It would be hard to find an American child or adult who hasn’t visited Oz’s Emerald City thanks to television’s innumerable rebroadcasts of the 1939 MGM film. Far fewer know that a whole generation of stage and silent movie adaptations anticipated the making of the beloved Technicolor chestnut by a span of decades.
L. Frank Baum’s classic story “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900) loosely inspired a big-budget burlesque extravaganza, its vast cast headed by a winning pair of vaudeville comics, Fred Stone and David Montgomery, as the Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman. A hit in Chicago that migrated across the United States and took up long residence on Broadway, one New York critic scornfully termed it “the essence of ‘the road’ musical,” gleefully indicting its amalgam of “evil puns, rough and uncouth horseplay, jokes that Noah would have routed out of the Ark, and a ‘juvenile’ story that no modern juvenile would tolerate.”
How did such a hodgepodge play in the brand-new Majestic Theater of 1903? Mightily, it turns out. As ever, audiences responded to the opulence of the spectacle. This proto-Disney-era family fairy tale with its slapdash narrative, corny comic songlets and mobs of chubby soubrettes kept the Broadway and touring houses packed for years.
Baum had little hand in penning the stage play, and “Oz Before the Rianbow” author Mark Evan Swartz chronicles the life and times of interpolated characters such as Imogene the frisky cow — Toto’s onstage substitute — Tryxie Tryfle, the amorous waitress, and Dashemoff Daily, Dorothy’s swain — a role traditionally played in drag by a woman. Beside inventing characters, the producers plucked and added songs and scenes at random, milking return audiences and banking record-breaking grosses.
Swartz unearths every jot of Oz’s lost history and restores the vanished names of its press reps, producers and performers, down to the last chorus girl. His archival history is zealously researched, but rather short on insight. It’s hard to imagine an audience for his book — this mass of undigested memorabilia is too obscure to appeal to kids and not contextualized enough for theater or silent film historians.
The book’s chapters read more like an annotated research file than a finished study. It’s full of suggestive minutiae (such as the revelation that Baum thrived as a window dresser before ever penning the Oz books) but it fails to draw any meaningful conclusions from these snippets about the convergence of popular entertainment and advertising in the early decades of the 20th century.