Learning that the past is still alive is a special thrill, especially when it involves something with real meaning to us. Case in point: the section of yellow brick in Peekskill, N.Y. that made the network news this week. The Early Show on CBS News tells the remarkable story originally relayed in Finding Oz:
How could such a segment still exist after more than 140 years?
And why is nobody taking proper care of it?
The episode of how a teenage Baum must have come upon this road is told in Finding Oz. And a recent front-page story in The Wall Street Journal has brought renewed attention to what should be a famous footpath.
Reporting on the building activity in Peekskill, N.Y., the Journal's Shelly Banjo writes:
In "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," the yellow brick road leads to happiness. In this Hudson River town, it ends in a parking lot. For close to a decade, city historian John Curran has been waging an uphill battle to preserve a collection of crumbling golden bricks tucked near a commuter railroad station here that he believes inspired the yellow brick road in L. Frank Baum's children's novel and in the movie classic based on it.Since the story appeared, there's been a flurry of interest from as far away as The Times of London and the BBC. Now, network news cameras are illuminating the issue. Tune in to The Early Show on CBS News tomorrow morning to follow the latest twists and turns.
As I show in Finding Oz, Frank as a boy wrote a charming poem about the famed hoax of the Cardiff Giant, a fraudulent statue "discovered" not far from Frank's own hometown of Syracuse. When P.T. Barnum tried to buy it and was turned down, he simply created a replica and charged people to see it along with other fake discoveries at his American Museum. A Syracuse businessman marveled, saying that "I guess there's a sucker born every minute." But what Barnum himself said was even more insightful: "The American people love to be humbugged."
That is the legacy that captivated L. Frank Baum, who fashioned his Wizard character as a self-confessed "humbug" of the highest order. "Barnum was right that the American people liked to be deceived," Baum wrote in an 1890 newspaper column. Frank put his finger on a core truth about the American character: that if something seems too good to be true, we want in on it. But we also love when the deception is revealed, when the curtain is drawn wide open.
P.S. Believe it or not, the P.T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport recently got hit by a terrible tornado, and it's raising funds to fix the damage.
It is with sadness but also in celebration of a remarkable life that we hear today of Mr. Raabe's passing. His immortal scene in which he proclaims The Wicked Witch of the East "really most sincerely dead" lasted only thirteen seconds but unleashes one of the most joyous eruptions of glee ever put to film, when the Munchkins break out into "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead."
To me, the most amazing bit of trivia has to do with the Certificate of Death itself. While you cannot read the fine print on the screen, the makers of the movie used the certificate to honor Oz author L. Frank Baum by listing the date of death as May 6, which was the day in 1919 when Baum died. Thanks to wendyswizardofoz page for the citation of the fine print:
Certificate of Death
Name: The Wicked Witch of the East
Residence: The Land of Oz
I HEREBY CERTIFY that I attended deceased from May 6th to May 6th, 1938
I last saw her alive on May 6th 1938:
Death is said to have occurred on the date stated below at 12:30 p.m.
Date of Death: May 6th 1938
Month Day Year
Signature: W.W. Barister, M.D.
A few people have asked me about the subtitle to Finding Oz, wondering whether it would be more accurate to say that L. Frank Baum "created" the great American story rather than "discovered" it. The question gets to the heart of invention and imagination.
Baum himself noted that he did not actively set out to create The Wizard of Oz, even though in a sense you could say he was searching for it his whole life. "It was pure inspiration," he once said. "It came to me right out of the blue. I think that sometimes the Great Author has a message to get across, and He has to use the instrument at hand. I happened to be that medium."
His sudden discovery of a story that had been brewing for many years is consistent with what many great artists have related in describing moments of inspiration.
For instance, Paul Simon has said that his most inspired songs were not actively created. "If I make it up, knowing where it's going, it's not as much fun," he tells Paul Zollo in Songwriters on Songwriting (2003). "It may be just as good, but it's more fun to discover it ... in the underground river of the subconscious ... it comes to the surface occasionally and you have to capture it when it happens." Then he switches metaphors. "It comes through you, but you don't possess it. You can't control it or dictate it. You're just waiting ... waiting for the show to begin."
Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing (2000), reveals something similar about his story generation process. "My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves," King writes. "Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground ... stories are relics, part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world. The writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as intact as possible."
So which is it? A divine
message? A signal from space? A river of dreams? A buried
treasure? It's whatever works. But if I had to pick one word for the process, I
would say 'discover' fits a bit better than 'create.'
While living in Chicago in the early 1890s, Baum joined the Theosophy movement. And spiritual awareness in the city reached new heights during the 1893 World's Fair. The surprise sensation of the enormous expo was a guru from India, Swami Vivekananda, who introduced Eastern thought to the West and spoke of the Four Yogas: meditations on wisdom, compassion, courage and inner peace. These four paths would suggest the journeys of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, the Lion and Dorothy in Baum's novel. To this day, the Swami's electrifying speeches at Chicago's Art Institute are commemorated with a street naming, a reminder of the spiritual enlightenment that the Swami brought to America... Namaste.
Now that James Cameron has surpassed himself with a new all-time global box office champ, a lot of people are calling Avatar "the most popular movie of all time." At first glance, it seems so.
But seriously, it's not even close. Not by a long-shot. Adjusted for inflation, it currently ranks #14, about even with Ben-Hur, according to boxofficemojo, with 1939's Gone With the Wind still fluttering at the top. But in terms of total number of viewers, that other film from 1939 takes the cake.
CBS calculated in 1983 that a billion people worldwide had seen The Wizard of Oz. The Library of Congress has called Oz the most-seen movie of all time. Estimates now range from Two to Three Billion viewers, including old-style network TV and home video.
By comparison, about 200 Million people have seen Avatar so far (if average ticket prices are $10). So it's the Munchkins over the Na'vi, as the film based on L. Frank Baum's novel seems fairly secure as the reigning champ of our collective consciousness.
In related news, Cameron tells NPR's Terry Gross that The Wizard of Oz is hands down his favorite film.
The message of the movie is not subtle. AVATAR is a direct strike at the arrogance of human greed and militarism and how it is accelerating the destruction of our planet. Why do this, many are asking? Why not use the stunning visuals to tell a different story, a more comforting one, so I can simply just be entertained? The answer is because James Cameron is a great storyteller in addition to a great filmmaker. He taps into the symbolic dream language we all share (see Jung post below), and he does it for a purpose.
Like The Wizard of Oz, AVATAR is a transformation of consciousness story. Whereas Oz points to a new way of thinking about one's self and one's own happiness, AVATAR points to a new way of thinking about other civilizations and the majesty of nature. Granted, the plot line draws on prior myths (see Pocahantas). And other films (like Oz) enlighten and entertain with far more humor. But in today's climate, maybe Cameron felt he didn't have the luxury of being gentle. After all, we're running out of time.
This was a reprise of the program we all did in Peekskill in September, but now the act is more together. In 90 minutes, we cover over a century of storytelling and song.
My talk about L. Frank Baum and his inspirations was followed by Carol de Giere's presentation about the making of Wicked, as told in DEFYING GRAVITY, her biography of composer Stephen Schwartz. Then came the music, from a pair of true talents: Carole Demas (the original "Sandy" in Grease) performing tunes from the 1939 classic film as well as rare numbers from the 1902 Oz stage musical, and Lara Janine ("Elphaba" from Wicked in Japan) singing "The Wizard and I" and "Defying Gravity." Add a sing-a-long, a book signing, some coffee and cookies, and you end up with a magical night at the library.