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Published April 15, 2021
Two University of Wyoming faculty members will help lead viewers down the Yellow Brick Road and pull back the curtain on author L. Frank Baum’s life during “American Oz,” the latest entry in the “American Experience” series that will air on PBS from 8-10 p.m. MDT Monday, April 19.
Susan Aronstein and Kent Drummond, both in the UW Department of English, are two of the narrators for this documentary, which explores the life of Baum, best known as the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which was published in 1900. The book spawned the classic 1939 MGM film “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland, as well as plays and musicals, including 2003’s “Wicked.”
The two, along with Terri Rittenburg, a UW professor emeritus of management and marketing, wrote “The Road to Wicked: The Marketing and Consumption of Oz from L. Frank Baum to Broadway,” which was published in 2018. Both Aronstein and Drummond feel it is a great honor to have been chosen to help narrate the episode, and they hope the documentary will lead to a whole new audience for Baum, his works and books about his works.
“We’re still not sure how the producers of ‘American Oz’ heard about our book. Of course, in order to write a book about the staying power of Oz, we had to delve into Baum’s life and work,” says Aronstein, a UW professor of English. “And the first several chapters deal directly with him. So, when the opportunity came to convey our research in a new medium, we jumped at the chance. We really enjoyed working with the producers -- Randall MacLowry and Rebecca Taylor -- and it was fascinating to observe the documentary take shape.”
When his signature book was published, Baum was 44 years old and had spent much of his life in restless pursuit of success. But that experience is what made Baum ready when his moment came, according to Drummond, a UW associate professor of English.
“Most people don’t realize this, but Baum was a savvy marketer and brand manager,” Drummond explains. “He worked in a variety of professions before he wrote the Oz books, including his family’s motor oil firm, a fancy poultry company and a high-end gift boutique in Aberdeen, S.D. He also designed elaborate show windows for premium department stores; he literally wrote the book on that subject. All of these experiences enabled him to shrewdly market his Oz books when the time came to do so.”
Baum created many colorful and memorable characters in his book, from Dorothy to the Tin Man to the Wicked Witch of the West. And while many believe Baum most identified himself with the Wizard, Aronstein and Drummond contend the author saw a little bit of himself in all of his characters.
“Well, many people do feel that way, and you can build an argument for that based primarily on the 1939 movie,” Aronstein says of the Baum-as-Wizard theory. “But, if you focus on the 14 Oz books Baum himself wrote, you’ll see that there’s a little bit of Baum in all of his characters, whether they be male or female, young or old; human, like Dorothy, or magical, like the Tin Man. Baum valued independence, innovation, empathy, teamwork and resourcefulness, and these qualities come through in his most enduring characters.”
Those memorable characters are what has made “The Wizard of Oz” film an equally enduring experience for Americans through the generations. From 1959-1991 (except for 1963), the classic film was telecast once a year -- either on CBS or NBC -- and became an annual viewing ritual for American families. It was the original must-see TV.
“Part of it is the exact experience you’re recollecting, which involved gathering around the television set with the whole family; staying up past your bedtime; and eating special snacks you wouldn’t ordinarily be allowed to eat,” Drummond says. “We wrote a whole chapter on this! So, it represents an iconic moment in American culture. Beyond that, you have the transcendent performance of Judy Garland; the unforgettable songs of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg; and the switch to color when Dorothy lands in Oz. It was the perfect storm, so to speak.”
For an extended trailer of the upcoming program, with narration by Aronstein and Drummond, go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/american-oz-extended-trailer/.