For ‘Oz,’ there’s no place like Sweet Home Chicago

From the Saturday, Sept. 14, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

You already know that it ends in the Emerald City, but what you might not know about the Yellow Brick Road is that it actually began in the Windy one.

And later this month, “The Wizard of Oz” will again blow through Chicagoland (no tornadoes required) as the beloved film kicks off its 75th anniversary celebration with a limited run in 3D IMAX from Sept. 20-26.

Starring Judy Garland and a cast of wildly colorful characters, “The Wizard of Oz” actually premiered just under 76 years ago on Aug. 25, 1939. But apparently Warner Bros. simply can’t wait to get the anniversary party started with this month’s IMAX rollout and a collector’s Blu-ray 3D home edition of “The Wizard of Oz” that’s set to hit stores in October.

For information about where and when you can see the Wizard on a nearby big screen, simply visit But for details about Oz’s Chicago roots and those of its creator, L. Frank Baum, simply read on.

On May 15, 1856, Lyman Frank Baum was born to a wealthy family in Chittenango, N.Y., as the seventh of nine children. Shy and diagnosed with a defective heart, he spent much of his childhood holed up inside Rose Lawn, his family’s country estate near Syracuse, passing time by reading and conjuring up imaginary playmates. At 15, Baum and a younger brother published the “Rose Lawn Home Journal,” sparking what would turn out to be a lifelong love affair with writing and storytelling.

In 1888, after spending time in New York as a playwright, actor, salesman, newspaper reporter and theater manager, Baum and his wife Maud, moved west to Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, where he opened a general store called “Baum’s Bazaar.” It failed, and he instead ended up becoming editor and publisher of a newspaper in Aberdeen. Three years later in 1891, Baum and his family – which by now included four sons – departed the Dakotas and found their way to Chicago, where they settled down at 1667 North Humboldt Boulevard on the city’s West Side.

In Chicago, Baum spent years as a traveling salesman, writing books and short stories in his spare time. His literary efforts enjoyed limited success until one day when he sat at his desk staring at a cabinet file.

“I was thinking and wondering about a title for my story, and I had settled on `Wizard` as part of it,” Baum told Publisher’s Weekly in in 1903. “My gaze was caught by the gilt letters on the three drawers of the cabinet. The first was A-G; the next drawer was labeled H-N; and on the last were the letters O-Z. And Oz it at once became.”

In 1900, Baum published “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” which became an enormous hit and made him a household name. He spent the next decade in Chicago, writing six sequels as Oz books virtually became a Christmastime gift tradition for American families.

In 1910, Baum moved to California, where he resided until 1919 when he died in his Hollywood home, named “Ozco,” one week shy of his 63rd birthday.

Twenty years later, “The Wizard of Oz” film premiered. And in 1976, a Chicago park was named in honor of Baum and his mythical land. Bordering Webster and Larrabee streets in the heart (and, I suppose, brains and courage) of the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Oz Park today features ornate statues of the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and, of course, Dorothy and Toto.

Now “The Wizard of Oz” is finding its way home to Chicago via IMAX 3D, something that Baum likely couldn’t have imagined, but surely would appreciate.