How Frank Baum Became the Wizard of Coronado
For Lyman Frank Baum, who resided in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, there may have been no place like home. But not long after the turn of the 20th Century and in the wake of this famous author’s creative breakthrough, Baum discovered his home away from home: Coronado Island, across the bay from San Diego.
Four years after publishing “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” a children’s book that would become the first in a beloved series of 14, L. Frank Baum checked into the Hotel del Coronado for a wintertime respite. He and his wife would do so every year but one until 1910, during which time he wrote three more “Oz” books and parts of another. Later, the Baums would winter at a house not far away from the hotel, on Star Park Circle. The house, like the storied Victorian hotel, still stand today. Baum passed away in 1919, but his memory and his legacy in San Diego cultural history live on.
To some degree, Baum’s “Oz” books have been eclipsed by the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the third attempt at filming “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and as popular a picture as has ever been made. But make no mistake about Baum’s stature as a writer or the importance of his books. “I think today that ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ is considered the prime example of an American fairytale,” said Angelica Carpenter, author of “L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz” and a recently retired professor at Fresno State University. “Before it, the British were known for fantasy and the Americans were known for more realistic depictions of families, like ‘Little Women’ or ‘Tom Sawyer.’ But here was a real American child (Dorothy Gale) going to a fantasy land that included American elements like the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow.” Dr. Jerry Griswold, professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State, calls Baum’s first book “a cultural touchstone” and “really our ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ It was the first major work of American fantasy.” Though the images of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” – the magnificent buildings, the flourishing flowers and plant life, the vast, enigmatic beauty of wide open spaces – were nurtured in Baum’s midwestern homeland, and more so in his singular imagination, there’s reason to believe that his winters spent in Coronado manifested themselves in his later “Oz” books. “Our Queen Anne architecture suited his inherent fancifulness,” said Christine Donovan, director of heritage programs at the Hotel del Coronado. “The visualness of the Del is what he truly enjoyed. I believe he thought in pictures.” So fascinated by the hotel was Baum that he volunteered to design the lighting in what would be renamed, in tribute to his vision, the Crown Room. While he’d already created the Emerald City by the time he first came to the Del, Baum likely appreciated the hotel’s own brand of architectural whimsy, Donovan said. With its ocean breezes, towering palm trees and year-round sunshine, Southern California proved captivating to Baum, who eventually moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles, and to a home he named Ozcot. (It no longer exists.) Coronado, however, must have held a special place in his heart. His 1905 poem titled “Empress of the Sea” sounds like an ode to the Hotel Del:
“Let Coronado wear her crownAs Empress of the Sea;Nor need she fear her earthly peerWill e’er discovered be. “We revel ‘neath her tropic palmsAnd scent her brilliant flowers;And fondly greet the songbirds sweetThat warble in her bowers. “And every day her lovelinessShines pure, without a flaw;New charms entrance our every glanceAnd fill our souls with awe!”
“He certainly thought of California as a paradise,” said Angelica Carpenter, “but he’d already created a paradise in the first (Oz) book. I don’t think California changed his view … but it added to it.” Baum’s sense of humor was a strength of his writing, she said, along with “his ability to create amazing characters. I was born to be an Oz fan. To me, Oz was a place where you could go back over and over and have new adventures.” Perhaps not unlike the adventures L. Frank Baum had, or imagined, each year when he returned to Coronado Island. Page 2 - Baum San Diego Trivia
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