalled when growing up on a lavish estate — his father was well to do — he’d go into the woods, think about animals and fabricate beings — all fodder for elaborate fairy tales he told his children.
WHILE HIS books sold well, Baum was never a financial success.
He went bankrupt running Baum’s Emporium, a newspaper and a minor baseball team, the Pheasants, in Aberdeen, S.D., before he turned to writing.
Eventually, he handed over family finances to his wife, Maud, who managed them better, but what they accumulated was lost when they moved to Hollywood and Baum tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at movie-making.
After his death in 1919, a movie of “The Wizard of Oz” was made in 1925 and then the classic, starring Judy Garland, came out in 1939.
The third Iola Reads event is March 12 when the 1939 movie will be shown at the old Iola Cinema, 202 S. Washington. Screenings will be at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Those attending are encouraged to dress as their favorite Oz character.
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