This week at Chicago Unbelievable, novelist Adam Selzer provided an introduction to the first movies ever made from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books—in 1908!
Called “Radio Plays” for reasons unclear, these lost snippets of hand-colored film from the Selig Polyscope studio were part of an elaborate stage production that Baum himself oversaw and financed. The show included a small cast of live actors alongside the movies, and he acted as host and lecturer, telling stories from his books.
The child actress who starred as Dorothy, with the astonishing name of Romola Remus, lived into the late 1980s. She apparently gave a lot of reminiscences to the Chicago papers. Selzer quotes one of those:
The privilege of knowing Mr. Baum was a happy and rewarding experience for me. I, also, portrayed the role of Dorothy in the first 'Wizard of Oz' movie. I believe it was the very first colored moving picture. It was produced by Selig's company.But the show was a financial failure. Despite reviews praising it as a family show, it didn’t sell enough tickets to adults to cover the high production cost, and Baum ended up signing away the proceeds of some of his books for many years.
I remember Mr. Baum was always on hand offering encouragement or constructive criticism to all his workers. When the film was shown at various theatres, he would lecture about his various books. I recall some proud and joyous moments standing beside this tall, gentle, dignified gentleman on-stage after each matinee. The little children would clamor for his autograph, with cheers of joy!
After regaining his financial footing with new novels, Baum and his family moved out west to a suburb of Los Angeles called Hollywood. By coincidence, the American film industry followed, and Baum became involved in another movie-making venture called the Oz Film Manufacturing Company. This time he didn’t invest much of his own money. Which was good, because that venture failed as well.
The movie magazine Daeida just published an interview with Baum’s great-grandson Robert about the family’s life in Hollywood. It includes many family photographs of the author’s house there, called Ozcot, along with the gardening trophies Baum won in his last years. You can read that article online in the April 2011 issue, starting on page 10.