Karl Slover, one of the last surviving munchkins from the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz died a couple of days ago.1 One of the weirdnesses of moving to the eastern suburbs of Syracuse was discovering that the munchkins were regular visitors to nearby Chittenango; when I first came to locate a place to live they were having a parade featuring them for Oz-Stravaganza.2 I had always thought that the Wizard of Oz took place in Kansas. It was downright weird. Turns out that Chittenango was the birthplace of L. Frank Baum.
I drove over there yesterday, because I was curious about just what sort of place Baum might call home. There’s no trace of it, really. The address on Falls Blvd. is in the shadow of a hill and it seems logical that someone would build there. The Baum’s only lived there for two years, so it seems unlikely that this is the place that Frank would have called home. But fittingly, in The Wizard of Oz the kingdom of the East is the kingdom of the munchkins.
I’d actually never read the Wizard of Oz before coming here. Like most people I suppose, most of what I know came from the movies. Krista, though, is a huge fan-girl of the movie. In 2007, we drove to the birthplace of Judy Garland— Grand Rapids, Minnesota— where they turned her childhood home into a museum. There’s more to see than just a tract-style home. Reading the book this week, I was somewhat shocked to find that there are no ruby slippers.3 In the book, it is sliver slippers and the magic phrase is “Take me home to Auntie Em!”— dashing my hope for a clever hook into musing that “there’s no place like home.”
Home is—more frequently than not— transformed beyond our recognition or memory in the blink of an eye. I had forgotten that The Wizard of Oz begins with just that sort of transformation. Dorothy’s home in Kansas is ripped from the ground and transported to a new place, landing on top of the wicked witch of the east. Having lived for a significant time in the West, South, North, and East now it makes for a really interesting read. Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to the centennial edition, sets up an opposition between Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz as touchstones of light and dark world views:
Choosing Alice, are you then a cynic, a skeptic, or just a disillusioned drop-out?
Choosing Dorothy, are you an impossible optimist, the happy warrior, the convivial far-traveler who runs his own lost-and-found to always be found?
I don’t claim that we can judge readers by such choices. There must be travelers, like myself, who can go a-journeying through both countries, dark and light, and come forth intrigued, insightful, and happy. Wonderland may be fog and drizzle, but Alice stands as a beacon in its midst, stays sane, comments, and survives 4 (xiv).
I suppose I’ve been living on the dark side for most of my travels, but as I get older I am more open to coming into the light of the Emerald City. Writing snarky comments is a lot easier than trying to write something that is both intelligent and optimistic. Cynicism has always come more naturally to me. That is perhaps why I have not really felt compelled to write that much the last few years— I’ve actually been quite happy living here in New York, although when I read the hyperbole painting Syracuse as the Emerald City it’s hard not to choke-up with laughter and wonder what these people have been smoking.
Roselawn, Baum’s boyhood home was located on Brewerton (a.k.a. “Plank”) Road north of Syracuse. Naturally, the good witch lives in the north. Every other direction was the domain of the wicked.5 Interestingly, the plank road was the first toll road in the U.S. (opened in 1846). Some speculate that the road composed of hickory planks (yellowish wood) might have inspired the “yellow brick road,” but that really seems unlikely to me. I mean, after at least 20-30 years of wagon traffic one doubts that there was any yellow left under the mud. I’ve not been able to find out much about exactly where the 16.5 mile stretch of planks was originally, or when it might have rotted away. I suspect that since it isn’t visible in the 1878 book of views of Syracuse I’ve got, it was gone by Baum’s boyhood. That’s the nature of change, really. While it’s logical to assume that Syracuse had some impact on Baum’s writing, it just doesn’t follow that one might map his fictional work on this all too actual space.
1. As far as I know, Margaret Pellegrini is still alive. Looking around the net, I find it interesting that she denies that the munchkins were hard partiers: “I was only 15 when the movie was filmed. There were a few of them who liked to drink, but it wasn’t what they said it was. A lot of those stories were false,” . The really interesting thing I turned up was that Toto the dog got paid more than the munchkins:
2. I suppose they had to call it Oz-stravaganza because Ozzfest was taken. Though if the rumors of hard-partying munchkins were true then it might be appropriate. In completely unrelated news, it seems that Black Sabbath announced on 11/11/11 that they were getting together for their first studio album in 33 years in 2012. As a big fan of the dark side, I find this to be good news.
3. There are no ruby slippers at the museum either. They were stolen just before we visited the place, and have not been recovered as far as I know. It’s a shame, really. The idea of some shoe fetishist somewhere privately adoring his big score is a bit frightful.
4. Coincidentally, my western home, Bakersfield, was renowned for its fog and drizzle. I once got lost in a parking lot down by the Kern River for three hours because the fog was so dense. I drove around with the car door open watching the curb for breaks that might signal the exit. Besides that though, I wouldn’t say that Bakersfield had much in common with Wonderland.
5. While it seems unlikely that Baum held any animosity towards his birthplace in the east, his mother-in-law lived most of her life in Fayetteville, another eastern suburb. Wikipedia notes that Baum’s relationship to his mother-in-law was wrongly portrayed as antagonistic and any identification with the wicked witch of the west seems wrong on multiple levels.