Researcher Story: Michelle Farrell

Michelle Farrell. Photo courtesy of the author.

Michelle Farrell has been writing since she won a citywide contest in the fourth grade for an essay titled ”What America Means to Me.” Later, as a journalist in New Hampshire, her favorite stories were about what brings people and places together, a theme she pursues now as a freelance writer. Her latest story, researched at the Library, explores the experiences of W.W. Denslow, the original illustrator of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” in Bermuda. Denslow bought an island there in the early 1900s using royalties from his works.

Tell us a little about your writing career.

Most of my career was spent at a newspaper in southern New Hampshire, just up the highway from where I grew up in central Massachusetts. An expat journey through London and Bermuda came next. Twenty years after that adventure began, I host my own web site, combining all my different worlds.

What drew you to W.W. Denslow?

I started my research after a friend told me that Bermuda sunsets had inspired the yellow brick road in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” The timing of that tale isn’t right — Denslow arrived in Bermuda after “Oz” — but I was intrigued just the same.

Later, I took a tour boat ride with some visitors. Our guide pointed out the white turreted house that Denslow lost in 1911 when his money ran out and the island fantasy ended. Off I went to find out more.

Farrell’s work at the Library. Photo: Michelle Farrell.

What collections did you use at the Library?

First, I read the score for “The Pearl and the Pumpkin” in the Performing Arts Room. The 1905 songbook is a record of Denslow’s musical extravaganza, a show inspired by his new island home. Denslow designed the scenes and costumes for what was supposed to be his next-big-thing — a spectacle to rival “Oz.”

In taking the time to read the old songbook firsthand, I had hoped to find a link — in lyrics, in tone, in color — to his beloved Bermuda.

Second, I requested a playbill from the Library’s Theater Playbills Collection from December 1905. This is when the musical played at the New National Theatre in Washington, D.C. The playbill’s detailed scene list hints at a Bermuda vibe, ending, “On the South Shore, midnight” — one of the loveliest nighttime settings I know. Perhaps the fairy-tale artist felt the same.

Third, I looked at the digital collection of “The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairy Tale,” a 2000 exhibit at the Library. For my research, two pieces in the collection stood out.

First, there was “Oz” author L. Frank Baum’s letter to his brother Harry in April 1900 anticipating the upcoming publication of “Oz” later that year. “Denslow has made profuse illustrations for it and it will glow with bright colors,” Baum wrote. Later, he would seek to downplay his illustrator’s contributions, according to research cited in my article.

Second, there was a copyright registration filed in the U.S. Copyright Office with both men’s names inked in. The two collaborators would later disagree on just what that copyright permitted. Baum, for example, felt Denslow had no right to use the “Oz” images in his later works.

What was your experience like at the Library?

As a first-time Library user, I was a bit in awe, but there was no need for me to be intimidated. Even a beginner is treated like a scholar.

Can you comment of the value of the Library’s collections to researchers?

Viewing the original documents for me was invaluable, although perhaps on more of an emotional versus scholarly level. I could have saved myself the trouble and viewed the score and the playbill online. But reading the pieces firsthand helped me to find some of that long-ago island wonder that captivated the “Oz” artist.

For example, there’s the musical piece “Lily White” near the end of the musical. It was inspired by the cultivated lilies in Bermuda and maybe the wild ones around Denslow’s island home with its sunset views. With a little imagination, I could picture those same flowers on the browned pages dancing on Broadway more than 100 years ago.

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