A Day in Oz: A Report on the Dedication Ceremony for Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Historical Marker

Ruth Plumly Thompson on her front porch, circa 1920s

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:

RUTH PLUMLY THOMPSON
(1891-1976)

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

Barbara Koelle (1923-2018)

Barbara Koelle (1923-2018) was a lovely woman, thoughtful personal friend, and consistent supporter of the International Wizard of Oz Club.  She joined the Club and began attending conventions in the 1960s when they were held in the resort owned by Harry Neal Baum. From convention speaker to Bugle editor to Club President, if there was a job that needed doing, Barbara was a faithful volunteer.  She chaired committees and hosted parties. She organized a short-story circle for fiction writers, and amassed a fine Oz/Baum collection. She received the L. Frank Baum Memorial Award in 1977 for her unfailing support of the Oz Club.

A local news feature focused on Barbara’s love for Oz.

Patty Tobias is writing an obituary for Barbara for the Winter 2018 Baum Bugle. Barb’s daughter Kate will be planning a memorial service for her, most likely in early February. (I will edit a link to details as soon as there is one.) I wanted to give Barbara’s circle of Wizard of Oz friends an opportunity to share their own memories of her and reflections on her contributions to the Oz Club, too. Please take advantage of this blog’s comments section to do that.

Barbara’s daughters Kate (left) and Suzi at the Oz Club’s centennial celebration. Their mother was one of our educational programming chairmen.

Personally, Barbara helped me time and again. When I was working on the Oz Centennial convention, she agreed to organize an entire 4-day program of content devoted to literary aspects of Oz. (Others took on programming tracks for stage & screen, collecting, biography, etc.). She was thoughtful in recommending members to serve on the

Barbara talks with David Moyer at an Oz event after party. In the foreground, Patty Tobias plays what was undoubtedly Oz music.

board of directors.  She was a wiser head I could turn to when facing difficult Oz decisions. She sent cards. And she sent clippings; recently, entire files of clippings. Barbara gave me a wonderful little treasure for my collection when I became President, following it with a Scarecrow key chain and a question about the existence of my brain (tongue firmly in cheek).

Barbara takes a turn manning the Oz Club’s table at one of our East Coast “Munchkin” Conventions.

 

 

 

 

And memorably, at a Castle Park convention when I was in search of Patty Tobias, who was rooming with her, Barbara opened the door late at night with her hair down. Forty-five years seeing her signature French twist, you’d better believe that moment stands out!

Munchkin Karl Slover was one of many interesting people Barbara enjoyed meeting at Oz Club conventions.

With her late husband John, Barbara attended Oz, The National Convention 2012 in Michigan. She was frail, but she greatly enjoyed time we spent together while I showed her images on my laptop that recounted convention history. She also joined us for a bit in Philadelphia (Oz, The National Convention 2016) where she drew friends around her like a magnet; our cluster reminisced about our shared past. She’d written a Bugle essay, “The Boys of Philadelphia,” for the occasion.

I’m sure I’ll think of other memories that matter to me, but for the moment I just wanted to get this blog posted so others would have the opportunity to share their stories about Barbara. Please do. I’m sure both friends who knew her and curious others who weren’t so fortunate will appreciate hearing your memories.

Update, Dec. 13:  Kate Koelle suggests donations made in her mother’s memory be directed to The International Wizard of Oz Club. We appreciate her thinking of us!  Our mailing address is available in the “Contact Us” section of this website.  Donations may be made online here:  Donate

Update, Jan. 13: Services for Barbara will be held 11:00 a.m. March 16 at Trinity Episcopal Church, 301 N. Chester Rd., Swarthmore, PA 19081. 

Past editors of The Baum Bugle pose at an Oz convention with Barbara front and center. Glinda photobombs.

To conclude, here’s a bit from Barbara in her own words. She contributed it to the 2017 Oz Club Calendar when I asked her to reflect on her season as Editor of the Baum Bugle:

I took over as The Baum Bugle Editor-in-Chief for the Fall 1979 issue, after a rather casual invitation from the late James P. Haff. Though I didn’t know what I was getting into, I was fortunate in having John Fricke fill the first issue with his trail-blazing articles on the M-G-M movie. My production editor, Patty Tobias (later Dan and Lynn Smith), put the journal together and introduced me to computer-generated proof-reading. And the Contributing and Consulting Editors provided invaluable material and advice.

Either Barbara or Peter Hanff was likely Oz Club President when this photo was taken. Both served in that capacity for years.

Once launched, I began to enjoy reading the amazingly varied material submitted to The Bugle–-material ranging from the scholarly through the entertaining to the frankly frivolous. I liked an inclusive approach, and on one occasion published two widely differing reviews of Philip Jose Farmer’s A Barnstormer in Oz. A critique of L. Frank Baum’s use of ethnic stereotypes proved controversial among some Club members. I introduced a “Commentary” section, and printed some original stories and poems. Among these were Fred M. Meyer’s “Scraps and the Magic Box,” “The Invisible Inzi of Oz” by Virginia and Robert Wauchope (first appearing in 1926), and Ruth Berman’s tribute, “A Map for Ruth Plumly Thompson.” The latter appeared in an issue devoted to Thompson and featured material by three of her personal friends: artist Marge (“Little Lulu”), author Daniel P. Mannix, and the Bugle’s review editor, Douglas G. Greene.

In those days The Baum Bugle was slimmer and color was restricted to the covers. But then, as now, it reflected the knowledge and enthusiasm of its editors, contributors and readers, building on the dedication of its original staff. It is truly a group effort and I am proud to have been part of it.

 

Ruth Plumly Thompson honored with historic marker

Ruth Plumly Thompson: New State Historical Marker in West Philadelphia Commemorates Children’s Author of 19 Oz Books

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission recently approved an official state historical marker to commemorate children’s author of 19 ‘Oz’ books, Ruth Plumly Thompson.

The enduring popularity of the Wizard of Oz is a testament to its durability. Perhaps less known is that Ruth Plumly Thompson contributed more to the series of books than its creator L. Frank Baum. Between 1921 and 1939, she wrote one Oz book a year, including the Royal Book of Oz, Kabumpo in Oz, and The Wishing Horse of Oz . In total, she wrote nineteen books (in the fourth floor study of her home at 254 S. Farragut Street in West Philadelphia) and created 320 characters, 100 more than Baum had. She encouraged readers to correspond with her at her home address, published at the beginning of every book. She lived with her widowed mother and sister, and her annual income from the Oz books financially supported all three of them.

Thompson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 27, 1891 (d. 1976) and began her career in 1914 working for the Philadelphia Public Ledger as a weekly columnist for the Sunday children’s page. Her work there drew the attention of William Lee, vice president of L. Frank Baum’s publisher Reilly & Lee, who offered Thompson the opportunity to continue the Oz series after Baum’s death in 1920. Later, the International Wizard of Oz Club published two more stories by Thompson, Yankee in Oz (1972) and The Enchanted Island of Oz (1976), the latter of which was issued posthumously. In 1968 The Oz Club recognized Ruth Plumly Thompson with the L. Frank Baum Memorial Award.

The idea to create a sense of pride in the literary history of West Philadelphia turned into the reality of a ten-foot tall official marker with gold lettering with the generous donation from the Oz Club along with the financial contributions of the residents and neighbors of Farragut Street and Spruce Hill. This state historical marker will be a permanent reminder of a prolific writer and independent-minded Philadelphia woman whose whimsical and humorous writing about the magical Land of Oz will delight a new generation of readers.

The celebration and dedication ceremony will take place on Sunday, November 4, 2018 at the University City Arts League from 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. From there the group will walk in parade style to the historical marker at 254 South Farragut Street for the official unveiling at 1:00 p.m.

For more information about the historical marker or the dedication ceremony, please contact Lisa Weidman, Historical Marker Sponsor, at rpt.historicalmarker@gmail.com