June 27, 2010 — About a month ago, the New York village whereThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum was born was throwing its annual celebration of the man and his most famous work. On the last day of this Oz-stravaganza, the festivities had to be cancelled. Why? Because the most ironic tornado in the history of storms (according to the National Weather Service, which keeps tabs on those kind of records) ripped through town. It’s a great story. It’s not the one I’m telling, though.
About a month before that occurrence, I visited the village, stopped for a few minutes, and took some pictures. That is the story I’m telling.
Totally sucks, and I’m sorry for it.
L. Frank Baum, or Lyman as he hated to be called judging by the way he initialled his first name, became a name we all know by writing the children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, along with more than a dozen sequels to it. As a result, besides America getting its first fully realized fantasy world, we all got a place, like Wonderland before it and, Neverland, Narnia, and Middle Earth after it, that became more real to most of us than places like Butte, Montana and Dover, Delaware. In so doing, Baum also bequeathed to culture the terror of winged monkeys; a library of metaphors involving yellow brick roads, brainless scarecrows, and melting witches; and the bathroom euphemism “off to see the Wizard.” I don't often get to use semi-colons on this site, so let me savor for a few seconds.
Actually, I haven’t read any of the Oz books since Trapper Keepers were my preferred form of self-expression, so much of what I remember of the details of the original story probably derives from the 1939 movie. I’ll look for corrections in the Comments section.
A part of my brain doesn’t want to accept that such an adept creator of fantasy as Baum was born anywhere as mundane as an American town, but he was...in Chittenango, NY, a small upstate town about 20 minutes east of Syracuse and one whose name I hope to be able to type straight through without messing up before the end of this article.
Baum was born there in 1856 before his family moved to a sizeable estate closer to Syracuse a few years later. At age 30, he published his first book. On chicken husbandry. It didn’t make him immediately famous, but 14 years later Oz did what chicken husbandry couldn’t. He died in 1919, 20 years before the movie would gild his lily, and is buried in Los Angeles after going Hollywood in his later years. That’s my biography for L. Frank Baum.
Of course, there’s no place like home, and for Chittenango, there’s no citizen like a famous one. Here and there, throughout the town’s main street are various clues that L. Frank Baum lived there. The biggest is the vertical banners on every other lightpole that say "Birthplace of L. Frank Baum." There are other clues, though, for those who have reasons from their troubled pasts for not trusting lightpoles.
Here and there, you'll see a yellow novelty sign for "Oz Crossing," despite the strangeness of one city crossing through another. In addition, businesses often incorporate Wizard of Oz themes into their branding, such as the Emerald City Cafe. In the center of town, set within a low stone wall denoting the name of the village, is a town seal of sorts that works in, among various local landmarks. wildlife, and historical bits, an image of the four yellow brick road travelers. Five, if you count Toto.
Unfortunately for both visitors and the town that would have profited from it, Baum's birth home doesn’t stand anymore. This Flickr image also led me to believe that the town had a bench labeled "Munchkinland," and a blue New York historical marker touting Baum's birth, but when I visited the same location in Chittenango, there was only a novelty "Oz Xing" sign.
Oh, and did I mention that the sidewalks are paved in yellow bricks? That's right. Chittenango, NY, has its own yellow brick road running along both sides of the main street, right down the middle of the sidewalks. Honestly, I'm not sure if I would have made it a point to drop by if they didn't have those, even if I did only devote a few meager sentences to the bricks here.
And, as I mentioned earlier, the town annually celebrates Baum with its Oz-stravaganza, which features parades, costume contests, movie showings, and all kinds of Oz-related bacchanalia. It also has actors and descendants of the actors from the 1939 movie preside over the festivities. The munchkins were historically a regular feature there (and the most easily accesible cast members with some 120+ of them being in the film), but sadly most have died away. We are now almost a munchkin-less world. Unless you're at a Dunkin Donuts.
A huge part of me hopes that the yellow brick sidewalks are just Stage 1 in the grand Ozification of Chittenango (a phrase which delights me deeply for some reason). Future upgrades definitely need to include statues of characters and the author, a museum, a giant holographic head soaring above town (or they can just paint it on a water tower), and a pair of striped-stocking legs jutting out from the bottom of every other building. I really should have gone back and read a book or two from the series so that I could have made stronger allusions in this paragraph.
At the very least, I'm thinking Chittenango should probably get a tornado shelter.