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From a Small City, A Great Wizard: Following the Yellow Brick Road to Chittenango

The tale of Dorothy and Toto and that nasty old wicked witch are famous worldwide. But do you know that Central New York — not Kansas — is the birth place of the “Great and Powerful” Wizard of Oz? Twenty minutes east of Syracuse are green hills and valleys, quite different from the gray expanse that is Dorothy’s home state of Kansas in the book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” This lush landscape brings to mind the forests and fields on the outskirts of the Emerald City — that fabled metropolis of spires and turrets — through which Dorothy and her motley crew of friends venture. Dorothy’s fictional mission to find the wizard can be your own. As the Munchkins in the “Wizard of Oz” movie advise, just “follow the Yellow Brick Road” (or “the road to Oz,” as the author wrote it) to find the man behind the myth in the appealing village of Chittenango. L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” — indisputably one of America’s most beloved childhood stories — was born in 1856 in Chittenango. During the mid-1850s, this bustling canal town was home to more than 1,000 residents and numerous thriving businesses that both benefited from and supported its waterway connection. One of these enterprises was the Baum Barrel Factory, owned by Baum’s father.

Although Baum spent only the first 4 ½ years of his life in the village before moving to Syracuse in 1860 (and later to Mattydale, N.Y. in 1868), Chittenango is as proud of their native son as any parent would be. The town abounds with Oz paraphernalia, right down to the yellow-painted and stamped concrete sidewalk that travels along both sides of downtown’s Genesee Street. Entering Chittenango from the west, visitors are greeted by the Tin Man adorning a large welcome sign. Along State Route 5 is the Land of Oz and Ends store, which travelers may pass when in town for the Emerald City Golf Classic and the annual Oz-Stravaganza festival, which celebrated its 35th year in 2013. Perhaps one of the most interesting finds is All Things Oz, the Oz-Stravaganza-organized, volunteer-run store that houses a collection of L. Frank Baum memorabilia, including his vast holdings of children’s literature. Stepping through the doors of All Things Oz, a visitor is transported back to childhood memories of munchkins, witches, lions, tigers and bears (oh my!). Flying monkeys, a life-size cutout of Dorothy and Toto, and MGM’s film “The Wizard of Oz” playing on a big screen TV, all bring a touch of youthful nostalgia: We are little again, camped out in front of the television, wearing pajamas, munching on popcorn and trembling at the site of the Wicked Witch of the West. These were the memories that the real wizard, L. Frank Baum, wove for every child who reads his books or watches the movie. All Things Oz is also home to Baum’s Bazaar and the L. Frank Baum Museum. Each year approximately 10,000 visitors from as far away as Australia and Japan walk through the venue’s doors to relive the Oz experience. During his lifetime Baum wrote 13 novels about Oz, 42 other works of fiction for children, 83 short stories, more than 200 poems and several scripts. To say the least, he was a prolific writer.

As a young boy, on the family estate of Rose Lawn, outside of Syracuse, Baum’s creative writing career began with the self-publication of the “Rose Lawn Home Journal,” printed on a printing press given to him by his father on his 12th birthday. The Journal was written with the help of his brother Harry and included stories and poems written by the young Baum and members of his family. Co-Director of All things Oz, Colleen Zimmer, tells the story of how Baum’s aunt, Matilda Joslyn-Gage, a well-known suffragette of the day, encouraged young Frank to pursue his writing career. As in all small towns local lore abounds and Chittenango is no exception when it comes to tales about L. Frank Baum and his family. Legend has it that a niece of Baum’s, Cynthia Baum-Tassini, is one and the same with the girl whose name whimsically adorns the dedication page (“Dedicated to Her Royal Highness Cynthia II of Syracuse”) in his book, “The Emerald City of Oz.” According to Barbara Evans, the museum's other Co-Director, Ms. Baum-Tassini used to visit Baum’s Bazaar and tell stories of how her Uncle Frank would tuck her in and sing nonsensical songs to her to lull her to sleep. Another favorite recounting of the Co-Directors is their trip to Los Angeles’ Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now known as the TLC Chinese Theatre) for the dedication of a Walk of Fame Star to the surviving munchkin cast of “The Wizard of Oz” film. Ms. Evans shares that she and Ms. Zimmer were suddenly whisked from their seats to backstage. To their amazement, a member of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce had overheard them mention that they were from Chittenango and curators of the museum. From there on in, both women were treated as honored guests, given front row seats, backstage passes and a personal invitation to the party following the presentations. Ms. Evans, who also works at the local high school, is fond of telling her students this story and reminding them of the profound impact that L. Frank Baum has had far beyond their village. As she likes to put it, “You don’t have to come from a big town to make a big difference.” And as L. Frank Baum of Chittenango proved, you don’t have come from a great city to be a great wizard, either.

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