“Oz” Artist Denslow: The Who Would Be King

March 9, 2013

BlucksIslandThe title character in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is an eccentric circus illusionist and balloonist blown to a magical kingdom where he poses as an all-powerful sorcerer.

In a move at least partly inspired by the supreme ruler of that imaginary land, American artist W.W. Denslow banished himself to Bermuda and used the profits he made from illustrating L. Frank Baum’s classic Oz book to buy Bluck’s Island in the Great Sound, build himself a turreted castle-like house and proclaim himself King Denslow I.

When “The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz” was published in 1900, it became an instant cultural juggernaut. The children’s book sold tens of thousands of copies and quickly spawned sequels, a theatrical adaptation and cartoon strips.

The iconic illustrations of Philadelphia-born artist William Wallace Denslow [1856-1915] resulted in him becoming as closely identified with “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as author Mr. Baum.

The design of the first — and still by far the most popular — book in what became a 14-volume series was lavish for the times, featuring artwork on many pages, backgrounds in different colours and several colour plates. Contemporary reviewers said Mr. Denslow’s deft illustrations were “quite as much of the story as is the writing.”

Disney’s “Oz The Great And The Powerful” opened yesterday [Mar. 8] — including at Hamilton’s Liberty Theatre — to blockbuster box office receipts, demonstrating the 113-year-old franchise still has the magic to draw 21st century auciences down its yellow brick road to fantasy, adventure and epic conflicts between good and evil.

W.W. Denslow at work in his studio in 1900

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Mr. Denslow’s whimsical but compelling depictions of Kansas farm girl Dorothy, her friends the Tin Woodsman, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow as well as such Land of Oz denizens as the Munchkins, the Flying Blue Monkeys and the Wicked Witch became imprinted on the popular imagination.

His definitive renditions of the book’s characters along with the enchanted landscapes  of the Land of Oz would later inform the production design for MGM’s lavish 1939 musical “The Wizard Of Oz.”

The success of the “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” led Mr. Baum and Mr. Denslow  to team with composer Paul Tietjens and director Julian Mitchell to produce a musical stage version of the book under the direction of Fred R. Hamlin.

With the title abbreviated to “The Wizard of Oz”, the production — featuring costumes and sets designed by Mr. Baum — opened in Chicago June, 1902, then ran on Broadway and also successfully toured the United States until 1911 when it became available for amateur use.

Classic W.W. Denslow illustration from L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” [1900]

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While the stage version was a huge success, Mr. Denslow and Mr. Baum — who had collaborated on four other books — quarreled bitterly over the musical play’s profits and parted ways soon afterward.

As a co-copyright holder along with the author in “The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz”, Mr. Denslow demanded an equal share of the musical play’s royalties along with Mr. Baum and composer Mr.Tietjens.

Mr. Baum refused [the rest of the books in the "Oz" series featured art by magazine and children's book illustrator John R. Neill who emulated Mr. Denslow's distinctive style for marketing and continuity reasons].

A master of self-promotion and given to oversized theatrical gestures, former editorial cartoonist Mr. Denslow shortly afterwards moved to Bermuda, bought Bluck’s Island, renamed it after himself — and  then announced he was its king.

The parallels he was drawing between himself and the exiled title character in his most famous work were self-evident [he even christened his new Bermuda sailboat "Wizard" in case anyone did happen to miss the point]. Mr. Denslow was sending the most public rebuke imaginable to his former collaborator who he believed had treated him like a serf.

W.W. Denslow title page art for the first edition of “The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz”

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As he had hoped, his intentionally grandiose and attention-grabbing actions drew international press coverage.

In a 1904 report headlined “American King”, one California newspaper said: “There is a pretty little island off the southern coast of the United States, in the Atlantic Ocean, one of the Bermudas, which, unknown to most people, has lately been dignified by the title of sovereignty …

“Denslow by name, an artist by profession, [the owner] has ‘thought out, planned and established’ his kingdom in the small and beautiful Bermuda island …”

DenslowsBermudaWhile living on the island [his studio was located in the house's distinctive turret], the artist used his copyright to the art of the “Oz” book to create a series of newspaper comic strip stories featuring the Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman — including one little 1905 saga titled “Denslow’s Scarecrow and Tinman in Bermuda.”

With Mr. Baum and Mr. Denslow both claiming “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as their own, they had almost simultaneously launched competing syndicated newspaper stories that ran in the Sunday comic sections around America and Canada.

“Denslow’s Scarecrow and Tinman” debuted in early December 1904; the short-lived series continued in papers through the middle of March 1905.

His sojourn in Bermuda also inspired the setting of a book and play he worked on here, a major undertaking in creative one-upmanship aimed squarely at his former partner and the lucrative “Oz” franchise.

Set in Vermont, Bermuda and an enchanted underwater fairyland “The Pearl and the Pumpkin” was a 1904 Halloween-themed children’s book written by Mr. Denslow and Paul Clarendon West and illustrated by the artist.

Vintage Bermuda postcard of Denslow’s Island and his yacht “The Wizard”

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A conspicuous attempt to emulate the success of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, more than one critic pointed out “The Pearl and the Pumpkin” did not stray far from its model’s plot, characterisations and themes: “The storyline would sweep mortals from an American farm to a magical land populated by fairies and comedic, grotesque figures …”

Mr. Denslow hoped to replicate the popular success of “Wonderful Wizard Of Oz” with a 1905 stage adaptation of the well-received book and reap the kind of financial bonanza he believed Mr. Baum had denied him .

The “New York Times” called the show an “extravaganza of the most extravagant kind” when it opened; the elaborate — and hugely expensive — production values drew universal praise from critics and audiences alike.

“The scenery and costumes are so remarkable as to demand first mention,” said a Boston reviewer. “Mr. Denslow is an artist as well as a writer and it is to him that the beautiful scenery and wonderfully effective costumes are due.

“The lily field in Bermuda, with the chorus dressed as lilies, is one of the finest scenes ever shown [on] stage … while the picture of North Rock, off the coast of Bermuda, is a splendid example of the scene painter’s art.”

But the play — which reportedly suffered from a confused and convoluted plot — did not find a receptive audience and closed shortly after its Broadway premiere. .

W.W. Denslow illustrations of Bermuda scenes from the 1904 book “The Pearl and the Pumpkin”

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Having lost his considerable investment in the musical version of “The Pearl and the Pumpkin”, by 1908 the self-crowned King Denslow I decided to abdicate and abandon his mid-Atlantic realm.

“[Realtor] Carl E. Randrup reports that he has negotiated a sale of Denslow’s Island, in the Great Sound, Bermuda,” reported the “New York Times” on June 8, 1908. “On the island are a large stone residence and cottage and other outbuildings.

“The seller is W.W. Denslow and the buyer a New Yorker, who will make the place his Winter residence. The price was $30,000.”

Every bit as mercurial and flamboyant as his stories and artwork, Mr. Denslow — who was married and divorced three times — began drinking heavily and had difficulty landing secure employment after leaving Bermuda.

He moved to Buffalo, New York and found work with the Niagara Lithograph Company designing promotional pamphlets.

Mr. Denslow eventually drifted to New York City around 1913, finding work at another advertising agency where the one-time absolute monarch of his own private island in Bermuda found himself struggling to make ends meet on a weekly salary of $25.

Trailer for Disney’s “Oz The Great And The Powerful”, a prequel to “The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz”

After selling a full-colour cover to “Life” magazine, then a light entertainment weekly with illustrations, humor and social commentary, Mr. Denslow went out to celebrate. He got drunk, caught pneumonia and died on March 29, 1915. He was 59 years old.

Early in his career, the self-educated and self-trained Mr. Denslow described his disposition and outlook: “I float, as it were, with the steam, enjoying life as I float. I do have a good time and no mistake, besides that I work very hard, being at it night and day…. Of course, I should like to do something better, but a big salary and solid comfort make one hesitate to lean to something else.”

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  1. Oz in the News 3.10.13 | The Daily Ozmapolitan | March 10, 2013
  1. Petra says:

    Fascinating article, a great read!