Sunday, November 3, 2019

Opening Prayer - Part I


L. Frank Baum writing at Macatawa, summer 1901. Courtesy of Robert Baum.

When L. Frank Baum first sat down to write a comic opera with Paul Tietjens he must have felt like he was returning home, to one of his first loves, the theatre. 

In late 1880 Baum appeared with the Syracuse Dramatic Company in Shipwrecked (better known as Down by the Sea (1869) by  George M. Baker). One review said, "Mr. L. F. Baum cannot be beaten on any stage. His rendition of the eccentric character of March Gale is truly marvelous."

Baum’s uncle, Adam Clarke Baum, had also loved the stage and “amateur theatricals were one of his pastimes. . . . Many of his colleagues on the amateur stage adopted dramatic art as a profession, among others . . . L. Frank Baum, his nephew.” (Syracuse Daily Standard, October 16, 1888.) Baum also took elocution lessons from his aunt, Katherine Gray. In his mid-20s he decided to pursue a career as an actor

On June 15, 1881, The New York Mirror announced that “L. Frank Baum of this city [Syracuse], a deserving actor, is now with the May Roberts [Sterling] Comedy Company doing walking gentleman.” A "walking gentleman" was theatre slang for subordinate roles with few words but requiring a gentlemanly appearance.

New York Mirror, June 15, 1881.

Baum family stories suggest that Baum performed under the stage name “George Brooks.” He was with May Roberts's Sterling Comedy Company for the entire summer season of 1881.

Unfortunately, May Roberts’s Sterling Comedy Company was not particularly sterling. They toured Pennsylvania and New York, often performing bootleg editions of popular plays and then leaving town without paying their bills. The company also failed to pay Baum, who wrote, “I not only received no salary for my services, but was induced to lend [the manager, J. P. Rutledge,] $150 in order to enable him to keep his feet in a pinch—not one cent of which has ever been refunded. No member of the company received his or her salary, although the others were not so completely gulled as I was.”

Baum continued with the company for the beginning of the 1881-82 season. A review of the Sterling Comedy Company, dated October 25, 1881, mentions “Mr. Brooks” playing two parts in The Banker's Daughter, and another review the next day mentions Mr. Brooks's appearance in A Quiet Family. By this time, Baum's uncle, John W. Baum, was serving as manager. Frank may have sent for his uncle to help get the unreliable troupe in better standing. But by mid-November 1881, the Sterling Comedy Company was advertising for a new walking gentleman.

Louis F. Baum, actor.
The bad experiences with the touring company did not lessen Baum’s passion for the theatre. His prospects flipped from the ridiculous to the sublime when his father, Benjamin Ward Baum, agreed to build Frank an opera house of his own. Baum’s Opera House opened in the booming oil town of Richburg, New York, on December 29, 1881.

Baum quickly wrote a play called The Mackrummins, copyrighted February 11, 1882, to be performed in his own opera house, under his own direction, and probably to star himself. He took a new stage name, Louis F. Baum.

Baum seemed to have control of his destiny, but on March 8, 1882, Baum’s Opera House was destroyed by fire from a stove under the stage. The playscript of The Mackrummins may have gone up in the fire. It is not known to survive.

The opera house itself was under-insured, $4800 in damage on a $2000 policy. But this setback, too, failed to dampen Baum’s enthusiasm for the stage. He quit management of the rebuilt opera house, sat down, and wrote an Irish melodrama called The Maid of Arran, which premiered on Baum’s birthday, May 15, 1882. The play was based on William Black’s novel A Princess of Thule and proved a substantial hit. Baum wrote music and lyrics to at least six songs for the show—and cast himself in the lead. The Maid of Arran toured the east—including New York City—the Midwest, and went into Canada.

On November 9, 1882, Baum married Maud Gage in Fayetteville, New York, and slowed his theatrical career, though Maud toured with him for a while. The August 15, 1883, Dayton [Ohio] Herald noted that “Louis F. Baum, author of The Maid of Arran, will rest for a year.” Baum’s decision to stop touring was understandable; Maud was six months pregnant with their first child.  But Baum’s passion for the theatre was unabated. The Dayton Herald continued: “[Baum] is also writing an opera entitled Nora, which will be produced in New York early in December next. He has several flattering offers his new play of Justice, but has not yet disposed of it.” Nothing came of the opera Nora, and it’s not known to have been completed. The play Justice is also lost.

Even after transitioning into the family oil business so he could remain near home, Baum still performed with local amateur groups. One play, Dora by Charles Reade, based on Tennyson’s poem, was produced by the Garrick Club in Syracuse on April 25, 1884. Baum played Luke Bloomfield, sharing the stage with five-year-old Edna Petty who would grow up to become internationally acclaimed actress Edna May, star of The Belle of New York (1897) and The Girl from Up There (1900).

When Baum moved to the Dakota Territory in 1888 he continued to act when he found the chance, appearing in a pantomime called The Magic Mirror and in an operetta called The Insect and the Bird. Baum's passion for the theatre would remain with him for the rest of his life.

Louis F. Baum in an amateur theatrical in Aberdeen, Dakota Territory. CLICK TO ENLARGE

After Baum, Tietjens, and Denslow finally signed the contract for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in late September 1901, the three men enjoyed good relations over the next few weeks. Robert Stanton Baum, one of Frank’s four sons, remembered, “Many evenings [Tietjens] would come over to the house [at 68 Humboldt Boulevard] to work [on the show] with father. Denslow . . . was also a frequent visitor. I can remember the three of them cutting up like a bunch of school boys. Tietjens would pound out a piece on the piano and father would sing the words or perhaps do a tap or eccentric dance, accompanied by the ferocious looking Denslow, who was a thick set man with a heavy ‘walrus’ mustache and looked like a brigand. It was better than a vaudeville show to us boys.”

By the end of September Baum and Tietjens felt the project was far enough along that they mailed in the copyright registration for their first draft on September 30. The copyright office registered Baum & Tietjens’ Musical Spectacular Fairy Tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on October 16, 1901.

While Baum and Tietjens worked on the show, Denslow eagerly sought a manager for the project. Denslow was under time pressure, preparing to move from Chicago to New York City by mid-October. Denslow’s theatre connections paid off when he discussed the Wizard of Oz project with his friend, operatic tenor George Hamlin (1869-1923).

George’s two brothers, Harry and Fred Hamlin, co-managed Chicago’s Grand Opera House, each taking turns producing a summer show to fill the void between theatrical seasons. In summer 1899, Fred Hamlin and Kirk La Shelle had produced the western melodrama Arizona. This hit played the summer in Chicago and then toured, eventually moving to Broadway.
 
Poster for Fred Hamlin's 1899 hit Arizona by Augustus Thomas.

In the October 16, 1901, Chicago Record-Herald, Lyman B. Glover wrote: “Mr. Hamlin of the Grand states that he will make a new production for the next summer season of his house.” Fred Hamlin, looking for another project to repeat the success of Arizona, heard of Wizard through his brother George.

By October 19, Denslow had left Chicago and was living in New York City. On October 20, Tietjens traveled from Chicago to visit the farm in Slater, Missouri, and attend his sister’s wedding on November 7. Shortly after Denslow and Tietjens left Chicago, Baum must have met with Fred Hamlin and given him a copy of the script and the children’s book to read.

Baum was optimistic enough after the meeting that he issued a statement to the press which appeared as far afield as Salt Lake City. The Deseret Evening News of October 26, 1901, reported that “the author of the famous fairy tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has arranged with a theatrical syndicate for an elaborate production of [the show] next season in the form of a ‘musical spectacular.’ Mr. Baum is himself writing the lyrics and Paul Tietjens the musical numbers. The scenic and mechanical effects, as well as the principal characters, are entirely original and out of the ordinary, the plot being closely followed. It is thought this production will revive the old-time popularity of children’s extravaganza.”

Baum almost certainly wrote to Tietjens in Slater, informing him of the progress made in selling the show. Tietjens had found the farm in better shape than before. The rains had come, the drought was over. His mother had returned from Europe for the wedding. But the trip to the farm triggered another depression in Tietjens: “A somber touch of autumn lay upon everything. A sad and melancholy beauty everywhere—but a beauty nevertheless.” Around November 10, a few days after his sister’s wedding, Tietjens returned “. . . alone in the night and alone to Chicago, with a feeling of desolation upon me.” The motivation for Tietjens’s mood swings and depressions is unclear, especially given the good news of Fred Hamlin’s interest.

Hamlin invited Baum and Tietjens to have dinner with him at his apartments. At the dinner meeting, Tietjens no doubt played Hamlin the score. After the meeting Tietjens recorded that “Hamlin did not like either the [script] or music very much.”

Yet something about the project hooked Fred Hamlin. Perhaps it was some quality he saw in the children’s book, such as the unique characters or the strong visuals in Denslow’s vivid illustrations. Perhaps Hamlin found the title of the project a lucky sign. Hamlin’s father had made the family fortune selling a cure-all potion called “Hamlin’s Wizard Oil.” 

If Hamlin hadn’t felt a strong connection to The Wizard of Oz or seen the show’s potential buried in Baum’s script, Hamlin’s interest would surely have ended after the dinner interview with Baum and Tietjens.

Instead, despite his dislike of the script and score, Hamlin forwarded a copy of the script and the children’s book to Julian Mitchell, the New York-based director he had in mind for his 1902 summer production. Hamlin “would leave it to Julian Mitchell," Tietjens recorded in his diary, "to decide whether [the show] was to be accepted.”

CLICK HERE TO READ PART II

(Special thanks to the Alexander Mitchell Library, Aberdeen, South Dakota.)

Copyright © 2019 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

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