“The Wizard of Oz” has always had a cult following. It began with the original book, written by L. Frank Baum in 1900, while he lived in Chicago. New fans emerged when the film, starring Judy Garland, first appeared on television in 1956. Twenty years later, the story still held its charm. A Chicago bookstore owner named John Lenhardt started a petition to name the park at Larrabee and Webster in Lincoln Park in honor of L. Frank Baum. Oz Park was born.
It’s hard to believe, but in 1960 the area surrounding today’s Oz Park was in shambles. The Lincoln Park Conservation Association worked for more than ten years on an urban renewal project, and in 1974, they were granted thirteen acres to create Park No. 423. The park remained nameless until 1976 when John Lenhardt submitted his petition to honor Baum’s classic. Even local schoolchildren had a chance to cast their vote. But Oz Park won.
The park recalls the fictional world of Oz, to be sure, but it also pays tribute to the man behind the curtain. L. Frank Baum grew up in New York on an estate called Rose Lawn. At age fifteen, his parents bought him his first printing press, and soon he was creating his own magazines. Baum went on to become a theatre manager and actor, all with family funding.
Things changed, though, after his father died. Baum had trouble holding a steady job, and he had a wife and four children to support. After running a store called “Baum’s Bazaar” into bankruptcy, Baum moved the family to Chicago where he started working as a traveling salesman. It brought home a paycheck, but Baum disliked the work.
Thankfully, he soon discovered his talent for writing children’s stories. The success of his first book, “Father Goose (1899),” allowed Baum to move his family into a spacious house near Humboldt Park. It was here, and not in Lincoln Park, that Baum wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Baum lived in Chicago for almost twenty years, enjoying a summer house in Michigan and an eccentric group of artistic friends.
The story of Oz was in such demand that Baum went on to write thirteen sequels before his death in 1919. Baum extended Dorothy’s adventures in Oz partly for money, but mostly because thousands of children sent letters to beg for more books. As Baum wrote to his sister, “To please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one’s heart and brings its own reward.”
Today, Oz Park celebrates the fictional creations of this dedicated writer. From “Dorothy’s Playlot” to a statue of Tin Man made entirely out of recycled automobile parts, it is a park worthy of its namesake. Every summer, Oz Park hosts a “Movies in the Park” series, which is open to the public. “The Wizard of Oz” punctuates the series at 8 p.m. August 26th.