L. Frank Baum: The Wizard of Hollywood

January 7, 2011 § 4 Comments


L. Frank Baum/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Lyman Frank Baum was a former poultryman, actor, playwright, newspaper reporter, editor and traveling salesman who transformed his life in middle age by writing The Wizard of Oz. A groundbreaking best-seller that dispensed with the moralizing and scaremongering that had characterized children’s literature, The Wizard of Oz came to be considered the first modern children’s book, an instant classic whose appeal never faded. 

Though invented in Chicago, the Emerald City of Oz is in many ways similar to Hollywood at the turn of the century:
There were lovely patches of green sward all about, with stately trees bearing rich and luscious fruits. Banks of gorgeous flowers were on every hand, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage sat and fluttered in the trees and bushes. 
But the comparisons between Hollywood and Oz went beyond natural beauty and climate. For the tens of thousands of Chicagoans who relocated to Southern California between 1900 and 1930, Los Angeles represented a new kind of city. Unlike Chicago, Los Angeles was free of machine politics (a feature ensured by its weak mayoral system) and rigid social hierarchy–just like Oz. Writes Kevin Starr:
Oz was beautiful; it was also a tidy, prosperous utopia, recognizably mid-American in its benevolent technology and bourgeois prosperity….Unbothered by poverty, served by proper machines in lovely gardens, cared for by a benevolent political order, the citizens of Oz were able to concentrate on the business of living, which for them was the life of emotion and imagination….
 By moving to Hollywood, Frank Baum underscored its connection to Oz. (In the same vein, he named his cocker spaniel Toto.) Although he, his wife Maud and their four sons were already part-time Californians, having spent six previous winters at the Hotel del Coronado, they now would be full-time citizens of a real-life utopia.

Baum built his dream house at Cherokee and Yucca and named it Ozcot. The house featured an enormous fireplace, a library and solarium and, in typical Midwestern style, a large attic. As he had for the Hotel del Coronado, he designed beautiful lighting fixtures for the dining room. In the large garden, Baum grew dahlias and chrysanthemums that brought him fame as a serious, prize-winner horiculturalist.  He also raised chickens, as he had in his youth.

Ozcot/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Baum joined the Uplifter’s Club (now defunct but still remembered by local old-timers), as well as all the other clubs in Hollywood, and was an enthusiastic civic booster. Not content to be merely a famous author, he founded his own studio, the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, with fellow Uplifters in 1914. The studio produced ten films that were technologically advanced for the day, including the original, silent “Wizard of Oz,” before going broke and being sold to Universal.

Going broke was a familiar occurrence for the Baum family. Although Frank Baum was a prolific writer of novels–including 13 sequels to The Wizard of Oz–short stories, plays and poetry, he had money problems throughout his life. The product of a wealthy family, he lost vast sums on failed theatrical productions, one of which, “Fairylogue and Radio Plays” drove him into bankruptcy. The mind that created Oz (named for the O-Z drawer of his filing cabinet) was not adept at business of any kind. (From 1888 to 1890, the Baums owned a general store in the Dakota Territory; even that potential goldmine failed.) The funds for Ozcot, and probably the Oz Film Manufacturing  Company, came out of Maud’s inheritance from her mother, the feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and her father, a merchant. Maud, a Cornell graduate, took up sewing to keep the family afloat as Baum veered in and out of debt. 

Baum, second from left, with principals of the Oz Film Manufacturing Company/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

 Frank Baum had suffered from heart problems for years, and the stress of his failed studio probably contributed to the stroke that killed him in 1919, at 63. His last words purportedly were, “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands,” a reference to his best-known book.  Although the Technicolor version of “The Wizard of Oz” would not appear until 1939, Maud and their sons were alive to see its success–and to reap $40,000 of its income .

Additional Sources:

“The Man Behind the Curtain: L. Frank Baum and The Wizard of Oz,” by Linda McGovern, literarytraveler.com 

Kevin Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920′s. Oxford University Press, 1990.

 Gregory Paul Williams, The Story of Hollywood. Los Angeles, CA:  BL Press, LLC, 2005


Alternative Religions, from Theosophy to Scientology: A Hollywood Tradition

June 2, 2009 § 1 Comment

Visitors to Hollywood are struck by the presence of the Church of Scientology, which cannily established itself along Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards in the 1970s and ’80s, when the average tourist visit to Hollywood Boulevard lasted less than half an hour and decrepit old buildings could be bought for a song.  Scientology’s success in gaining followers from the entertainment industry seems to have been both a cause and effect of its physical location, but no one can deny its philosophical appeal to actors and other creative artists.  

The entertainment industry is well-populated by all kinds of seekers, most of whom are not particularly attracted to mainstream religions. Instead, they tend to gravitate toward new, unconventional avenues of spirituality. And while Scientology is the most obvious of Hollywood’s new religions today, it is  hardly the first to appeal to a comely, spiritually underserved population.

A look back at the Hollywood’s beginnings proves that alternative schools of religion have attracted creative artists in the film industry since the Silent Era. Once famous–and in the teens, it really did happen overnight–young Hollywood stars found themselves adrift, tempted by alcohol and drugs and overwhelmed by sudden, enormous wealth. All of this was made worse by their social isolation in a city whose elites would have sooner dined alone than with “movies,” whose working class origins and questionable morals made them objects of derision. In the face of ostracism, many film stars preferred partying to spirituality while others kept up the religious practices of their youth. But some branched out into previously unknown schools of thought, including Theosophy.

The former Theosophist Temple and Meeting Hall, now Krotona Apts.

The former Theosophist Temple and Meeting Hall, now the Krotona Apts. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

 The Theosophical Society made its headquarters in Beachwood Canyon in 1911, establishing a utopian community, called Krotona, on ten acres. By Webster’s definition, the Theosophical Society was a cult–“a usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure”–though unlike most modern cults, it wasn’t organized around a single charismatic leader. Instead, the Theosophists had a hierarchical leadership and distinct branches of thought. The Beachwood group looked to the English social reformer and suffragist Annie Besant as its spiritual leader, while other branches regarded the Russian philosopher Madame (Elena Petrovna) Blavatsky as theirs.

Theosophy was based on Indian Buddhism but incorporated elements of all the major religions in its teachings. Its texts were challenging to read and comprehend. But the practice of Theosophy at Krotona–which included outdoor exercise, vegetarianism, agriculture, music, art and philosophy, as well as occult dabblings like seances–was easier to follow and appealed to a variety of Hollywood residents, including such actors as Charlie Chaplin.

The actress Mary Astor was connected to the Krotona Colony by virtue of her parents’ purchase–with her money–of Moorcrest, a mansion on Temple Hill Drive that was designed by the prominent Theosophist and amateur architect Marie Russak Hotchener.  Astor’s career ascended quickly after she was named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1926; roles in silent films and early talkies followed. Her love affair with John Barrymore brought a greater connection between Hollywood and Theosophy because Barrymore retained Marie Hotchener as his astrologer and her husband Harry as his business manager. Though Astor and Barrymore never married, he seems to have maintained his association to the Hotcheners.  

Mary Astor outside her family's home, Moorcrest. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Mary Astor outside her family's home, Moorcrest. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

But it wasn’t just actors who were attracted to Theosophy. Other local luminaries who cultivated ties to Krotona  included the writer L. Frank Baum and the architects  Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra. 

During the teens, The Theosophical Society became an important cultural force in Hollywood during its transition from small town to city by sponsoring regular musical and theatrical programs. The most ambitious of these, an outdoor pageant based on Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem about the Buddha, “The Light of Asia,” was a smash hit in 1918. Its success led two Theosophists to the purchase some nearby land for the construction of a permanent civic amphitheater: the Hollywood Bowl.

Nearly a century later, the words “alternative religion” and “cult” conjure negative images of servitude, dogmatism and coercion, but none of these applied to the Theosophical Society. High-minded and intellectual, the Theosophists of Beachwood Canyon not only eschewed such hardball tactics but soon retreated to more sylvan surroundings, relocating to Ojai in 1926 because Hollywood had grown too urban. Their influence waned both because they failed to attract new members and because they tended to reproduce sparingly. But  the Theosophical Society’s declining influence can’t detract from the its success in building a vibrant artistic community in what was a tiny backwater only a century ago.  Reminders of that accomplishment persist not only in the Beachwood’s remaining Theosophist buildings but in the Hollywood Bowl’s Easter Sunrise Service, as well as every concert held there. 

Although both the Theosophical Society and the Church of Scientology began their Hollywood tenures as cults, the differences between them couldn’t be more dramatic. Those who regard alternative religions as a strange new phenomenon can take heart in the fact that Hollywood, in addition to hosting many mainstream churches, has been home to cults since its rural beginnings. In light of its founding by members of the Christian Temperance Movement, Hollywood’s tradition of religious tolerance is nothing short of miraculous.

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