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Following the Yellow Brick Road to Obsession: Berkeley Librarian is All About All Things Oz

May 4, 2016
by Krissy Eliot
Peter Hanff holding a copy of Wizard of Oz

Peter Hanff was 3 years old when he stumbled across the Land of Oz; his father had 10 Oz titles and began reading them to his son before bed. The boy quickly became entranced by L. Frank Baum’s stories and the illustrations. It was the start of an obsession that would lead him to his current role as deputy director of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and to a life of avid Oz book collecting, research, and celebration. If ever an Oz wiz there was, Hanff would be it.

In 1950, just a couple years after his introduction to Baum, Hanff was taken to see the MGM movie “The Wizard of Oz.” His father actually didn’t have a copy of that book, so the particular story was new to him, but it was like experiencing an ongoing tale. When the film’s finale depicted Dorothy’s entire experience as merely a dream, Hanff was indignant. “I knew the several books we had, and I knew Oz wasn’t just Dorothy’s dream.” Not many people know that Oz wasn’t just a dream in the books and it’s actually on Earth somewhere—or that there are even myriad Oz-related titles. (Hanff has read the whole series of 40 books “just twice” in his lifetime, even though he’s read individual titles several times.)

Peter Hanff near a pile of books

Hitting junior high school, he enlisted three friends in his passion for all things Oz: They formed a collecting club, scouring used bookstores in Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles for the best they could get. In high school, he wrote his senior honors paper on Baum. His librarian was very supportive, introducing Hanff to Wilbur Jordan Smith, head of collections at UCLA, and Roland Baughman, head of special collections at Columbia University in New York. Baughman then introduced him to Martin Gardner, an early Scientific American writer on Baum, and Justin G. Schiller, who had at age 13 founded The International Wizard of Oz Club, which Hanff joined (he would go on to become its president, serve on its board of directors, and assume his current position as chair of its budget committee.)

By the time he enrolled at UC Santa Barbara, Hanff had acquired an impressive collection of books, which he carried with him to his dorm to start bibliographical cataloging. “Yes, I was a weird kid,” Hanff says, noting that his high school librarian’s graduation present to him was Fredson Bower’s Principles of Bibliographical Description, and that his parents “were concerned that as a young adult I was still collecting children’s books.” They didn’t totally warm up to the idea until his sophomore year in college, when the university library awarded him first prize in The Edwin Corle Memorial Book Collection Contest. He had entered the contest with “trepidation of potential humiliation,” so when he went to the library reception, he was surprised to find that his parents had taken his siblings out of school in Los Angeles and had driven to Santa Barbara to congratulate him.

Seizing the moment, he persuaded his parents to host the first West Coast Oz Convention at their home in 1964—a con that would from then on would be held annually. It was at this first event that Hanff met senior Oz club members that he had only known from correspondence, and, thrillingly, Edna Baum, widow of L. Frank Baum’s second son Robert, and Elizabeth Baum, widow of L. Frank Baum’s first son. “It was like meeting royalty,” Hanff recalls. He became close with Edna and took great pleasure in identifying and organizing her family collection of Baum’s books.

The convention would later come to be known as “Winkie Con,” after the people of the West in the Land of Oz. Fans attending the cons would share collecting lore as well as book and biographical history. The cons would also feature special guests, like five of the little people from the 1939 MGM Oz film. There were live performances of The Woggle Bug, based on The Marvelous Land of Oz (the second Oz book), a revival of the 1931 musical The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, and a staged version of The Yellow Knight of Oz.

Poster for Wizard of Oz

“The camaraderie and friendships of the group were always a major feature, and it was like having large family reunions year after year,” Hanff says.

So did he ever dress up as any characters from the Oz stories? “I fear the only costume I wore was a very conventional jacket and tie,” he says, “although once I dressed in black tie for a reading from L. Frank Baum’s letters to and from his publishers.” The reading was staged as a radio broadcast, and Hanff read scripts with a fellow club member, along with L. Frank Baum’s great grandson, Bob Baum.

Hanff has written several essays featured in the Oz Club’s journal, The Baum Bugle, and in 1976 he co-wrote Bibliographia Oziana: A Concise Bibliographical Checklist of the Oz Books by L. Frank Baum and His Successors. Hanff is most proud of Cyclone on the Prairies, which he spent five years traveling coast-to-coast researching before it was published in 2011. It’s a leaf-book, with each of the 300 limited edition copies possessing a leaf from a first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Though Hanff says he doesn’t wear his love for Oz on his sleeve, when the subject of collecting books comes up, he loves talking about it. And according to Oz Club auctioneer Bill Thompson, Hanff’s enthusiasm is contagious. The two met at Thompson’s first Oz Club convention in 2000, although he had been a subscribing member of the club for almost 10 years before that, and they clicked immediately.

“We had a three-way conference call once that lasted for hours while we analyzed the order in which the colors were printed for a particular Baum cover,” Thompson recalls. “I still smile about that, because it was as nerdy as you can get, but it was thrilling to figure out, and it taught me much about color print technology of 100 years ago.”

That same attention to detail is reflected in Hanff’s home: The entry hall table features a “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” poster, a replica of the Wicked Witch of the West’s hourglass as seen in the movie (yes, he points out, it has fine red sand in it), and a hand-crafted wooden sawhorse representing the Sawhorse introduced in the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. His fireplace mantle is decorated with figurines of Oz characters, and on the piano rests a replica of the witch’s castle.

Peter Hanff giving a lecture
Peter Hanff still revels in the wonderful world of Oz.

So what is it about these Oz stories that makes them so compelling to some readers, even into adulthood? Thompson says they harken back to a different time and a different way of thinking about the world. “Think of TV from the 1950s and how that differs from the TV of today—it wasn’t as “savvy” and hip—and then double the time difference, making a similar leap in the way we look at life and each other, and you begin to understand the appeal of literature that doesn’t ask us to think too deeply about textures, motivations, and results,” he notes. “Baum wrote about a world where different is remarkable, interesting, and not to be mistrusted without good reason. Contrast that to the fear-mongering media and politicos of today. Every Ozian I know has their own set of reasons for enjoying Oz as adults, but a part of every one of them has to do with the freedom that it assumes and encourages—many facets of freedom are involved here.

Describing his favorite scene in the Oz stories, Hanff fondly recalls Umbrella Island in Speedy in Oz.

“Umbrella Island floats above the earth and has a small kingdom on it; it is navigated by mechanical controls (as I remember it at any rate), but to people on the earth below, it seems simply to be a cloud in the sky,” Hanff writes in an email. “I can remember looking at clouds in my childhood wondering if one might be Umbrella Island (hoping that one actually was, I’m certain).” 

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