Myths Surround 'Wizard of Oz' As Festival Opens

VIDEO: The actress croons a snippet of the musical for Popcorn.
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Quick!

Dorothy was a) a stand-in for the naïve, gullible American or b) the daughter L. Frank Baum, author of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," never had.

Did the Tin Woodman represent the Industrial Revolution, Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) or, because he was creaky from lack of oil, the evils of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil? And the flying monkeys, were they stand-ins for the members of the American Bar Association?

Good Witch Glinda, so beautiful and kind to Dorothy – turns out, she may have been making a power move on the wicked witch and using the innocent girl from Kansas as a sap.

WHAT TO KNOW
  • As the Oz-Stravaganza festival opens in upstate New York, debates over the meanings and myths of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" still occupy historians and L. Frank Baum descendants

Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and the movie synch up so well, is there a psychic connection? It's right there, for all to see on YouTube.

Finally, where did the real yellow brick road actually go?

These, and other questions, will no doubt come up this weekend in the tiny upstate New York town of Chittenango, where Baum was born in 1856. The three-day festival, Oz-Stravaganza, will feature pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners; a silent auction; and a 5:30 a.m. hot air balloon ride. Plus, there are visits from great-grandson of Robert Baum; Caren Marsh-Doll, Judy Garland's stand-in; and surviving Munchkins from the 1939 movie.

Robert Baum, a retired schoolteacher from Los Angeles, sees all the interpretations and myths surrounding his great-grandfather's novel and 1939 movie as amusing, if misleading. But it's good for keeping the man and story alive.

1. The Wizard of Oz is a populist parable.

This is the most popular myth. Populist William Jennings Bryan, running for president in 1896 and 1900, was the Cowardly Lion. The yellow brick road symbolized the gold standard; the silver slippers (ruby in the movie) looser money. The Wizard was the president, the tin man the industrial worker, the scarecrow the farmer.

Not true, says Evan I. Schwartz, who wrote "Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story." "The whole parable of populism is a mistake," he told ABCNews.com. "It was started in 1964 by a high school history teacher named Henry Littlefield, who was trying to get his kids interested in populism."

Dewar MacLeod, who teaches history at William Patterson University, in New Jersey, concurs. "It sounded so clean and neat when it first came out, and teachers still use it because it's one of those things that helps explain a concept -- populism and the cross of gold and the idea of gold being a tool of liberation or oppression. But in looking at the story itself, I don't get how this is a populist story."

If it were, "the plot would play out to enact some kind of point, and it really doesn't," said Schwartz. "The whole parable of populism was based on the belief that Baum was a supporter of William Jennings Bryan, who wanted to topple the gold standard. I found that Baum voted for and supported President William McKinley. Baum was quoted as saying, 'I've always been a Republican when I dabble in politics, which is not often.'

"The theory's been debunked, but it still lives as a conspiracy theory on the internet. It's very hard to overcome the power of a conspiracy theory on the Internet."

Besides, James Finn Garner, author of "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories," told ABCNews.com, "The way to write a really boring story is to make a political allegory."

Plus, he added, "If Baum were so intelligent about politics and finance, he wouldn't have gone broke so many times. He was a dreamer."

If the populist angle is off, that last comment is not. According to great-grandson Robert Baum, "Maude saw in Frank all the fun she didn't have, and Frank saw the businesswoman in her, someone who could get things done."

2. The Wizard of Oz is a feminist parable.

This is true. Maude Baum was the daughter of Matilda Joselyn Gage, an early suffragette in upstate New York, where the movement was in full swing when L. Frank and his wife lived there. A contemporary of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Gage "was the fiercest of them all," said Schwartz. "She was called the heretic, derided as a radical in her day. She was also an expert on the medieval witch hunts." She lived with the Baums during the winter, and her husband, Henry, was "compliant, like Uncle Henry" in the book.

The "duality" of the good witches and the bad witches, added Schwartz, is "a commentary on how people perceive something like the women's rights movement, depending which side of the fence you're on."

And then there's Dorothy, who at the end of her adventure returns home. "There are lots of ways to read that," said MacLeod. "'Shut up and be quiet and go home, you're a little girl' is one."

"But the real message is that Dorothy does go off on her own, and seek greener pastures," he added. "Do we really believe she's going to be happy being a wife on the farm? She demonstrated wanderlust, and the journey's been thrilling."

3. The yellow brick road is in Peekskill, N.Y.

Peekskill, NY, is a little over an hour north of New York City, an industrial river town that fell on hard times and is now struggling back with the help of local artist and a few snazzy new watering holes. Down by the Hudson River, there's a little street that is in fact yellow brick, not the sparkly kind but older brick from around the time of the Civil War.

What is known is that Baum briefly attended the Peekskill Military Academy – from most reports, he disliked it intensely, and some say the flying monkeys' costumes were based on the uniforms the boys wore.

A local historian, John Curran, has been fighting to have the street recognized for a decade. He recently told the Wall Street Journal that when a 12-year-old Baum arrived in town, he asked for directions to the academy and was told, Just follow the yellow brick road.

"We have no empirical evidence, these roads were all over the country, they weren't just in Peekskill," former mayor John Testa told ABCNews.com. "It's a feel-good story for the city."

Still, it may be true.

4. A munchkin died in the making of the movie

Not true, says Robert Baum.

Not true, agrees Schwartz. "There's a scene when Dorothy is skipping with the scarecrow and there seems to be something hanging from the tree. It's actually a bird. But this myth is very very popular among fans of 'The Wizard of Oz.'" The story is that "a munchkin committed suicide because he was in love with Judy Garland. It's not true. Although I did hear that one got caught under her dress."

5. Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" is an alternate soundtrack.

It's on YouTube.

When the lyrics are "the lunatic is on the grass," the scarecrow is wiggling on the ground. "The 'great gig in the sky' line happens during the tornado scene," said Schwartz. "There are all kinds of references that appear to synch out.

"People who have done too many bong hits actually believe this."

So what's the real story of Baum's Wizard?

The meaning of home. The question of identity. Compassion, courage. Be true to yourself. America.

"It's the first American children's classic," said Garner. "There are snake-oil salesmen, not princesses and fairy dust. Kings are toppled and rulers are challenged. Strong characters with things at stake. In an immigrant society like America, people had to fight for what they had."

If the turn of the century wasn't the best of times or the worst of times, it was a time of change.

"We were shifting from a country of producers to a country of consumers," said MacLeod. "People were being ripped off the land. Immigrants from Europe were coming from a peasant background and being thrust into cities. Transformation is wrenching, not only for millions of immigrants but for old-stock American. Often culture is the place where we navigate and negotiate these changes.

For Baum's Wizard, MacLeod said, "I prefer the open interpretation. It can represent whatever we want it to, like so much in art."

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