THE WIZARD OF OZ
All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
When I was a little kid, there were Oz books in our cellar. My father got them at the "Good Will". But, because they frightened me, he stored them in a basement cupboard, waiting for me to get older. On rare occasions I would work up the courage to sneak down the basement stairs and peek between the covers. The awesome illustrations were deliciously terrifying. The Scoodlers with their two hideous faces, and Princess Languidere, who casually balanced a different head atop her cleanly severed neck, each day, were better than a nightmare. But scariest of all was the Nome King with his wild and wooly whiskers. I studied him with fascination, as long as I dared, then, hurriedly scurried up the stairs.
It was not the stories, but rather the illustrations of John R. Neill that fired my imagination. I never saw the original edition with illustrations by Denslow. For some reason that was no longer in the Oz book series, as they appeared, fat and oozing with illustrated goodness in the bookstores of Detroit, in my day. Instead the original story was always represented by a large skinny volume that didn’t fit the format, and had bland and boring 1940s illustrations, reminiscent of those in my first grade reader, "Dick and Jane". It must have been a copyright thing, or something to do with the movie. Clearly, the Denslow edition was forbidden.
I never was a facile reader, but I plowed through many of the other Oz books. The stories often freaked me out, but I loved the illustrations and the characters, Tick-Tock and Jack Pumpkin head, especially. I never actually read the original Wizard of Oz, until years later. I couldn’t bring myself to accept that blandly illustrated 1940s version. I simply knew it wasn’t "right".
On the other hand, the book that introduced Jack, the second in the series, "The Marvelous Land of Oz” was really creepy. In it, young Tip, the hero of the story, is transformed into a girl, in the end. And that they called “a happy ending”? That was even worse than when Bambi grew up or Pinocchio became “Real”.
But I did see the Denslow version in a classroom at Hampton Elementary School. There on the bookshelf was “The Wizard of Oz Waddle Book”. In my eyes the novelty of the Waddles was everything; the Denslow illustrated story came in a distant second. This volume became the source of an obsession, and the beginning of a lifelong quest. At every opportunity, when there was a pause or break in the proceedings, an enforced time for quiet reading, I would head for that bookshelf and carry the Waddle book back to my desk, and stare at it intently, as if by sheer willpower I could make the missing “Waddles “ reappear. I paid no attention to the story, nor did I appreciate the Denslow illustrations. My eyes focused only on the instruction pages that graphically displayed in black and white diagrams the complexity of the paper cutouts, and, of course, the cover that showed the deliciously flat characters in full color, waddling down the Yellow Brick Ramp. This book spoke to me of unseen wonders, unseen, because they were simply missing. Did they ever exist, really? Or was I just hallucinating?
I never forgot about that book. And throughout all the years that followed, at every remotely appropriate opportunity, I would ask about the waddle book. Then, one day, when Eunice and I were living in New York City, I met young Justin Schiller. At sixteen he was already a Wizard of Oz wiz, exceedingly impressive in his knowledge and enthusiasm, and he offered me a Waddle book, naturally with the Waddles missing. But I visited his house in Brooklyn and purchased it, gladly. Ironically, at that meeting, sitting there, before a bookcase full of the most Wonderful Wizard of Oz collection, the Oz book, suddenly, became secondary, solely, because of something that he told me: namely that the Wizard of Oz Waddle Book had been preceded by one that featured Mickey Mouse. Oh My God! The rest is history.
Yes, as you can see, I finally got a Wizard of Oz Waddle Book. Two, actually, the other is unpunched, mint, breathtakingly perfect and pristine, and this one, below, which came to me already punched out, gets a showcase of its own, along with a few of the other “real” Wizard of Oz items that have come my way.
The Movie with Judy Garland, in spite of its beloved familiarity, never seemed quite “real” to me. It was more about Hollywood than Oz. That is not to say that, after years of annual brainwashing, it didn’t carve out a warm spot in my heart, but not in my collection. I only have a few early Oz things. And I have yet to see evidence that there were a lot made. Apart from the many books, and some exceedingly rare and attractive advertising displays, Oz did not appear to generate a lot of toys or merchandise, in its day. There are two versions of "The Wonderful Game of Oz," with its beautiful cover art. But, only the game board and the figural playing pieces made it into the above showcase.
The much later doll, representing Ray Bolger, and generated by the movie, pales by comparison.
The imagery of the Wizard of Oz was truly phantasmagorical, and its endless stream of images were among the very first Comic Characters. They are nowhere better represented, outside of the covers of the actual Oz books, than in this 1915 rarity,” The Oz Toy Book.” Its pages were held in place by a ribbon, strung through two holes, so I did no damage framing it this way. Here are nearly all the Characters, each in its most iconic pose, drawn by John R. Neill, himself. I have seen cut pieces or odd pages from this rare book, over the years, but none were as perfect, or complete, as these.
The article goes on to state, “The original Toy Book is now one of the rarest of Oz collectibles; only four complete and intact copies are known to survive.”
Say hello to number five!
In stunning contrast, in a separate showcase we visited already, is the same doll in incredible condition. It was sold to me by a dealer at the Allentown Toy show who had purchased it from a 90 year old woman who had it in a trunk in her attic, untouched since she received it as a child. This doll has only one shortcoming; it simply looks too new, too mint to be credible. But it is real, and is still attached to its original wood display pole, so it can stand, or hang, alone, as it did in the cornfield. A yellow ribbon that reads, "Patent Pending" is still intact.
In the right corner of the showcase, is a curious mechanical device from the early era. Its patent date is 1919. The object itself is very heavy and is designed to sit in front of the the turntable of a phonograph. An elliptical wheel, resting on the record, animates three generic dancing figures, a “Ballet Dancer”, a “Dancing Darky”, and one that is clearly modeled after the Scarecrow of Oz. “Modeled after” is a polite way of saying, traced. The original box makes no mention of Oz, and refers to the figure as “Scare-Crow”.
Reclining in the rear, is a Scarecrow doll that is also of the Denslow era. It radiates the kind of glow that age alone, not wear and tear, can bestow.
This book of cutouts is unique in ways that one might take for granted today, but in its time, it must have been amazing, a monumental undertaking. Full color printing was not all that commonplace. And for the original illustrator to be lending his best efforts to a “toy” is a situation that would be unlikely today. Even then, Imagine how amazing it would be if John Tenniel had drawn a cutout book of all his characters from “Alice”!
I read an interesting blog, this morning, talking about the Oz Toy Book. Apparently, it was published without Frank Baum’s knowledge, and the publisher, Reilly and Britton, had a lot of explaining and apologizing to do when he found out. What really jumped out at me was the statement that Baum was not all that happy with John R, Neill as the Oz illustrator, and suggested to his publisher that Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) or George McManus (Bringing Up Father) be hired to take his place. Wow! He felt that Neill did not capture the humor of his stories. I sometimes wondered if it was just my imagination, linking Oz to Comic Characters. It appears that, Frank Baum, himself, clearly saw that link as well.