Meet Progressive Jesus…

In FOLKED UP AMERICA the AMERICAN LEGION OF LIBERALS replace the Tall Tale Folk Heroes we know and love from Paul Bunyan to Pecos Bill with politically correct imposters. With all of the recent talk of bakers, florists, photographers, and pizzerias as well as evolution as well as President Obama’s accusatory Easter address I thought it was about time I introduce you to Progressive Jesus. The REAL Jesus said “I am the way…”, Progressive Jesus says “It’s my way or the highway…” This fake Jesus that I’m poking a hole in a figure the left has been trotting out in public for years whenever they want to justify whatever it is they’re doing. We heard Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid speak of him when they rammed OBAMACARE down our throats (They said the Nativity story was about a poor family who couldn’t afford healthcare so they were forced to give birth in a barn/stable/cave….If they really wanted to go there how about the fact Mary and Joseph were even in Bethlehem in the first place was because the government forced an extremely pregnant woman to make a long journey to pay her taxes….They further went on to claim that Jesus was a democrat because he rode a donkey into Jerusalem…Whatever…) We further hear about Progressive Jesus every time some business owner refuses to participate in a same sex wedding ceremony or whenever anyone is doing anything that’s known to be against Biblical morality. What we do here is demonstrate the absurdity by being absurd hence why I invented Progressive Jesus.

 

PROGRESSIVE JESUS & FOLKED UP AMERICA TM & Copyright Ed McCray Productions, All Rights Reserved.

PROGRESSIVE JESUS & FOLKED UP AMERICA TM & Copyright Ed McCray Productions, All Rights Reserved.

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And Here’s The Cinnamon Bear…

The Cinnamon Bear, Copyright 1937 Glanville Heisch, All Rights Reserved.

The Cinnamon Bear, Copyright 1937 Glanville Heisch, All Rights Reserved.

It’s Christmas in July and in celebration I’ll tell you a Christmas story of which I’m sure you’re unaware,
So sit back, and relax as you learn about that forgotten holiday favorite, our hero, The Cinnamon Bear…

Every holiday season you know when Christmas is coming because we get bombarded by all of those beloved Christmas specials that have played for decades.  A charming little narrator who looks just like a now totally forgotten celebrity comes out in the form of a Snowman, Santa Claus’ Mail Man, or a Groundhog and they proceed to tell us all about some holiday hero that they insist we have never heard of before when, in fact, we, along with the rest of America, have.  Yet, we tune in year after year to be retold these heartwarming stories time and again. Now, allow me to put on my own narrator guise as I tell you about a Christmas character I truly am certain that most of you are unaware of, that original Christmas fantasy character Paddy O’ Cinnamon, “The Cinnamon Bear”.  I’m sure most of you have never heard of this beloved Christmas property before and I hadn’t either until January of 2007. I’d just finished up the script for “Jill Chill & the Christmas Star” and a friend of mine sent me an audio tape set of Christmas radio shows as a gift. Although I pride myself on my vast Christmas knowledge and I had become acquainted with old time radio in high school, this was one area I’d never got into before so I found it to be rather interesting.

Hal Perry is The Great Gildersleeve

Hal Perry is The Great Gildersleeve

After going through that tape set of under a dozen shows I began looking online for other Christmas radio programs and I found hundreds of them. (Archive.org is a tremendous resource for Old Time Radio shows with dozens of pages devoted to this forgotten but entertaining art form.) In most cases they were simply Christmas themed episodes of a series such as “The Jack Benny Program” or “Fibber McGee & Molly” much like how television shows have Christmas episodes today. One of the finest consistent series for quality Christmas episodes is “The Great Gildersleeve”. This program was one of the first spin off series in entertainment history and certainly among the longest running. It would be like “Seinfeld” spinning of a show about Newman. Gildersleeve was the first single father figure ever portrayed in popular culture and many of the show’s writers went on to work on such classic television staples as “I Love Lucy” and “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Great Gildersleeve” proudly stands on par with these other great series. It’s a shame that it’s not as remembered as “The Honeymooners” and “Lucy” because it certainly deserves to be.

Miracle on 34th Street Press Kit Photo, Copyright 1947 20th Century Fox, All Rights Reserved.

Miracle on 34th Street Press Kit Photo, Copyright 1947 20th Century Fox, All Rights Reserved.

I also found the occasional one offs and anthology episodes where they’d often adapt a noted Christmas book or story into a radio production. You could learn about where Christmas Seals came from or how the song “Silent Night” was written and there were always adaptations of Christmas films like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s A Wonderful Life”. In fact, one of the most interesting things is to listen to these adaptations and see how much they changed the stories. There’s a 30 minute version of “Miracle on 34th Street” where Kris Kringle acts as his own legal representation and it sure makes the story rather odd.

There were also Christmas variety shows such as “Kraft Music Hall” with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s USO Christmas shows. We don’t really have the Christmas variety show on television anymore but these were a staple for well into the 1970’s. Often a few gust stars would drop by and with the starring host they’d put on some skits and sing some songs. This format had it’s start in radio.

Holiday Inn Press Kit Photo, Copyright 1942 Paramount Pictures, All Rights Reserved.

Holiday Inn Press Kit Photo, Copyright 1942 Paramount Pictures, All Rights Reserved.

Among all of this festive frilliness I quickly found a 26 episode Christmas serial that seemed to be very popular in online circles known as “The Cinnamon Bear”. It would be discussed everywhere I went as if everyone should know what it is but I’d never heard of it before. I did some google searches and I would soon come to learn what none of these other people had seemed to notice; that “The Cinnamon Bear” is probably the most important piece of Christmas fantasy ever produced because it is the Rosetta Stone to so many things we now associate with Christmas but take for granted.

Charles Dickens Reading of A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens Reading of A Christmas Carol

Everyone knows and loves all of those beloved Christmas specials from the 1960’s but what I offer tonight is most likely the linked ancestor between those and the printed Christmas stories of the 1800’s on. Everyone cites Rev. Clement Clark Moore’s popular poem “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” better known today as “The Night Before Christmas” as the original Christmas fantasy but there were, in fact, many more before that. I will look at some of these at another time. We’re also aware that Charles Dickens popularized Christmas stories with his first Christmas novel “A Christmas Carol”. But then we make the nearly one hundred year jump to the 1940’s with films like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” but there are, in fact, a lot of Christmas stories in print, film, and radio that we’re skipping over if we want to get the whole story. So what makes “The Cinnamon Bear” perhaps the most important Christmas fantasy project of all time? Let’s take a look and see.

It's A Wonderful Life, Copyright 1946 Republic Pictures, All Rights Reserved.

It’s A Wonderful Life, Copyright 1946 Republic Pictures, All Rights Reserved.

“The Cinnamon Bear” began as a radio serial in 1937 that local dept. stores would sponsor as a tie in promotion to increase the  foot traffic into their stores for the holiday season. This was during the Great Depression and one of the reasons radio probably became so popular was that it allowed for impoverished Americans to escape from their serious problems into a fantasy world that they created with their own imaginations. Like the movie serials, radio serials geared toward a juvenile audience were quite popular. Often times they were adapted from comic strips like Superman, Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and Little Orphan Annie but occasionally original serials would spring up. What made “The Cinnamon Bear” so innovative was through this unique licensing scenario it lead to the viability of such a property.

The Cinnamon Bear, Copyright 1937 Glanville Heisch, All Rights Reserved.

The Cinnamon Bear, Copyright 1937 Glanville Heisch, All Rights Reserved.

The series was syndicated locally and one of the first syndicated radio series ever made. It would begin on Thanksgiving night or Black Friday and air every day except Sunday as a way to count down to Christmas. Kids could not only listen to and imagine the adventures of the Cinnamon Bear but they could go and visit him at their local Dept. Store via a guy in a Cinnamon Bear suit who would be in the Toy Dept. with or in place of Santa Claus. Often you would get a “Cinnamon Bear” coloring book and a metal ornament of a silver star with the bear stamped on it. Such tie-ins would be instrumental in the flood of Dept. Store Santa’s in the coming decades.

As for the series itself, it tells the story of a twin brother and sister and their quest through Maybeland with the Cinnamon Bear as they chase the Crazy Quilt Dragon who’s run off with the silver star for the top of their Christmas tree. Along they way they have numerous adventures as they try to reclaim the star and get home before Christmas as they meet dozens of imaginative characters. The series features a who’s who of radio and early television notables including the original Mr. Wilson from “Dennis the Mennace” and Floydd the Barber from “The Andy Griffith Show”. It was intentionally written to evoke the feeling of the Oz stories, Alice in Wonderland, and the Raggedy Ann books and succeeds in spades. When I first heard it I was struck by how similar of a structure and writing style this series had to my original 1997 screenplay “The Ballad of Jill Chill”. It was because of the research, study, and analysis I’d done in the creation of that Christmas story that I was able to see what no one else has been able to see. The important place “The Cinnamon Bear” needs to be revered in the Christmas pantheon of holiday folklore.

It is said that “The Cinnamon Bear” has played somewhere in America every year since it debuted which Chicago, Portland, and Seattle remain some of the areas where he is best known. There is even a “Cinnamon Bear” Christmas cruise that runs out of Portland each year where fans dress up as their favorite characters and enjoy their trip mingling with many of the characters from the series.

In the radio world, “The Cinnamon Bear” was such a smashing success that a competitor made their own serial the following year, “Jonathan Thomas and his Christmas on the Moon” that competed with it. While “Jonathan Thomas” is a nice little series I have never enjoyed it as much as I do “The Cinnamon Bear”. It seems a bit more dated to the 1930’s and a lot less polished than “The Bear” is even though it’s still an entertaining series. I personally enjoy the Americana and nostalgia of “The Cinnamon Bear” and that’s and element that while “Jonathan Thomas” has somewhat, isn’t as timeless as what can be found in “The Bear”. I’d still recommend people listen to both series and see what they think for themselves.

Original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Book, Copyright 1939 Montgomery Ward, All Rights Reserved.

Original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Book, Copyright 1939 Montgomery Ward, All Rights Reserved.

These two radio serials proved to be so popular in their initial airings with their Dept. Store tie-in that department stores decided to create their own Christmas characters rather than pay a royalty fee for the popular “Cinnamon Bear”. The first of these new characters was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” who debuted as a Montgomery Ward give away storybook in 1939. Although the influence of “The Night Before Christmas” is always cited as being the inspiration for “Rudolph” we never hear of what really initiated his genesis; the success of two vastly popular Christmas radio serials the two years before “Rudolph” came to be. There were other regional Christmas characters affiliated with various dept. stores too such as the elfin Keeper of the Keys known as Mr. Jingleing, and the Cajun snowman Mr. Bingle. But the reason Rudolph’s popularity really took off while the other characters remained regional delights was because of in 1949 “Rudolph” was translated into the popular novelty song first sung by that singing cowboy Gene Autry. It was because of the popularity of that song that “Frosty the Snowman” , “Here Comes Santa Claus”, “The Chipmunk Song”, and other popular follow up novelty records were born in addition to dozens of now forgotten Christmas novelty songs centering around their own Christmas characters. None of this would have happened without the success of “The Cinnamon Bear” leading the way. It may even be fair to ask if Dr. Seuss would have even invented the Grinch in the 1950’s if this Christmas novelty genre didn’t already exist to market such a story in.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Press Kit Photo, Copyright 1964 Rankin/Bass Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Pres Kit Photo, Copyright 1964 Rankin/Bass Productions, All Rights Reserved.

In 1964 Rankin/Bass Productions produced “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, the world’s SECOND Christmas special (“Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” was the first 2 years earlier, however, the first Christmas perennial America tuned in annually to hear was a 1940’s radio show called “The Plot To Overthrow Christmas“ in which all of the damned souls in Hell plot to kill Santa Claus and destroy Christmas for all. This little known special aired for 7 consecutive Christmases first beginning in the World War II years and is especially dark. It’s hard to believe people back then cherished this like people cherish “Charlie Brown” today. It also beat out Tim Burton‘s “Nightmare Before Christmas” by over 50 years in that creepy Christmas genre. There was an attempt to turn that Christmas perennial into a special during the 1970‘s and songs were even written but it never came into fruition.) but “Rudolph” began the string of Christmas specials we now remember with “Charlie Brown” in 1965 (although it IS an episode and NOT a special but we’ll have that discussion another time. 🙂 ),  the “Grinch” in 1966, and so on. These Christmas specials were always based upon the songs and rarely around a book. Even “Rudolph” was inspired by the song with no ties to the original giveaway book. The 1940’s Max Fleischer cartoon is a much more faithful adaptation of the book.

Romeo Muller

Romeo Muller

The interesting thing is that Romeo Muller’s “Rudolph” script and the style and humor all his other Christmas specials include is the exact same template found in “The Cinnamon Bear”. Romeo Muller would have been a boy in 1937 and he grew up to work in radio and it’s not that far of a leap to ask if he was influenced by the charm of “The Cinnamon Bear” when he was deciding how to adapt Rudolph into an hour long project. “Rudolph” had the Island of Misfit Toys, the skinny Santa Claus, the elf who wanted to be a dentist, and numerous other imaginative ideas that are along the same lines of what is to be found in “The Cinnamon Bear”. Ideas found in his subsequent specials are also along these same lines. Those later Christmas specials like “The Little Drummer Boy”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and even the Easter perennial “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” are all based around those holiday novelty songs authored in response to “Rudolph”. “The Cinnamon Bear” set the stage for all of it.

Frosty the Snowman Press Kit Photo, Copyright 1969 Rankin/Bass Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Frosty the Snowman Press Kit Photo, Copyright 1969 Rankin/Bass Productions, All Rights Reserved.

So in at least 3 ways “The Cinnamon Bear” played a vital role in the genesis of and is probably responsible for the Christmas Special as we know it today. If it had not been for “The Cinnamon Bear” Montgomery Ward would have never done their own Christmas promotion and Rudolph would have never been created. If Rudolph had never been created then there would have never been the 1949 song that spawned Frosty the Snowman and a whole slew of Christmas fantasy characters. If none of these characters had existed then there would have never been any 1960’s Christmas specials for what would they have been based upon? The tone we now associate with the Christmas special seems to be set by the standard set by “The Cinnamon Bear” making it the most important Christmas property we have never heard of.

The Grinch, Copyright 1966 Dr. Seuss, All Rights Reserved.

The Grinch, Copyright 1966 Dr. Seuss, All Rights Reserved.

So why haven’t we ever heard of “The Cinnamon Bear” before? It’s not so easy to determine.It’s not like there is some Grinch stealing his spotlight after all.  The writer had intended to do a “Cinnamon Bear” book in the 1940’s but paper shortages during World War II ceased that from happening. In the 1950’s the serial soundtrack was used as the audio for a puppet adaptation that aired in Chicago. Although some sources claim that this is a lost series where no footage is known to exist you can see some of the episodes up on Youtube. (It is rather hokey) In the 1980’s ornaments and even a plush toy of the Cinnamon Bear were produced and there have been two rather bland and forgettable storybook adaptations and an interesting history book about “The Cinnamon Bear” printed. In the early 2000’s a few unplayed sets of LP’s of the series were found and restored and released as a CD set. Those and the aforementioned Cinnamon Bear Cruise is about the end of the line for “The Bear”.

One of my dreams is to adapted “The Cinnamon Bear” into a comic book as if it had been a 1960’s Christmas special just to try and bring it back again and give it the long overdue attention it deserves. I’m probably the one person on the planet who could best serve the Bear because of my background in Christmas lore. I even wrote the script a few years ago and tried to locate the family of Glanville Heisch to do it but I could never find any way to contact them. This year would have been the ideal time to have done a “Cinnamon Bear” comic book since it’s the 75th anniversary of the series but perhaps someday this dream can become a reality.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, Copyright 1962 UPA Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, Copyright 1962 UPA Productions, All Rights Reserved.

This year start a new tradition and locate “The Cinnamon Bear” online (You can get it on NUMEROUS websites) and begin playing it on Thanksgiving evening or the day after and play an episode every day (except Sundays) until Christmas. It’s interesting to try out what out grandparents used to do.

To order your copy of “The Cinnamon Bear” I’d recommend this website: http://www.radioarchives.com/The_Complete_Cinnamon_Bear_p/ra031.htm as it’s the restored version of the show.

You can also hear a sampling and download the original coloring book and fan club newsletters here: http://www.cinnamonbear.co.uk/

For more information on “The Cinnamon Bear Cruise” visit this website: http://www.cinnamonbearcruises.com

To join The Cinnamon Bear Brigade go here: http://www.mwotrc.com/rr2006_12/cinnamon.htm&sa=U&ei=wLoRUI_nLYXJ6wGluYHgCA&ved=0CCMQFjAEOBQ&usg=AFQjCNHQpKKC-rveWP8rpCUGSFVdnKceAA

You’ll be glad that you did!

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Copyright 1965 Charles Schultz, all Rights Reserved.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Copyright 1965 Charles Schultz, all Rights Reserved.

The Wonderful Wizard of Ed

John Ritter as L. Frank Baum

The Dreamer of Oz, Copyright Hanna-Barbera Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Last week I posted about America’s Forgotten Fairyland, the marvelous land of Oz. This week I’m going to build upon that foundation and discuss how I fit into the story.

I first became aware of L. Frank Baum and his wonderful works through the 1990 NBC Movie of the Week, “The Dreamer of Oz”. This was the first of those made for TV special effects event films that NBC would become famous for all through the 90’s (“Gulliver’s Travels”, “Merlin”, “The Tenth Kingdom”, Etc…) but it wasn’t produced by Hallmark Entertainment and The Jim Henson Company as many of those were but was made by Hanna-Barbera. Although it only had a scant amount of effects scenes this was clearly the vehicle to see if much more elaborate productions were even possible as this was the first time CGI, models, and composite computer technology had ever been attempted on a television budget before. The film starred John Ritter in the title role with Annette O’Toole as his supportive wife Maude, and Rue McClanahan as his mother in law Matilda Gauge. The film features a script by frequent “Twilight Zone” writer Richard Matheson and was critically acclaimed and proved to be so popular that it re-aired for a few years ever Christmas season. Ritter shines in this performance and if he didn’t win an Emmy for his portrayal then it is a tremendous shame. It was because of that film I began to look at some of the Oz books. When people ask me what my favorite Oz film is I always cite this one because it’s the story of L. Frank Baum and it first got me interested in the Oz books and what could be more important than that? My school library only had copies of the first two Oz books, however, but their copy of “Marvelous Land” had a plot synopsis for the remaining books. It was then that I really first became aware that Oz was a series.

John Ritter as L. Frank Baum

The Dreamer of Oz, Copyright Hanna-Barbera Productions, All Rights Reserved.

John Ritter & Annette O'Toole as L. Frank and Maude Baum

The Dreamer of Oz, Copyright Hanna-Barbera Productions, All Rights Reserved

I never watched the MGM movie much growing up but I remember it being around. I remember the big to-do over the 50th anniversary in 1989. I remember Oz film tie-ins being a staple at Media Play and Suncoast Video. I remember the film airing on CBS every year too but I rarely watched it. There was also the 1985 Disney film “Return to Oz”. I think I first saw that on PBS in the early 90’s. It scared the crap out of me when I was younger than that just from the bits and pieces I’d seen before that. I do remember my 4th grade teacher having a sticker box that had Return to Oz stickers in it and I always picked those because I had stickers of Denslow’s Oz art at home and I’d mix the characters up together in my sticker album.

The Wizard of Oz Copyright MGM, All Rights Reserved.

The Wizard of Oz Copyright MGM, All Rights Reserved.

I also remember renting the anime version from one of the first video rental places in the early 80’s but I haven’t seen it since. I also used to watch the Cinar animated Oz series based on the first few books in the series when it aired on HBO in the early 90’s. I haven’t seen them since either but it must have made a lasting impression on me. Probably the one Oz film I watched the most was the “Thanksgiving in Oz” special that was written by acclaimed writer and my hero Romeo Muller and produced by Fred Wolf. I picked up the novelization online of this special, titled “The Green Gobbler of Oz”, when I was in high school. Among the first DVD’s I ever bought were the old WB release of “The Wizard of Oz” and I picked up “Return to Oz” a few months later at KMart.

Return to Oz, Copyright Filmation, All Rights Reserved.

Return to Oz, Copyright Filmation, All Rights Reserved.

When I began to write my own stories some people began to compare my writing style to that of Mr. Baum. In the summer of 2002 when my first printed novel, “Jill Chill & the Baron of Glacier Mountain” (it was the second novel I’d written) was getting ready for press I began to pick up the Oz books at my local Barnes & Noble and read them during the down time at my job manning the ticket booth of the local Drive-In Theater. Unfortunately my B&N only carried the first six books so my excursion into Oz ended there. These are among the most important things I ever bought in my life as it would turn out. A few years later I picked up the book “The World of Oz” at a comic con in Rochester, NY and that rekindled my interest. Written to coincide with the 1985 Disney film “Return to Oz”, the book is a great overview of the entire Oz phenomenon up to that point and although it‘s a brief book I find myself returning to it for reference every now and then. I always love to learn about the story behind the story no matter what it is and Oz is the ultimate man behind the curtain tale.

Jill Chill & The Christmas Star Cover, Copyright Ed McCray Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Jill Chill & The Christmas Star Cover, Copyright Ed McCray Productions, All Rights Reserved.

In 2006 I ordered the remaining Oz books by L. Frank Baum from Amazon.com (Hey, that even rhymes! 😀 ) But although there are nice hardcover reprints out there they edit out content and make them politically correct. I believe in reading books unedited as the author intended them to be. The author may revise their work while alive, everyone from Charles Dickens to J.R.R. Tolkien have done that, but once they’re silenced by death the work should be as they last left it and meant it to be. The Dover Editions of the Oz books are a nice affordable way to get all of the Baum books, averaging out to about $10.00 a book and they don’t change a word. If you want to get into the Oz series it’s the best way to go. Plus they look great next to my Narnia, Tolkien, and King Arthur books on the shelf. 😀 Dover also prints most of Baum‘s other books and they‘re all about the same format size so if you really want to get into Baum this is my preferred way to go. Because I so enjoyed these Oz books and wanted to get people interested in them again for a time I’d even considered doing my own Oz book since I’d been told so often that my own writing style is so similar but nothing ever worked out.

In the spring of 2011 I found myself starting over in many ways just as L. Frank Baum had when he became an author and once more Oz found me again. At the time I was thinking about how to present the library of titles that I had completed years ago and have been sitting on for all of this time. I found myself in a used book story and came upon a storybook where Baum’s text and W.W. Denslow’s illustrations for “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” had been edited down to 60 pages and I began to think about doing that with some of my novels since we were currently living in an economy where people were less likely to spend money on a novel than they had been a few years prior.

My curiosity in Oz had also been perked up again and I found my way onto one of the Oz internet forums. I forget what originally brought me there but through the conversations I learned about a book of paper dolls that had been produced back in Baum’s day and had recently been reprinted. As an Oz buff I wanted to get a copy and I was also interested as I had just bought a substantial amount of character artwork from my illustrator and was looking for ways to return my investment and a paper doll book seemed like a novel idea. I didn’t have the money to buy a copy of the book but I traded the person who restored and reprinted it a copy of my comic book “Jill Chill & the Christmas Star” for one. To my surprise I was asked if I’d ever consider writing stories for The International Wizard of Oz Fan Club. This was just one of those God events in my life because I had only began thinking about Oz again because I found that book and I only traded a “Jill Chill” comic book because I was strapped for cash. You never know when these sorts of things will happen either and it just goes to show that even when you’re going through a poverty stretch it can be a blessing in disquise otherwise I’d have never been given this opportunity.

"The Love-Bug of Oz" by Ed McCray, Copyright Ed McCray Productions, Story & Artwork All Rights Reserved.

The Wizard of Oz from “The Love-Bug of Oz” by Ed McCray, Story & Artwork Copyright Ed McCray Productions, All Rights Reserved.

That summer I set to work on figuring out what my “Oz” stories would be like. Because Oz has no set Bible of continuity my approach has been to treat it like a comic book. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s Warner Bros. Animation produced a series of animated TV shows based on the DC Comics characters. To many people those are the definitive versions of these characters. What they did was boil down each character to their essence and not worry about continuity found in the comics. The result was a hybrid of each character that had aspects of all versions. This has been my approach to the Oz characters. My ultimate goal is to get people interested in them again so that they’ll read the original Oz books. Each of my stories comes out of defining who each character is and plugging them into a particular scenario and building stories around that.

Glinda the Good Witch of the South from "The Love-Bug of Oz" Story & Artwork Copyright Ed McCray Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Glinda the Good Witch of the South from “The Love-Bug of Oz” Story & Artwork Copyright Ed McCray Productions, All Rights Reserved.

My take on the Baum characters was so well received I was asked to consider doing the same for the Thompson Oz characters. I had never read any of the Ruth Plumly Thompson Oz books because they’re difficult to find and I’d read bad things about them. I was sent a copy of “The Silver Princess in Oz” and I was VERY impressed. It’s a very well written fantasy novel appropriate for all ages and it captures what it’s like to be a young boy and like a girl perfectly well. Within a few days I even had a story in mind with those characters as well. Last fall I began to track down as many of her other Oz books and they’re just as good as L. Frank Baum’s fantasy works. The Thompson Oz is just another flavor of a familiar brand kind of like Coke and Vanilla Coke.

Professor Woggle-Bug from "The Love-Bug of Oz" Story & Artwork Copyright Ed McCray Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Professor Woggle-Bug from “The Love-Bug of Oz” Story & Artwork Copyright Ed McCray Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Over the past few months I’ve been illustrating my first story, “The Love-Bug of Oz” for “Oziana”. As far as I know it will be in the 2013 edition and I recently found out that it will be just in time for a new Disney Oz film so people will be thinking about Oz. Perhaps for once in my life my timing is right. 😀 I’m going to attempt to contribute at least one new story to the publication each year for the foreseeable future as my schedule permits. I may even do a cover for them at some point. What I desire to do with my Oz work is to not only tell entertaining stories with these beloved characters from America’s forgotten fairyland but to also shine a spotlight on the earlier works in hopes that more people will read them and let these characters live once more. I’ve been greatly enjoying my little excursions into Oz on these expeditions to bring back the finest Oz stories I can tell.

Ed & Jill Chill at the 2003 Pittsburgh Toy Show

Ed & Jill Chill at the 2003 Pittsburgh Toy Show

So now I find myself part of the Oz story too and I didn’t even have to journey down the fabled yellow brick road or need a pair of silver shoes or a magic belt to get me there, it found me. It has been a joy to be a part of America’s favorite albeit forgotten fairyland. To be a part of this glorious Oz legacy and asked to come into it has been a tremendous honor and I take this mantle very seriously. I hope my stories are well received and succeed in drawing attention back to the original books. For me it has been very exciting to help make characters live again who have been hidden by the sands of time for so many generations. I’m especially looking forward to breathing life into the Thompson Oz characters again because many of them have laid dormant since the time she used them which is a shame. I can promise that my first Thompson inspired Oz story will star Planetty the Silver Princess, Randy the Purple Prince, Kabumpo the elegant elephant, Thun the thunder colt, in addition to some of Baum’s beloved characters.

Return to Oz Copyright Walt Disney Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Return to Oz Copyright Walt Disney Productions, All Rights Reserved.

I’ll be sure to post any Oz updates I have on this blog between the other topics I cover so if this interests you be sure to check in. My favorite part of the whole experience is that now I can sign my stationary “The Wonderful Wizard of Ed”. See you on the yellow brick road on the other side of that rainbow. Along the way we might even regain those silver shoes (not ruby slippers) that Dorothy lost on her original visit.

Oz the Great & Powerful, Copyright Walt Disney Pictures, All Rights Reserved.

Why Do Superheroes Wear Their Underwear Over Their Pants?

Batman Logo

Batman Logo, Copyright DC Comics, All Rights Reserved.

Batman may be the most popular of the DC Comics characters but I wonder how commonly known it is that Batman is really a knockoff of Zorro and The Shadow? Ever see the Disney version of Zorro? It’s straight from the original pulp novels of the early 1900’s. Zorro is a rich playboy who returns home from a long trip abroad just like Batman. Upon his return he becomes a caped crusader who roams the streets and rooftops of California at night. His base of operation is from a cave beneath his expansive mansion that is accessed through a grandfather clock in the house, just like Batman (For real, that’s how he enters the Batcave.) The only one in on his secret is his butler (just like Batman.) And that’s just a short list of the similarities but the cave is an awfully big one.

The Shadow, Copyright Condé Nast Publications, All Rights Reserved.

The Shadow, Copyright Condé Nast Publications, All Rights Reserved.

Zorro Logo, Copyright Zorro Productions, Inc., All Rights Reserved.

The Shadow was a very popular radio character in the 1930’s most notably voiced by Orson Welles. Once again it tells the story of a rich playboy who roams the world on a 10 year journey in Asia where he trained with monks and yogis (just like Batman…) and he returns home to the city to fight crime as a caped crusader. The Shadow’s Rogue’s Gallery is a lot like Batman’s but the one property that’s most common with Batman in this regard is Dick Tracy. The Shadow has a secret society of friends who aid him in his quest to fight crime (much like Batman has several friends he turns to as Batman to help him out.) There’s other similarities as well but there’s just a few. I actually enjoy The Shadow very much. There was a pretty good Shadow movie in 1994 starring Alec Baldwin. It’s not great but it’s not bad and what a great comeuppance for a villain!

By the way, one of the best comic book movies ever is “The Rocketeer”. For a film that bombed it’s a fairly solid motion picture. Of course it has a lot of inspiration from the old Republic Serials and things but it’s not a bad movie at all. Usually films that bomb like that one did are really bad but it’s a pleasant gem. The first “Hellboy” was pretty enjoyable too and, of course, the first few “Spiderman’s” were great. I never cared for the “Batman” or “Superman” films. I never saw any of those until my 20’s and my opinions of them have caused seem deeply seeded anger from some of the people I’ve shared them with.

First I think they have the wrong Lois Lane. She looks like a trailer trash meth addict. They needed someone like Marion from “Indiana Jones” because Lois was always a spunky woman and Marion was spunky. This is where the film falls flat to me. The new film coming out next year has Amy Adams as Lois and I think that might work. She usually shines in everything she does. But anyway, what it comes down to after that is Christopher Reeve is a lousy Superman. (No one beats George Reeves. Sorry. That‘s who that character was from his inception. Not some girly man.) So what that he later got paralyzed. He looks like a scrawny mannequin through most of them and everyone knows that Superman is a more beefy built guy. (Look at the comic books) They actually turned Superman scrawny in the comic so he’d look more like Christopher Reeves.

Vintage Circus Strongman Poster

Superman Ad, Copyright DC Comics, All Rights Reserved.

Interesting fact, do you know why superheroes wear their underwear outside of their pants? It’s not because they’re making some crazy fashion statement. It’s because they were based on Circus Strongmen. Superman was the first and a lot of those who came later were knockoffs on Superman. It is interesting to me that DC Comics seized several of these superheroes away through legal action like Captain Marvel by claiming they owned all superheroes because they coined the term while at the same time Batman was busy knocking off Zorro and The Shadow. Even Superman is very Flash Gordon like of a character with undertones of Doc Savage. Both Superman and Doc Savage had a North Pole arctic retreat packed with artifacts and mementos of their illustrious adventures called “The Fortress of Solitude”. I wonder how that slipped by with no legal challenges…

Popeye the Sailor, Copyright King Features Syndicate, All Rights Reserved.

Popeye the Sailor, Copyright King Features Syndicate, All Rights Reserved.

I find it fascinating where characters come from and to unearth forgotten characters from previous generations. Popeye is another fun character from the past. Think about how jacked-up of a concept he is too. He’s an old, toothless, one-eyed guy who smokes a pipe and beats the crap out of people. His girlfriend is about the homeliest woman in comics and his best friend has a fetish for hamburgers and would sell him out for one. If you have never read the original Segar comic strips I highly recommend the recent 6 volume set of collecteds. There’s some really crazy stuff in them. One of my favorites is a 2 part Sunday Strip where the Jewish peddler Geisel is tired of Wimpy stealing hamburgers and hides rat poison in a burger and KILLS WIMPY!! And this was the SUNDAY comic geared to kids!! Imagine if someone did that today. The Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons are great too. One of my favorites is called “Fightin’ Pals” where Bluto gets lost in the jungle and Popeye misses getting the crap beat out of him so he goes to find him. The cartoon ends with Bluto reviving a sickly Popeye with a can of spinach and the two joyfully pound the crap out of each other. What a crazy idea for a cartoon! And yet no kids imitated this stuff. It’s sad that people now censor this old historical stuff like that.

Pulp adventure stories are a whole forgotten genre just waiting to be rediscovered. Dr. Syn/The Scarecrow, Zorro, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, John Carter, Doc Savage, and the Shadow are all popular characters who have originated from this genre. There were juvenile series that are in the same mode too like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. A lot of this stuff you can’t even find reprinted anymore but a lot of our current popular characters are based on these earlier efforts. Indiana Jones and Star Wars famously come from the Saturday Morning Serials made by Republic Pictures. Indy is very much a pulp character like Doc Savage and Star Wars falls into that same category as Flash Gordon. If George Lucas ever makes that third trilogy of Star Wars movies he should make it artistically look like the retro 1930’s-50’s look of the Flash Gordon fare. That way he can explain how the past depicted in the new trilogy is very modern while the original trilogy is like the 1970’s. The answer; fashion is evolving backwards in that galaxy far, far away, but I digress.

King Solomon famously said there’s nothing new under the sun and this is especially true when one analyzes the history of various popular characters like this. Everything is a riff off from something else whether it’s a particular genre, a remake of an original property, or an outright imitation. There really are no new ideas. There’s only novel wars to retell a preexisting idea. Look at all of the different versions of comic book characters that are out there. I’m not an avid comic book reader but I’m aware of some of the variations not to mention competing heroes with similar abilities and everyone has a favorite. When you can bend and twist officially recognized versions of a character and it still can be that same character it’s only a few nudges to make a new character. I often ask myself when I’m seeing the similarities between Zorro and Batman or Superman and Flash Gordon at what point does it go from an imitation to a new conception. Whenever a new animated film comes out Good Times Home Video always has a knock off title to coincide with the release of the big budget film. Although I don’t know if Good Times was behind it my favorite title for a knock off I’ve ever seen is “Ratatoing” Oh, my! Even the beloved Universal Monster The Creature from the Black Lagoon is just a re-imagining of King Kong story and all.

 

America’s Forgotten Fairyland

L. Frank Baum & the Oz Characters

L. Frank Baum & the Oz Characters

I’ve always been drawn to things from the past. I like old movies, I enjoy classic TV series, I value vintage cartoons, I treasure old time radio, and I cherish forgotten books. Today I’d like to tell you the great American story behind the greatest American fairy tale ever created, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. I’m going at this from memory so forgive me if I’m a little over-simplified on the details.

Most people are familiar with the 1939 MGM “Wizard of Oz” movie starring Judy Garland but as important as that film is to Hollywood history that film is nothing like the book it originated from and has probably led to the downfall of its original source material than any other film based on a classic work. Everyone knows of the Harry Potter and Twilight crazes in recent memory but the popularity of the “Oz” phenomenon by far dwarfs them both. Not even Star Wars may be close to recapturing the popularity that was “Oz” and yet few today are even aware of it. No other franchise can claim as many volumes with a run spanning over 50 years launching as many spin offs as “Oz” did and that just proves how truly unique of a property it is. Many of the characters from the original book have become so famous that they are even known by people who have never ever read an Oz book. They have become deeply woven threads into the tapestry that makes up America that it’s rather difficult to think of a time when they didn’t exist and they are Americana at its best. So how did it all begin?

Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The land of Oz and its inhabitants came from not myth, legend, or folklore but from the mind of a man, L. Frank Baum. He was a man who struggled and failed at every career he’d tried until he began to write down the stories he told to children. “Oz” was only one of these stories but by far became his most successful work. When the book, a book he had to help shoulder the production costs to even see printed, was released in 1900 it was the surprise hit of the season. It instantly spawned many imitators and within months it was licensed for an elaborate stage production in 1901 that bore little resemblance of the book. It was because of the popularity of this stage play that “Oz” is said to have surged in popularity and continued its original run into the following decade.

Baum continued to write other stories, averaging about four books a year over the next twenty years (often while fighting off a life threatening illness)  and even dawned various aliases as he spread out into other genres. Even after having a falling out with the illustrator of the original book, W.W. Denslow, over the stage production led to brighter futures ahead when a young Philadelphian illustrator John R Neill became Baum‘s frequent illustrator. Denslow did alright for himself for a while though. He made so much money on “Oz” that he purchased himself an Island in the Caribbean and crowned himself king. Denslow would go on to create his own “Oz” imitator a few years later, “The Pearl & the Pumpkin”. It would prove to be a tremendous flop and Denslow would die near penniless a few years later. (Incidentally, the popular Christmas time play “Babes in Toyland” was also created as an “Oz” imitator and probably the most successful of the group.”

In 1904 Baum published a sequel to the “Wizard” entitled “The Marvelous Land of Oz”. This was really created to be an excuse for a sequel stage production hoping to recapture the success of the original, which was still going strong at the time. Because the first was still a success the producers of that play saw no reason to back a competing production so Baum funded the sequel play “The Woggle-Bug” himself. To promote the new book and stage production an “Oz comic strip was launched, “Queer Visitors From The Marvelous Land of Oz” and it actually competed with Denslow’s own “Scarecrow and Tin Man” strip of the same time. A tie-in children’s book, “The Woggle-Bug Book” also appeared. In all three of these projects the “Oz” characters came to America on a visit. Mostly forgotten today and long sought after by collectors, none of these stories capture the magic that is found within the pages of the “Oz” books. Today all three have can be found in some marvelous reprints for the first time in decades and for the Oz aficionado they are a curiosity to be sure. But be forewarned that many of these reprints revise the original material into politically correct versions and, as we all know, historical works like these should ALWAYS Be experienced in their original form as the creator intended and not some revised edition that later generations sought to censor.

“The Woggle-Bug” proved to be a tremendous flop and received terrible reviews inevitably comparing as a pale imitation of the original but the book it was based on was a tremendous success. With most of his other fantasies having done mediocre sales at best Baum revisited Oz in 1907 with “Ozma of Oz”. In this book Baum returned Dorothy to Oz due to reader demands whereas the previous book had only featured the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman from the original story as the prominent characters because of the popularity of the comedy team who portrayed them on the stage production. With “Ozma” Baum began to develop “Oz” as a series of books with three more “Oz” books appearing over the next three years.

Because Baum had never intended “Oz” as a series of books like the works of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or J.K. Rowling he was very much making this up as he went along. Even so, Oz is as real of a fantasy world as Narnia or Middle Earth and the inconsistencies that crept into the work add to the charm and Americana of the overall piece. Perhaps modern readers find this to be a flaw but we must remember that “Oz” was the first franchised work like this ever created and it was birthed out of the admirable American value of the need to succeed. Only in America could the “Oz” series have been created and become a flourishing success. It is clear what Baum intended was something much more along the lines of Lewis Caroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” but what he’s responsible for paved the road (perhaps it was even of yellow bricks?) for the authors and their own fantasy worlds that would come later.

Return to Oz, Copyright Walt Disney Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Return to Oz, Copyright Walt Disney Productions, All Rights Reserved.

 

Burnt out by his most popular creation, Baum tried to end the series with the 6th book, “The Emerald City of Oz”, but was forced to resume the series with “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” a few years later when his new fantasy series about the adventures of a little girl and a one legged old sea captain failed to generate the sales of any of the “Oz” sequels. The new “Oz” book was also accompanied with 6 tie-in storybooks known as “Little Wizard Stories” to promote the new book (Often reprinted today in a single volume known as “Little Wizard Stories of Oz”.) “The Patchwork Girl” proved to be such a tremendous success, even today it is regarded as being one of the best of the “Oz” books, that Baum’s fate had been sealed. Realizing that his future had been decided for him, Baum wrote a new “Oz” book every year for the rest of his life. Baum even folded his new fantasy series about the girl and the sea captain into “Oz” with “The Scarecrow of Oz” in 1915 as well as adapted an unpublished work into an “Oz” story with “Rinkitink in Oz” in 1916. In both cases it was Baum’s desire to increase their popularity through name recognition with Oz and thusly increase his sales and he’s aspirations were realized.

Baum had continued to work on “Oz” stage productions, (his first love had always been the theater) but none of them proved to be a success and caused him great financial losses. This was the driving factor behind Baum’s return and development to “Oz” as a series of books. He was also an early film pioneer and produced several silent films about the land of Oz and based on his stories. Although the films were elaborately produced and are among the earliest showcases of special effects, with some of them even utilizing experimental color techniques, these too proved to be flops as well given that people didn’t take their children to the movies yet nor was the theater exhibition system in place yet that would make films a viable venture. Baum was truly ahead of his time.

Baum’s final Oz book was “Glinda of Oz” being printed after his death in 1919 but “Oz” proved to be so popular that even the death of its creator could not stop its popularity and the series continued the following year with a new author, Ruth Plumly Thompson. This was the first time a series of stories continued without its creator, a practice which is commonplace now, but was unheard of for the day. In most cases your creative property died with you. In 1921 she continued the series with “The Royal Book of Oz” and continued to write a new “Oz” book every year until 1939’s “Ozoplaning with the Wizard of Oz” and returned to do two more volumes in the 1970’s. The Thompson stories are in many ways a mirror image of the works of Baum. While Baum often chose little girls to be the star of his stories, Thompson chose little boys. Whereas Baum’s stories showcased Americana, Thompson’s relied heavily on European fairy tale influences. In recent years Thompson’s story have received a bum wrap as not being very good but after having read many of them I can assure you they are quite splendid fantasy stories in their own right. As compared to the other books in the “Oz” series they’re just a different flavor of the same property.

When Thompson retired from Oz in 1940, the series’ long time illustrator John R. Neill then wrote four volumes of his own with the fourth not being printed until the 1990’s. Oz fan Jack Snow then took over the series for two more volumes in the late 1940’s and even wrote a Who’s Who of Oz characters in the 1950’s. Baum’s publishers, Reilly & Lee added two more books to the line with 1951’s “The Hidden Valley of Oz” by Rachel R. Cosgrove and 1963’s “Merry Go Round in Oz” by Eloise Jarvis McGraw and Lauren McGraw. Other Oz books by these authors would also finally see print in the 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s. Reilly & Lee also had the “Queer Visitors” strip adapted into a storybook in the 1960’s.

By that point the popularity of “Oz” had finally run its course with Baum’s “Oz” books starting to fall into the public domain. This made the “Oz” series accessible to anyone who wanted to write their own “Oz” story and this began a whole new wave of “Oz” books that while aren’t regarded as being official canon some are interesting none the less. To this day dozens of new “Oz” stories are printed every few years and while everyone knows the classic MGM film there’s a whole side of Oz found in the printed works that is just waiting to be discovered. While not all of the officially recognized books are great, there are some wonderful gems among them and several of the twentieth centuries leading fantasy storytellers such as Ray Bradbury and Walt Disney can be counted among the legion of Oz fans.

So why don’t we know this? Why have the “Oz” books been tossed into the dustbin of history? It could be because for a long time the “Oz” books were seen as a waste of precious library space holding their own among the pulp classics of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Doc Savage. In a lot of ways the “Oz” books are a forerunner to the comic book which followed the same creative path as the “Oz” stories did. An undeniable factor is most definitely the long shadow cast by the ever popular MGM film. The film is so highly regarded that all films based on the later “Oz” books inevitably get compared to the original. It would be wonderful to see a series of films based on the series get made in today’s climate. With a wealth of great characters and story material it’s an obvious leap to make. But as great as the “Oz” books are, the story of L. Frank Baum is even better and isn’t an inspiring great American success story a story we can all get behind especially today?

If you’d like to read a great primer of the works of L. Frank Baum I highly recommend the book “Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum” by Michael O’ Riley. Out of all of the Baum bibliographies I’ve ever read it is my favorite because it not just tells the story of the man but the story behind his stories and it discusses many of the stories in great detail.

Oz & Beyond

Oz & Beyond

We’ll revisit the land of Oz in another post but for now here is a brief overview about what this was all about as a jumping off point for future reference.

All content, unless otherwise noted, copyright Ed McCray, All Rights Reserved.