Guest blog contributed by Atticus Gannaway
Ruth Plumly Thompson, the second Royal Historian of Oz, isn’t exactly a household name outside the rarefied world of avid Oz enthusiasts. So when I learned about the impending unveiling of a historical marker in front of the West Philadelphia row house where she had lived when she wrote her first 19 Oz books, I was as surprised as I was pleased. Having grown up reading the Thompson books along with L. Frank Baum’s, I knew I couldn’t miss such a special moment.
That’s how I found myself on a 7:00 a.m. train from New York to Philadelphia with fellow Oz enthusiast Brady Schwind on November 4. A short trolley trip from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station brought us within walking distance of the University City Arts League (UCAL), a nonprofit arts education organization housed in a charming four-story Victorian twin on Spruce Street. The festivities kicked off at 10:00 a.m. with the UCAL’s annual Hot Mugs! fundraising event. For a $15 donation, attendees could select a unique handmade mug made in the UCAL pottery studio and enjoy unlimited coffee and pastries.
We had no complaints about the doughnuts and java refills, but we also knew that Ozzy fun was transpiring above us on the second floor. Joined by Lynn Beltz, the International Wizard of Oz Club’s development liaison and former vice president, we climbed the handsome wooden stairs. Alongside the handrail were strung color reproductions of the cover labels of some dozen Thompson Oz books. When I reached the last step before the second floor, Skamperoo and Chalk were gazing at me from the cover of The Wishing Horse of Oz, one of my favorite Oz novels.
As it turned out, Lisa Weidman, who lives next door to Thompson’s former home and spearheaded the effort to place the marker, had recruited her own daughter, Lucia, to portray Dorothy in a Wishing Horse playlet. To be precise, it was a costumed reading from the book of a dialogue between Dorothy and Pigasus, the flying poetical pig. A small Emerald City backdrop mounted on cardboard set the scene. Dorothy wore blue and white gingham, a tiara, and silver sneakers, while her fellow actress sported a porcine nose and ears along with a pair of wings. What the thespians lacked in polish they made up for with earnest feeling and non-MGM footwear.
At several activity tables, children could add to an ongoing Oz story, color black and white Oz art by Dick Martin, or make crafts with materials reflecting the geographical hues of Oz (purple, yellow, blue, and red). The latter table included placards explaining that the quadrants of Oz are ruled by Glinda, the Tin Woodman, Joe King and Queen Hyacinth, and King Cheeriobed and Queen Orin. Attendees could also select an Oz book from an assortment provided by the International Wizard of Oz Club.
About a quarter to one, a gleefully cacophonous parade of children with noisemakers, accompanied by their adults, set off for the historical marker site. The celebrants marched under a cloudless blue sky in balmy weather for a little less than half a mile. When we reached Ruth Plumly Thompson’s former home at 254 South Farragut Street, we found a 10-foot-tall, steel-blue cast aluminum marker planted before the house. The placard at the top was hidden by a canvas cover emblazoned with the logo of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Lisa Weidman gave a short speech on the steps of the row house, acknowledging the support of Florence Selvin, the current resident of 254 South Farragut Street, and a host of other individuals and organizations, the International Wizard of Oz Club among them. The Oz Club contributed to the cost of the marker and also donated books, including a box of Thompson’s The Wizard of Way-Up and Other Wonders contributed by member Suzanne Call. Copies of Way-Up went to every interested person at the ceremony.
After brief remarks on behalf of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission by Cory Kegerise, community preservation coordinator for Eastern Pennsylvania, Representative Jim Roebuck of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives climbed a tall ladder to unveil the marker in all its glory. The gold-colored text on top read as follows:
An author of children’s literature, she wrote 19 Oz books (1921-1939), including The Royal Book of Oz, in the series begun by L. Frank Baum with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She maintained the popularity of the stories beyond the 1939 classic MGM film. She lived and wrote here.
In his remarks, Kegerise had suggested that the marker will engender a broader knowledge of the Oz phenomenon in the numerous folks who make a point of visiting as many of Pennsylvania’s 2,000-plus historical markers as humanly possible. Certainly the marker is destined to provide a similar education to anyone young or young at heart who happens to wander down a pleasant tree-lined street in West Philadelphia that looks much as it did in the 1920s. On South Farragut Street, the Ozzy magic that originated there is still very much alive.
Story and photos by Atticus Gannaway