The Yellow Brick Road To Equality

May 8, 2013

A renowned filmmaker from New York says people have a lot to learn about one of the most famous stories ever told. Local actors in Sioux Falls showcase The Wizard of Oz this week, and an acclaimed documentary producer says the story’s meaning runs much deeper than a lost little girl and her dog trying to make their way back to Kansas.

It’s been 74 years since American audiences followed the yellow brick road on the big screen in The Wizard of Oz. Nearly four decades before the Technicolor film made its debut, a story-telling dad wrote the book that’s become an American legend.

"It’s really a story of how Dorothy came to be this iconic character that was actually born in 1900 from the pen of L. Frank Baum, and it’s now 2013 and this show is still being produced over the country," filmmaker Carey Graeber says.

She's from New York, but her latest endeavor centers squarely on the goings-on in Oz. It’s called Rediscovering Dorothy. Yes, that Dorothy, who manages to save her lackluster male counterparts by defeating the Wicked Witch of the West with a splash.

"How was it in 1900 that L. Frank Baum wrote a story about a little girl who went on a hero journey?" Graeber asks. "In 1900, women in the United States did not have the vote. They couldn’t own property. They had no claim to their children in the case of a divorce. They were considered chattel, property."

Graeber credits Baum’s in-laws for encouraging his girl-powered book. She says his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, toiled for women’s rights alongside fellow suffragists like Susan B. Anthony. Baum’s wife was one of the first women to attend Cornell.

"So this was a very progressive family that he was part of. And the women were strong and outspoken, and were saying to him, this is the way it should be," Graeber says. "He loved the family, and he loved his mother-in-law. A lot of people find that a strange situation, but in the long run, when he wasn’t successful in Aberdeen and then they finally moved to Chicago and he was selling china going on the road and writing a book about designing displays in store windows, it was Matilda Joslyn Gage who said to him, ‘Frank, you have to write down your stories you tell your children.'"

South Dakota’s connection to the famous author lies in three years in the late 1800s, when Baum made his home in the northeast part of the state.

"L. Frank Baum lived in Aberdeen for three years, and his mother-in-law, Matilda Jocelyn Gage, used to come in the winter from upstate New York to live with them in the winter in Aberdeen," Graeber says. "You kind of want to say, if anything I could ask her, I’d say, ‘Why did you come in the winter?’"

Graeber has license to ask that question because she’s also experienced the bone-chilling cold of the Great Plains. Graeber went to college in Chicago and settled with her husband in New York, but she grew up in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Those links are part of what she calls a tornado of connections, a pun very much intended.

Graeber’s teamed up with the woman who created a foundation for Matilda Joslyn Gage’s legacy, so she isn’t taking on the challenge of Rediscovering Dorothy alone.

"We had a mutual friend who introduced us at a bar in New York City, and when she walked in the door, we looked at each other and we just knew that’s who we were. Our Midwestern roots came through," Graeber says.

The collaborator’s name is Sally Roesch Wagner, and she’s from Aberdeen, too.

"Through Sally, I’ve been the descendants of Matilda Joslyn Gage and L. Frank Baum. They’re wonderful people," Graeber says. "They’re all very concerned about social justice, the ones I’ve met, and they’re warm, wonderful people."

While the story of the journey to the Emerald City literally runs in that family’s blood, Graeber says the Wizard of Oz is in our DNA.

"This is, to me, the largest common denominator in the United States is the Wizard of Oz," Graeber says. "I challenge you to now start watching every day for how many references you will see to either the movie, the music, you’ll see a cartoon, you’ll hear somebody who did something and they’ll use an Oz quote. It’s just out there."

Graeber wants people to know that Dorothy isn’t an accidental heroine and the yellow brick road is more than mortar and clay; she says it’s a roadmap for equality.

Find information on the progress of Rediscovering Dorothy at this website.  

The Sioux Empire Community Theatre has three performances of The Wizard of Oz this weekend and another three next weekend. Visit this link for show times.