Nov 28, 2014 LITTLE PEOPLE…HUMONGOUS HEARTS – Part One
[Note: The photograph accompanying this week's blog was taken by a staff photographer during the Caribbean "Munchkin Cruise" in early spring 2002. Seated, from left to right: Margaret Pellegrini, Clarence Swensen, Karl Slover, and Meinhardt Raabe. Standing behind them, from left to right: Robert Baum (great-grandson of "Royal Historian of Oz" L. Frank Baum), Dorothy "Dottie" Fricke (my mom!), and John Fricke.]
The emotion prompting this week’s installment is tied into the holiday, of course. But for many of us, there are a number of annual and random calendar moments when a resounding “thanksgiving” is proffered, simply because we were privileged -- across these last twenty-five or more years -- to meet, work, and/or socialize with the surviving Munchkin cast members from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's THE WIZARD OF OZ.
There are approximately twenty-eight additional installments now scheduled for this blog, and many of them could be filled with the individual histories and remembrances of "the little people who live[d] in this land" -- from beloved Margaret Pellegrini and Fern Formica to Jerry Maren. The latter is (as of this writing, in his Southern California residence) the sole survivor of the one-hundred-and-twenty-plus tiny participants in OZ.
As far as that goes, however, the back-story of the movie’s diminutive stars already has been bountifully researched and beautifully presented by Stephen Cox in the three editions, to date, of his monumental book, THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ. I’m certainly not going to usurp Steve’s topic, and I do encourage one and all to seek out the most recent, expanded version of his classic work, as released in 2002 by Cumberland House. (Given the amount of additional information and art he’s turned up in the last dozen years, I know Steve also has been preparing a definitive revision; as soon as that’s good to go, you can count on it being heralded by me, the Oz Museum in Wamego, and many other outlets.)
Thus, this will not be a biographical account of any of the Munchkins. But I would like to craft today’s entry (and, I have a feeling, at least two to follow!) in gratitude and the aforementioned thanksgiving for the numerous personal memories they inspire.
I believe it was "Munchkin Coroner" Meinhardt Raabe who first became known to an active gathering of Oz fans. Back in the early 1970s, he read a brief newspaper notice that a weekend “Munchkin Convention” was going to be held near his home in Pennsylvania. Assuming the adjective referenced other height-challenged compatriots, he stopped by with his wife, Marie; imagine their surprise when they instead discovered scores of normally-sized -- if not exactly normal! – people, one and all members of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. [It should be noted that East Coast denizens of the society always have, quite logically (…), described themselves as Munchkins, for the Munchkin Country is the eastern quadrant of the Land of Oz.] But any initial discomfiture felt by the Raabes was instantly dispelled, as Meinhardt quickly was recognized as The Celebrity in the Munchkin midst. A year or so later, he returned and emerged as a prized speaker in his own more formal presentation. Assembled devotees marveled at his recollections, his generously-displayed assortment of vintage 1939 OZ lobby cards, and his first-rate scrapbook of M-G-M luminary photographs and autographs. By his own admission, Meinhardt’s most cherished item was the 8x10 black-and-white publicity pose signed to him in 1938 by “Dorothy Gale” herself: “To Meinhardt, a perfect coroner and a perfect person too,” with “love” from Judy Garland.
A decade passed before another major “Munchkin sighting,” and it was the detective efforts, enthusiasm, and trust-ability of fan/collector Tod Machin that made it happen. His superlative Oz mania had led him to track down Margaret Pellegrini, Munchkin Sleepyhead and Villager (of the blue flower-pot hat). With Tod’s urging and organization, Margaret and fellow OZ Townswomen Fern Formica and Hazel Resmondo reunited to take part in a civic event in Liberal, Kansas, in 1985 – the first semi-official Munchkin reunion.
Their quiet, yet extremely potent visibility slowly segued into appearances – for, initially, Meinhardt, Margaret, and Fern – at the fledgling Oz festivals in Liberal, and in Chesterton, IN, Chittenango, NY, and Grand Rapids, MN. (The last two of these are, respectively, the birthplaces of L. Frank Baum and Judy Garland.) I first met the ladies at the latter location in June 1989, where I was doing advance marketing for the fiftieth anniversary OZ “coffee table” book and the MGM/UA Home Video deluxe VHS tape, both of which were due to hit stores about eight weeks later. Meinhardt previously had kindly endorsed me because of our mutual Wisconsin upbringing, he near Watertown and I in Milwaukee -- albeit a few generations apart. Margaret and Fern were generous in their acceptance as well, especially as the next seven months repeatedly brought us together when that year’s Ozzy madness continued to burgeon.
If I’m correctly remembering, the biggest, most impressive single party of 1989 was tossed on a Saturday morning/afternoon in late August by MGM/UA. They then were located in a modern office building just across the street from the original M-G-M studio lot where OZ was produced. As a result, they commandeered the vast lobby of their workplace for the festivities, erected a rostrum and display area, offered video projections and speeches, and positioned a giant hot air balloon in the parking lot outside. Honored partakers included producer Jack Haley, Jr., the son of the film’s Tin Man; singer/actress Lorna Luft, Judy Garland’s daughter (who attended with her five-year-old son, Jesse); and – most delightful of all -- any Munchkins who could be corralled to travel and appear.
This was my first opportunity to meet a large group of OZ little people, and two incidents remain special to my heart. Munchkin Townswoman Alta Stevens took stage at one point; she was beautifully coiffed and dressed and seemingly awe-struck and wonderfully, movingly tremulous at her public reception. There was no dearer or more memorable moment, yet this would be the only, communal occasion to salute her, as she died just two weeks later. I would have loved to have spent more time with her.
The other exceptional encounter – which proved to be the first of many with this particular duo – occurred in the hospitality suite of the Century City hotel where MGM/UA had ensconced the lot of us for our promotional visit. The “reunioned” Munchkins were running rampant, although it should be stressed that (contrary to the mostly inaccurate legends about rambunctious behavior in 1938) their partying in 1989 evolved on entirely respectable levels! Yet there was an abundance of unbridled camaraderie in the room, and eventually, I was introduced to “Munchkin Soldier” Gus Wayne. He and his wife, the former Olive Brasno, were talking with their invited guest, an elderly, normal-sized man, and they invited me to join them. Listening to their theatrical reminiscences was thrilling, but it leapt to a whole other level of “wow!” for me when the older gentleman was identified as Buster Shaver. Suddenly, a conversation between Judy Garland and Donald O’Connor came careening into mind; it had taken place during the first telecast episode of her CBS-TV series on September 29, 1963. They had, in passing, discussed a famous vaudeville team of their youth: Buster Shaver with Olive and George (and sometimes Richard). The last-three named were sister and brothers, all little people, who’d made a solid career for themselves in show business. Among many other credits, Olive and George played husband-and-wife vaudevillians in the 1938 Shirley Temple movie musical, LITTLE MISS BROADWAY and had, in fact, turned down the opportunity to participate in THE WIZARD OF OZ, simply because they could make more money doing stage work than Metro was paying the Munchkins to perform in the film.
The fact that I recognized Mr. Shaver’s name – and Olive’s non-OZ identity – launched a friendship with her and husband Gus that prospered across several seasons. It also led to one of the funniest and most happily embarrassing incidents of my life!
(to be continued)
Article by John Fricke