'Dreamer of Oz' is a pure delight for the family


December 10, 1990|By Michael Hill

HE CONSIDERED himself a failure. He was 40 years old and nothing he had ever done had worked out that well." That was John Ritter's summation of the state of mind of L. Frank Baum as he stood on the verge of creating magic.

Baum's name may not be that well-known, but the world he created, "The Wonderful World of Oz," is one of the most enduring kingdoms of fantasy in the landscape of childhood. Long after the Ninja Turtles have been washed down the sewer, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion will still prowl youthful imaginations.

Tonight's NBC movie, "The Dreamer of Oz," which will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 o'clock, recounts Baum's journey, which might not have been as special as that taken by Dorothy from her Kansas home to the Emerald City but does have its own undeniable charm.

"You have to remember that at that time, the middle of the 19th century, men weren't encouraged to sit around dreaming up stories," Ritter said over the phone from Los Angeles. Ritter plays Baum and was involved in the production of the film,

Indeed, as portrayed in this likable film, the ever-optimistic Baum was the type of fellow who would cause more responsible citizens to roll their eyes when he entered the room, always full of plans and schemes that rarely worked out.

Baum started out as an itinerant actor but tried everything from traveling salesman to proprietor of an exotic emporium in Aberdeen, S.D., to newspaper owner to support his family.

As "The Dreamer of Oz" tells the story, the Oz books came out of tales Baum made up for children throughout his life, taking the Cowardly Lion from a bully who challenged him to a gunfight in South Dakota, the Scarecrow from a window display at his store, the land's name from a file cabinet marked alphabetically O-Z.

He did have some success with a children's book called "Father Goose" but had to relinquish its royalties to get "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" published.

When Baum tells his Oz stories to children in the film, they come to life, the characters resembling those seen in the 1939 movie, ++ backed by impressive computer-generated special effects.

"Throughout everything, he was supported by his wife, Maud, so you also have this wonderful love story," Ritter said of the character played by Annette O'Toole. Maud was on the verge of establishing her own professional career, a rarity for her sex at the time, when she opted to marry Baum, much to the chagrin of her suffragette mother, played by Rue McClanahan.

"The Dreamer of Oz" is framed by the premiere of "The Wizard of Oz" movie -- an aged Maud is supposed to be telling her husband's life story to a reporter. It is painted in broad strokes as it effectively, if not so subtlely, delivers its message of believing in your dreams.

It might not be a masterpiece, but it's a made-for-the-whole-family delight, an attractive ornament appropriate for the season.

"The Dreamer of Oz" *** The story of L. Frank Baum, who dreamed his way through a peripatetic life before he dreamed up "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

CAST: John Ritter, Annette O'Toole

TIME: Monday at 9 p.m.


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