SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW, there's a place where the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman arid the Wicked Witch live on as life-size robots. A robotic Dorothy, her cairn terrier Toto under her arm, waves from behind the wheel of a sleek black sports car. Under the rainbow—actually the rainbow-hued arched corridor through Las Vegas's Oz-themed MGM Grand Hotel—Roger S. Baum, 56, looks around in delight. "I wonder what Great-Granddad would have said if he could see this," he muses.
Great-Granddad is L. Frank Baum, who became the architect of the original Emerald City when he wrote Wonderful Wizard of Oz 94 years ago. After 13 more children's novels by L. Frank and 19 by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who took over the series in 1919 when L. Frank died, new Oz books appeared sporadically, awaiting the arrival of another Baum with a literary bent. That turned out to be Roger, who was lured away from a career in finance in 1987. Encouraged by a member of the Illinois-based International Wizard of Oz Club, he decided to try his hand with his famous relative's characters. "At first I was intimidated," says Baum, "but then I realized I had known these characters all my life." Two years later he produced Dorothy of Oz, and the Emerald City gang was again back in business. Baum has written an Oz book each year since—the next, The Lion of Oz and the Badge of Courage, is due out this spring—and is selling 110,000 hardback volumes a year. "Oz is supposed to be timeless," says Fred M. Meyer, secretary of the Oz club, which has 2,500 members, "and Roger Baum has captured that."
Although his family never made much of its Oz connection, Baum vividly remembers his great-grandmother Maud Gage Baum, L. Frank's widow, who lived in Hollywood and died in 1954 at age 92. "I would sit in this immense, very comfortable chair she had, playing with her dog Toto." Still, the younger Baum's journey to Oz was circuitous. The Los Angeles-born son of Joslyn Baum, an insulation contractor, and his wife, Elizabeth, a homemaker, he was an indifferent student who dropped out of college to enlist in the Navy, then went through a series of jobs in brokerage houses and banks. Along the way, he married, fathered two children, divorced and was remarried, in 1985, to Charlene Barrad, 55, an accountant.
Like his great-grandfather, who produced early silent-movie versions of Oz books, Baum is exploring other media for his work. He recently released an interactive CD that lets cybernauts travel through Oz. Well, most of it, any-way. "Oz is an enormous place," says Baum. "In keeping with Great-Granddad's spirit, I will always make sure that some part of it goes unexplored. I never want readers to feel that they've seen it all."
F.X. FEENEY in Las Vegas
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