HE WAS the man behind the man behind the curtain. It was L. Frank Baum who turned the lost Kansas carnival showman into the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. And it was "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" that transformed Baum.
"The Dreamer of Oz," airing at 9 p.m. Monday on Channel 2, is the story of how a most unremarkable man whose life was noteworthy mainly for its lack of success, came to discover a place that would go on to enchant generations of American children. John Ritter stars as Baum, a person he resembles both in looks and in gentle temperament, as he stumbles toward his first, late taste of success.
A devoted husband and loving father, the real Frank Baum wobbled through the last half of the 19th century between hope and failure. He was born into a well-to-do family in Chittenango in 1856. Of nine children in his family, he was one of the five who would see adulthood.
Passions of his young life included working with a printing press (he would continue newspapering, on and off, throughout his life), raising chickens, writing plays and acting. When he was 25, he found his greatest passion of all, his wife, Maud Gage, who is played in "Dreamer" by Annette O'Toole.
Maud and Frank had four sons, though Baum, according to one of his sons later, always hoped for a daughter he would have named Dorothy. But in "Dreamer," he couldn't be happier. Dorothy does indeed appear, but as the daughter of Maud's sister. Unfortunately, the bright, pixie-eyed presence of young actress Courtney Barilla is cut short when her character succumbs to fever.
As many of Baum's enterprises as NBC could afford are packed into this made-for-television two hours. Baum fails as an actor, he fails as a shopkeeper, he has minor success as an oil distributor (the real Baum worked in that business for his brother until the company was bankrupted by a crooked bookkeeper), and he goes on the road as a traveling salesman. It is there that he learns the meaning of "humbug."
Not seen in "Dreamer" are the hours Baum devoted to writing down his stories, and the encouragement he received from his suffragist mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage. Rue McClanahan is a wonderfully tight-wrapped Matilda in "Dreamer," as the movie saves up her wind-up punch for when it counts.
Instead of placing Ritter at the keyboard or writing pad, we see him telling Baum's stories to his children and their friends. Ritter's genuine love of the children comes through -- these are the brightest spots of his most trying life, and they reflect what Baum's own children later said about their father.
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," published in 1900 when Baum was 44, was his second success, following on the heels of "Father Goose, His Story," a rendering of nursery rhymes in prose that became a surprise best seller. The tale of the Emerald City was drawn from stories Baum did indeed tell his sons, but with the wished-for daughter Dorothy as his heroine.
NBC is faithful to much of the Baum story, capturing the tone if not always the letter of Baum's time. The period costumes are sumptuous, the sets of Baum's life cluttered with the paraphernalia of Victoriana, including some of Baum's own posessions, lent by his great-grandson Robert Baum, who assisted on the movie.
The most magical moments are courtesy of computer-generated special effects. As Ritter takes his young audiences over the rainbow with tales of the magic land, the creatures familiar to everyone older than 3 appear in surrealist landscapes painted with very un-Victorian shades of imagination.
Dorothy lands in a lush garden, the Tin Man walks through a bedroom door into the deep woods, and, in what is the best microchip marvel, the Cowardly Lion beats his timid chest while perched upon a multicolored cliff, as a waterfall seemingly lifted from Yosemite Valley dissolves into mist in the background.
Younger viewers will wish for more of the moments in Oz, whose serendipitous naming is cleverly, if apocryphally, explained here with a file cabinet (think of the drawers, A-N, O-Z). Parents would enjoy knowing more about what made Baum keep trying in the face of his constant failures. It may have been he finally realized that fame and fortune were never nearly as valuable as the smile of a child.
In the introduction to "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," Baum writes that the book "was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to be a modern fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out."
One may argue that, though bloodless, "Oz" certainly contains enough worries for the average youngster: lost far from home, with witches, wizards, and deadly deserts surrounding it all. But Baum always keeps Dorothy on the yellow brick road to home, guarded by her silver (yes, silver! They were changed to ruby in the movie) slippers.
"The Dreamer of Oz" doesn't attempt to re-create the musical majesty of the 1939 MGM classic "The Wizard of Oz," and in Baum's storytelling, NBC remains more faithful to his writings than to the wanderings of Judy Garland over the rainbow.
But, perhaps in a more down-to-earth, true-to-life scale, Ritter, O'Toole and company do find the stuff that dreams are made of, not in a land far away, but right in their own backyard.