COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Coronado: At home in the world of Oz

Fantasy fans followed the Yellow Brick Road last week to an Oz Festival in Coronado celebrating 75 years of the 1939 blockbuster film. Oz in Coronado? How did that happen? Well, many of the famous books that have captivated children for over a century were written there.

The Coronado Oz Festival, followed by a convention in Mission Valley, gave another opportunity for Comic-Con stragglers from the previous week to dress up in new costumes that connect with the fantasy Wonderful World of Oz. Some fans even call Coronado the Emerald City.

For over a century, children have enjoyed reading about this magical world. The series of books written by L. Frank Baum began in 1900 with “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” followed by 13 more tales of that remote fantasy kingdom.

Children in the first half of the 20th century were captivated by the adventures of Dorothy and her four whimsical friends seeking the wizard in Emerald City, and the later Oz-themed editions that have kept the series in print.

Baum’s stories hit their zenith in the 1939 film release of “The Wizard of Oz.” It not only brought the book’s characters to life, but also gave eternal fame to Judy Garland and the hit song “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” a classic after 75 years. Nominated for an Academy award as best picture, the film lost out to “Gone with the Wind.”

However, the must-read books for children have faded in the age of television and computers. Original editions of the Oz books are primarily bibliophile favorites for collectors at considerable cost.

Few San Diegans are aware that Baum (he disliked his first name, Lyman) wrote many of his Oz books while wintering at the Hotel del Coronado from 1904 to 1908. Hollywood had become his principal residence to pursue his theatrical interests in producing plays and early silent films using Oz themes.

For six months in 1909, Baum rented a house on Star Park Circle that still stands. Tour buses take visitors to view, but not enter, the private residence.

When the current owners bought the house in 1965, they had no clue that Baum had lived there. When they later found out about Baum, they began collecting Oz material. Sometimes when a serious fan rings the bell to see the author’s home, the owners share their hobby.

The source of the name for the magical kingdom is intriguing. Legend records that Baum was spinning some of his stories for the neighbor children when a little girl asked where the Scarecrow and the Tin Man lived. The storyteller’s eye caught the labels on a filing cabinet that read A-N on one drawer and O-Z on the other.

I suppose that’s as good an answer as any.

Children were drawn to Baum because of his enchanting whimsy. Students at San Diego High School asked him in 1905 to contribute a story to the campus newspaper. He concocted a myth about a banished fairy in the company of four giants. While the giants were digging rocks on the Coronado shore, they tossed a big one into the sea that became Point Loma.

The Oz books didn’t end with Baum’s death in 1919. Ruth Thompson wrote a series of 19 more, and several musicals and short silent films with Oz characters kept the characters popular. Baum’s great-grandson, Roger S. Baum, keeps the Oz fantasy alive today with more books and a recently released animated film, “The Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.” Another Oz film is in the works.

The family is still connected to San Diego. Baum’s great-granddaughter, Gita Dorothy (of course) Morena, lives in Lakeside with a large archive of first editions and ephemera collected by her mother, Ozma.

Because of the mild winter weather and picturesque coastline, artists, authors and musicians were drawn to Coronado and La Jolla in the early 20th century. In the literary group were L. Frank Baum, Raymond Chandler and, later, Theodor (Dr. Seuss) Geisel. A colony of artists and writers in La Jolla gathered to share their artistic talents at the Green Dragon compound on the cliffs above La Jolla Cove.

The property for Green Dragon Colony was bought in 1894 by Anna Held, governess for Ulysses Grant Jr. She paid $165 for the 40 acres and developed the artists’ colony that kept its identity until the 1950s. What an investment!

The concluding event on the Yellow Brick Road led to Mission Valley, where Winkie Con, a group of Oz fans and collectors, celebrated its 50th anniversary. Costumes, films and autographs by the last living Munchkin in the 1939 film were highlights.

It was a fantastic two weeks of make-believe for San Diego.


Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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