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. ( 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: 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:

For more information on “The Cinnamon Bear Cruise” visit this website:

To join The Cinnamon Bear Brigade go here:

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.


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.


If I Met Walt Disney

Walt Disney & Mickey Mouse

Walt Disney & Mickey Mouse

When people ask me who I would want to have dinner with out of all the people who have ever lived my choice always comes down to two people; Jim Henson and Walt Disney. When I say that the follow up is usually a condescending “Why wouldn’t you choose Jesus if you’re such a good Christian?” The answer to that is simple. As a Christian I KNOW I’ll see Jesus one day. With Disney and Henson I can’t say I know that. I’m fairly certain there isn’t the slightest chance Jim Henson was a Christian given what I’ve read about the man. With Walt it’s much more of a grey area so I’m hopeful.

There is an interesting book called “How to Be Like Walt” by Pat Williams that is the only book that I’m aware of that talks about Walt’s faith at all although I find some of the connections made to be quite stretching it. In the modern politically correct Disney corporation Walt is always depicted as being nonreligious but there are indications that he may have been a Christian. Much of his childhood background centered around Christianity and many of his films had inclusions of faith. Snow White prays to God for Grumpy to like her. Geppetto’s wish for a real boy is presented with the childless toy maker kneeling in prayer. We saw this carried over into films like Pollyanna where the fire and brimstone preacher learns about sharing the love of Christ through the orphaned daughter of missionaries through “the glad texts” and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few others. Since everything baring Walt’s name while he was alive required his approval it was all filtered through one man. Because of this these entertainments reflect the values and personality of Walt Disney. Throughout the body of Walt’s work there was a reverence for God and Christianity. I’m even told that Disneyland once had an operating country church in Frontierland and on Main Street U.S.A. Can you imagine if Disney did that today? But I find things like this to be rather interesting even though they are rarely discussed and seem to make people uncomfortable and even angry.

From what I’ve read Walt Disney was a lot like my Grandma McCray. She was from his generation and had that same Midwestern ideal. She never went to church but she would ALWAYS get offended if the church lady across the street left her a tract or anything like that. She took it as an insult against her faith. I have no idea if my grandma was truly a Christian or not as she died when I was a child but I have always remembered that about her. Actor Dean Jones often tells a similar story about after his own conversion to Christianity he reached out to Walt about Jesus and Walt took it as an attack and scolded him for it. So I hope that Walt was like my grandma so then I don’t have to speculate what he was like and get to meet him.

I’ve always been a great admirer of Walt Disney. He knew what the people wanted and he got to do some pretty amazing things. It’s a shame he was a chain-smoker and went out of this world the way that he did. When you see what he was able to accomplish in only a few years it’s rather impressive. Essentially the final 12 years of his life are what forever secured Walt’s place in the American experience and animation history. He had failed and rebuilt his company many times over by that point but it was during the whole live action, Disneyland, and television period that his success truly came to fruition. By all accounts he was a marvelous man and although he wasn’t the only one responsible for his great accomplishments (I’ll cover some of the unsung heroes behind Walt in some later posts) it cannot be discounted that without Walt’s leadership and guiding hand none of these other talents would have achieved as much as they did behind Walt’s driving force to motivate them. Walt was the embodiment of American values and the great American success story. He came from humble beginnings, strived to be the best that he could be, and ultimately became one of the most important people who ever lived. He revered the past, was proud of his country, and he always had his eye on the future. We have not seen very many people like Walt Disney. Only a handful. Steve Jobs was perhaps a similar figure in the realms of technological advances. I can’t think of very many others. Some point to Steve Spielberg and George Lucas but Spielberg has no where near the golden touch of Walt Disney and George Lucas only remakes the same film over and over again in different genres. Nope, there has never been another innovative film maker like Walt Disney but Jim Henson comes pretty close.

And don’t believe a lot of the PC spin the Walt Disney Company puts on Walt. Walt was a conservative republican. There’s a famous story of Walt wearing a Goldwater button on his lapel when he received an award from LBJ. Walt was anti-union because of what he had lived through with his own studio strike in the early 1940’s. He also “ratted out” communists to Senator Joe McCarthy. This was not a man who was a liberal in the modern sense of the word. I have read just about every book that’s ever been written about Walt Disney and I’ve read plenty of American history books and he was very much reflective of a conservative republican of his day and that’s okay. He was who he was and no one should try to hide that or downplay it because it doesn’t fit the modern Hollywood ideals and standards.

So if I got to meet Walt what would I talk to him about? Well, I’d probably like to discuss what he thought of how his legacy has been treated and company has been handled after his death, (you know, if people actually cared about things like that in the afterlife but for the sake of this article we‘ll just imagine that they do.) I’d love to know what his opinion would be on modern Disney films and things like that. I’d talk to him about his life and career and how and why he did the things he did; something no Walt Disney biography ever gets into. What made Walt tick? I’m sure we can make a fairly accurate guesstimate on what he’d think about some things. Even back in the 1970’s acclaimed Disney animator and member of the 9 Old Men that all around rascal Ward Kimball put it this way. “A lot of people ask me if Walt is cryogenically frozen in a vault somewhere….well I don’t know but one thing’s for sure. When they thaw him out there will be Hell to pay!” (Ward Kimball, in fact, was the joker who started the rumor of Walt Disney being frozen.) What’s amazing is Ward said this in the 1970’s when the Walt Disney company was making lackluster live action films and mediocre animated features. EPCOT was being turned into a theme park instead of the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow that Walt had envisioned. If Ward, who knew Walt fairly well, was so certain how displeased he’d be being plopped into 1970 can you imagine if Walt were plopped into 2012?

Original Disney Channel Logo. Copyright Walt Disney Productions, All Rights Reserved.

In 2012 there are like 3 Disney channels and not a single one of them shows classic Disney movies or cartoons. When I was a little itty bitty kid The Disney Channel was fresh and new and the reason we got cable in the first place. All through the 80’s I’d watch all of this great stuff Walt made in the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. I remember watching “Good Morning Mickey” and “Donald Duck Presents” and knowing all of those old cartoons by heart. Even now some of them come back to me word for word when I rediscover them on DVD. I watched “Walt Disney Presents” every day and even cried when I learned that Walt Disney was dead and had died 14 years before I was born. I remember watching the original “Mickey Mouse Club” at supper time every evening and I saw so many of those great special effects films and I believed that leprechauns were real, that nannies could fly, and that a Volkswagen could be alive. Disney films were the stuff that dreams are made of. You also had magical optimistic efforts like Pollyanna and thrilling adventures like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Swiss Family Robinson”. Films like “The Absent-Minded Professor” and “The Shaggy Dog” were hilarious and, “Old Yeller” made you cry, and there was also patriotic fare like “Davy Crockett” and “Johnny Tremain”. There were also kids shows geared to my age group that were fun and silly and entertaining like “Welcome to Pooh Corner” and, my favorite, “Dumbo’s Circus”. I remember telling jokes I learned from the puppets at the end of each episode in a school talent contest when I was 5 years old. The Disney Channel was hands down the greatest network on cable and was very influential in the type of guy I became.

When I was in high school the tween stuff began to flood into the network. It began innocently enough, a film here and there but soon the tween material made up the entire daily run of The Disney Channel. Soon the Walt era stuff was segregated to the late night owl time slot where it was set up like the way American Movie Classics used to be before it went to pot. I’d often record the night’s line up, dubbed “Vault Disney” so I could watch it when I got home from school. By that point many of these Disney films and episodes had become like old friends and they were greatly missed. The tween drek just didn’t measure up in quality to the old school Walt era stuff. It didn’t even come close nor did it try. It didn’t even feel like Disney. I even think that some of the 1970’s Disney films, as quaint as they are, have a certain kind of charm to them. A few weeks ago I found a DVD of “Unidentified Flying Oddball”, probably the ultimate embodiment of what a post Walt Disney project was, in the 3.00 bin at F.Y.E. and I was so excited to see it there and add it to my collection. Call me nuts but even that kind of a film far surpasses the tween stuff.

By the time I got to college The Disney Channel had completely thrown away all of the Walt era content and completely replaced it with the tween stuff. By that point I had some online friends pretty high up in the Walt Disney Company (if you can still find the petition to oust Michael Eisner from around ten years ago I was the 6th person to sign it and high above the Who’s Who of Disney dignitaries like Frank and Ollie and Diane Disney Miller. That surprised a lot of people and even opened a few doors for me for being so outspoken in what I though. I always have been VERY opinionated. 😀 ) and I voiced my frustration. They all cited declining ratings. (Yeah, right. And I also believe that the reason the pirates no longer chase the women in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” ride is because the figures wore out and not because of political correctness. Um, hello, they’re pirates! Even in the song they gleefully boast on how roguish and rascally bad eggs they are!! And if the anamatronics had really worn out they would have been replaced. I also loved the explanation that the audio was destroyed even though it appears on the official ride soundtrack album Disney put out around the same time. Nobody buys your political correctness, Disney…) At the time Ted Turner made an offer to buy out the Walt era library for his station, Turner Classic Movies, since the company that bore Walt’s name had no interest in airing the material anymore. Disney flatly turned Turner down which wasn’t surprising but Turner had a point. Disney was putting a bushel over their greatest asset; the films produced by their founder and upon which the entire empire is built upon. Sadly, we’re getting to the point where in a few years no one will remember ANY of Walt’s greatest cinematic achievements and that is a disgrace.

I wrote an angry letter to The Disney Channel and was told to fear not as a new line of DVD’s would make these films available to me again. When the Vault Disney line came out I enthusiastically supported it but had a hard time finding it in stores. By the third wave the “Vault Disney” label was dropped from the packaging and replaced with the word “special edition” and after that all of the work in progress “Vault” titles were just dumped to DVD with the bonus features that had been completed. In many cases films were dumped to DVD without even being cleaned up or in their original aspect ratio. Walt’s legacy had been dumped on again.

After The Disney Channel dropped the Walt content my family dropped cable. I only ever watched The Disney Channel, TV Land, AMC, The History Channel, and The Discovery Channel anyway. By that point TV Land was no longer airing older shows I enjoyed, AMC was showing newer films with lots of commercials, and The History Channel began doing programs about the Founding Fathers being Satan Worshiping members of the illuminati and ancient aliens so we dumped the whole thing. I began to just buy the materials I loved on DVD so I’d always have them and have them for my own children to see one day since we can’t count on The Walt Disney Company being the stewards of Walt Disney’s legacy anymore. I’m sure Walt wouldn’t be happy about that either.

Epcot & Walt Disney World Logos. Copyright Walt Disney Productions, All Rights Reserved.

Epcot & Walt Disney World Logos. Copyright Walt Disney Productions, All Rights Reserved.

In the early 2000’s the Disney parks had dropped in upkeep quality too. I’ve never been a big Disney theme park person only because I grew up in Pennsylvania and both Disney parks were over a thousand miles away. I’ve only been to Disney World twice. Once when I was 4 or 5 and once when I was 16. I’m long overdue for a return visit. I’ve never been to Disneyland but have always wanted to go because that was the park Walt actually oversaw. So while I appreciate and love the theme parks I’m just not as familiar with them as I am with the films because I haven’t experienced them as often. When Walt ran Disneyland he made sure it was ALWAYS clean and kept nice. The place was spotless and it was geared around the family and accessible to all people. When Disneyland first opened the admission price for the day was only a dollar. Last I knew it was well over a hundred. That’s not exactly in keeping with inflation, now is it? Online I was always reading stories about chipped paint, burnt out light bulbs, trash covering places, and whole sections of the parks closed indefinitely like Tom Saywer Island and the 20,000 Leagues Submarine ride. When I was there in 1996 there was a terrible bathroom situation at Forth Wilderness that they didn’t address until the following morning so I couldn’t take my shower. I wasn’t very happy about that and I was totally surprised by how Disney let that go. (It was pretty bad….someone plastered the bathroom and showers in human excrement so you couldn’t use the bathroom. It was totally disgusting.) With Walt you knew that Disney meant quality and by that time it had come to mean declining quality to increase profits to a lot of people. This is what lead to Michael Eisner’s ousting. Eisner had begun as a good guy but I’m of the opinion that he just lost his way as time went on. We see this all the time among America’s politicians after they’ve been there too long. I think that was what happened with Eisner and if you watch the excellent documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty” it becomes clear that the loss of Frank Wells that lead to the break up of the Disney management team was the beginning of the end.

When Disney bought out Pixar and put John Lasseter in charge I was thrilled. I had come to greatly respect and admire the Pixar people from the films they’d made up to that point and to me Pixar meant quality. After all, they sand the undersides of the drawers. The Pixar DVDs are among my all time favorites because of the fun and care that are put into them. The first DVD I ever got, in fact, was The Super Genius edition of “A Bug’s Life“. I have no idea if Lasseter’s leadership has improved the parks for sure but it sounds like it has. I have noticed I haven’t enjoyed the Pixar films as much after Lasseter became less involved. Some have cited this happened with Walt’s animated films once he got into live action and the theme parks as well. I think the best Pixar films are the string they did with “A Bug’s Life”, “Toy Story 2”, and “Monsters Inc.” While the others have been good they’re more artsy. While some people like that I find it to be overkill. I still enjoy them but they’ve become more like Studio Ghibli films rather than having the Pixar flavor they used to have. “Ratatoullie” is a great example of this. “Wall-E” and “Up” also fall into this category. “Toy Story 3” is more like this kind of film as well than the earlier Pixar efforts. And I’m not saying that I hate recent Pixar films but I just don’t enjoy them as much as when they were looking at the worlds of childhood from a different perspective. All of the first seven films, except “Finding Nemo”, are like this whether it be the secret life of toys, the bureaucracy of being a closet monster, or the daily routine of a super hero. All of the first Pixar films were like this not that it was a formula. It was just what made them Pixar to me. Dreamworks was the studio of throw away pop culture movies that would be forgotten in 6 months while Pixar made enduring classics with great originality. While the originality is still at Pixar they’re more or less lavish art house films now. There’s not anything wrong with that. I just miss the style the early Pixar films had.

I think Walt would probably be disappointed in the hand drawn animation his company now makes. First, the fact that under Eisner they closed it down was appalling. When Walt’s brother Roy wanted to do that after The Sword & the Stone Walt forbade him from doing so because animation was the begging of their empire. The fact that Eisner would do that is what put many over the edge on deciding he should leave. When John Lasseter took over he rebuilt the animation studio but it’s just not the same as it was in the early 90’s. I wasn’t one of the people who enjoyed “The Princess & the Frog” at all. First, I found it to be too watered down and soulless. The film had been plagued by political correctness afoot; the heroine was originally called “Maddy” but once that got out accusations was racism began to fly claiming “Maddy” and “code” for “Mammy” so she was renamed. Then the film was re-titled from “The Frog Princess” to “The Princess & the Frog” because the same critics said “The Frog Princess” was a racist title because it was comparing black people to frogs with big lips and on it went. As Sigmund Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and not everything has racial overtones to it . But because of issues like this and the fact it was set in New Orleans I found this to be more of a marketing ploy to add a black princess to the Disney Princess widely popular merchandising line. By that point characters like Mulan and Esmeralda who weren’t even princesses had been added to the line up to show varied ethnicity.

What I found so greatly insulting is that they took a EUROPEAN fairy tale and set it in the American south in a city that had just been ravaged by a destructive hurricane in order to get sympathy PR rather than take an authentic story from African folklore (and there are THOUSANDS of them!! And plenty of them with Princesses.) and set it in Africa as they had done with every other ethnic princess. Mulan is an authentic Chinese story set in China. Pocahontas is the story of a real American Indian Princess who lived in America. Princess Jasmine is an Arabian princess from an authentically Arabian story. From Snow White to Belle all of their fairy tales originated from and took place in Europe, none were set in America because they‘re light skinned. To not do this was “the black princess” is like they’re saying these folktales aren’t good enough to tell. On top of that they packed the story with undertones of voodoo when the predominant faith of American black people in the south of that time was Christianity. Not that I expect Disney to put doctrine in a film I’m just saying you had both the villain and the fairy godmother type character being different sides of voodoo. It might have been interesting to have put the voodoo villain up against a Christian counterpart to see the entire spectrum at play. After all, the gospel music influence was good enough for Randy Newman to riff on. Why not the story dept. too and faith can play a role in modern Disney film. “Lilo & Stitch” is packed with religious references reminiscent to the Walt films I mentioned earlier so it can have its place and play a role.

I’m just not a fan of political correctness at all and I always find it leading to stupid decisions like this. It’s because of this “The Princess & the Frog” left me feeling kind of fake. But when you’re doing a film from a marketing perspective rather than to make an entertaining film I guess this is to be expected. When the film failed to do well Disney blamed the title being a girl title…even though “The Little Mermaid”, “Aladdin”, “Beauty & the Beast”, “Mulan”, and “Pocahontas” had all been hugely successful film WITH “girly titles” It couldn’t be that the audience saw “The Princess & the Frog” for what it was? Disney so adamantly believed this that “Rapunzel” was recrimsoned “Tangled” and the long in development “Snow Queen” has now been redubbed “Frozen”. I really can’t see Walt doing something like this. You can call me overly sensitive and all that but I just feel that the what “The Princess & the Frog” was done exploited black Americans into the whole notion “Oh, she looks like us” rather than doing a story that truly did some justice to African culture as the other Disney Princesses had done. I may be wrong but it’s just my opinion.

I ultimately think what Disney lacks in all areas is a leader. As I mentioned earlier when Walt was alive everything was filtered through Walt. Today everything is filtered through middle management. In many cases these middle managers want to feel like they contributed something so they add to whatever it is that’s in the pike. By the time what may have started out as a great idea gets to the end of the pipeline it may be a watered-down mess that it lost all the impact it might have once had. “Treasure Planet” was a film like this. I’ve heard from more than one person that “Treasure Planet” was the most micromanaged film ever made by feature animation and it shows. It’s a shame too because it was a great concept and had a great look and feel to it. While not a bad film it could have been so much better. “Atlantis The Lost Empire” is another film like that. It was such an innovative idea for an American animated feature but it was hindered by micromanagement. The film needed to be 2 hours long to have been what it was intended to be and to have really had a chance to shine. Because American animated features at that time ended exactly at the 90 minute mark so does “Atlantis”. It’s a shame that “Atlantis” failure lead to the “Team Atlantis” television series being cancelled as it might have been the most interest animated series Disney ever made.

I also think Disney wasted their “cheap-quels” unit. I call them cheapquels and get a lot of flack for it because I’m told it’s an insult to the animators who work on them. No, I’m not insulting the animators. I’m insulting management for making them work on them. How that sequel division should have been utilized is to make animated “B” pictures. Think about it. There may be a film or story that might make a great film but it might not fit into the full blown animated spectacular box that Disney feature animation was at that time. So why not do these stories as direct to video “B” pictures? You could see films that Walt had attempted but was forced to abandon because they were too experimental done in this format. “Don Quioxte”, “Hiawatha”, and “The Bremen Town Musicians” are only a few of these sorts of films that substantial work was done on before being abandoned. The holy grail of unmade Disney films, however, is “Chanticleer & Reynard”. Much of this prepreduction work found its way into “Robin Hood” and there was talk of making it again in the 80’s. “Chanticleer & Reynard” combined two French plays into one story and was supposed to have come out after “101 Dalmatians”. When they held the banker meeting one of the bankers said “You can’t make a personality out of a chicken” and “Sword in The Stone” was made instead. Don Bluth made “Rock-A-Doodle” based on the “Chanticleer” play but it’s not exactly what the film would have been. When you see the Marc Davis artwork you want to see these characters come to life. And now that we’ve had films starring chickens like “Chicken Run” that were huge money-makers perhaps the time is right to revive “Chanticleer & Reynard”. But that’s what I would have done if I’d had that overseas division going because it would create more properties under the Disney tent and would have increased the stable of characters that could be merchandised.

So if I got to meet Walt I’d probably ask him to take a look at my own work too. Sometimes people ask me if I’m disappointed I don’t work for Disney. My answer is not really. I may have intended that future for myself when I was growing up but God had other plans for me. I don’t think I could have ever been a cog in the wheel because I’m far too outspoken. I’ve had a vastly different career than I’d ever expected having but I find it to be a lot more rewarding to. In a lot of ways I do what Walt did but I wear all the hats now. Everything I do is filtered through me and has my own perspective. It then because much more personal of a work than had I collaborated with hundreds of other people on something that would have been watered down anyway. I never would have been able to have done “Jill Chill” the way I wanted to a part of a big studio and “Folked Up America!” would have been out of the question. The only person on earth who may have touched it, if he did animation, is Glenn Beck. I like being an individual artist and storyteller and not one of the masses. I value my individuality and celebrate it. In that way I probably am like Walt Disney. When I was younger people would often compare me to Walt but I didn’t want to be Walt Disney, I wanted to be Ed McCray and that’s the career path God set me out on and who knows. Perhaps one day people will write about me and my legacy as I’ve just written about Walt’s. Walt Disney began as an animator and ended his career as a city planner. Who knows what the future has in store for me and if we all had that attitude who knows what kinds of Walt Disney scale things we’d see created today and that is something that should be very exciting.

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.