Dec 12, 2014 LITTLE PEOPLE…HUMONGOUS HEARTS – Part Three
[Note: The photo above shows two Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Munchkin cast members who were among the very first to travel to and make appearances at WIZARD OF OZ events and festivals, some five decades after they worked in the 1939 motion picture. At left is Fern Formica; seated next to her is Margaret Pellegrini. Both played dual roles in OZ and can be seen in the movie as Dancing Townswomen as well as “Sleepyheads” in the oversized Munchkinland nest. The three of us were snapped together at a May 1990 wrap party, capping my initial trip to Chittenango, NY -- the birthplace of Oz “Royal Historian” L. Frank Baum. This week’s blog is the third chronological installment in a series about the Munchkin OZ performers, and it’s strictly a brief, personal memoir. Those who seek specific biographical information about the extraordinary “little people who live[d] in this land” are well-directed to THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ by Stephen Cox (Cumberland House, 2002). As in the last two entries -- and probably across at least two more beyond this one -- I’m simply writing to recall some of the Munchkin experiences I was privileged to enjoy (and some of the Munchkin memories that have accrued) across the twenty-five years of promotional and special events we shared.]
If my memory is correct, the idea for a documentary about the MGM Munchkin actors originated in late 1992 or early 1993. John Anderson then was a young film producer and teacher who chanced to see the 1989 first edition of Stephen Cox’s book, THE MUNCHKINS REMEMBER, on the classroom desk of Eric Wickwire. One of John’s students, Eric was an Oz aficionado who’d previously attended a couple of the annual festivals (which were, at that time, expanding in a major way in at least four United States locations). I believe John originally approached Steve himself about the idea of working with Anderson and Wickwire on a production that would secure for posterity the reminiscences of the surviving Munchkins. When Steve proved unavailable, Eric brought me into the mix, and it was arranged that John, his wife Kim, Eric, and ace videographer Paul Combel would attend -- and join me at -- the September 1993 OZ weekend in Chesterton, IN. This provided the opportunity to shoot four days of notable, Ozzy events, as well as photograph each of the eight little people in attendance while they were individually interviewed at length by an off-camera Fricke.
Primed in advance and agreeing to participate, the Munchkins brought with them to Chesterton a raft of select memorabilia, which was also to be shown in the movie. Combel and camera went into immediate, ongoing overdrive. He eventually captured such moments as the Munchkins’ arrival at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport; their check-in at their Indiana hotel (as they perched atop a special staircase that enabled them to climb up to -- and sign in at -- the front desk); their “grand march” into the opening night banquet; their smiles and waves from a flatbed float or other decorated conveyance in the next morning’s parade; and their mingling and kibitzing with countless fans who lined up in the rain to attend one of the Munchkin autograph parties.
The accumulated footage was colorful, engaging, entertaining, and historical, with much credit to Paul, and much gratitude to the willing energies and input of the Munchkins themselves. In 1993, each of these little people was “hitting on all syllables” (as my mom once -- inadvertently but omnisciently -- mixed her metaphors to phrase it). Their assorted anecdotes and observations were enthralling.
With a dozen or more hours of raw material from which to draw, I joined the creative team in New Orleans about a month later. There – in a matter of just four or five days – the show was scripted, we filmed the on-camera “host” segments at a local PBS-TV studio, and I recorded the voice-over narration. Working pretty much nonstop, John, Kim, Paul, and I assembled the rough cut of what became a seventy-seven minute celebration. This involved structuring and “stacking” (by topic) the recollections of our eight principals; planning the inner-cutting of stills, vintage newspaper clippings, ads, and scrapbook items; laying down appropriate clips from the MGM picture; and etc.
For the record, our on-camera interviewees were Lewis Croft (Soldier), Jerry Maren (the center “little tough boy” of The Lollipop Guild), Nels Nelson (Munchkin Townsman), Margaret Pellegrini (see above), Meinhardt Raabe (Coroner), Karl Slover (First Trumpeter), Clarence Swensen (Soldier), and Betty Tanner (Dancing Townswoman). We were fortunate to amass such a troupe, and we were sorry only to miss a couple of women who would have added so much to the proceedings: Fern Formica -- at that point battling the emphysema that would take her life some sixteen months later -- was no longer travelling, and Ruth Duccini then was the at-home caregiver for Fred, her cherished husband of fifty years. (Ruth returned as a sporadic presence at Oz events after his passing in 1994; in her final public appearance, she was the supremely honored and very special guest at the 3D/IMAX re-premiere of OZ at Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre in September 2013.) Also missing from our interview roster was Townsman/Fiddler Mickey Carroll. He had been more-or-less eliminated from the project in advance, given his occasionally ill-timed and bombastic “showmanship” and some ever-taller tales about OZ and its filming. Furthermore, Mickey was associated at the time with a fairly obstreperous manager who preferred to book him as a solo act; thus, he wasn’t as regular in his group festival participation as the other OZ Munchkins.
Within a week of our rough-cut assemblage, what now was officially titled WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS was enthusiastically endorsed by Roger Mayer, the head of the Turner Entertainment Company. This cleared the way for the use of OZ clips and stills that already were part of our preliminary edit. Roger additionally made it possible for the Andersons to license selections from the OZ musical underscoring, which we employed to augment the narrative voices on our soundtrack. I made another quick trip to New Orleans in November 1993 to take part in the final polish, and – pretty much in seven or eight weeks, from start to finish – we’d realized the Andersons’ dream.
WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS debuted for sale ten months later at “the scene of the crime”: the Chesterton WIZARD OF OZ Days, in September 1994. I believe there were fifteen hundred VHS tapes actually duplicated, and these were produced in special, bright yellow casings in unspoken homage to a legendary brick road. Unfortunately, the distribution of the documentary never got much past that point and/or some mail-order transactions; a much-edited version eventually was prepared for showing on New Orleans PBS-TV. (These days, it’s sometimes possible to track down the complete video as – however illegally! -- transferred to disc by surreptitious fans and collectors.)
But the blessed aspect of it all is that the detailed commentary of eight Munchkins is therein preserved for all time. Thanks to this production, they got to tell their stories, in their own words…and in their prime. Earlier in 2014, we showed the last ten or so minutes of WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS “in commemoration” at the Wamego and Chittenango Oz events. Some of those watching could remember the honor of associating with the Munchkins “in person” at an earlier fete; others knew them only by reputation. But there was instantaneous and magical joy in the room for every viewer. And, as always, the little people of Oz – even in a filmed reappearance after many years – had the very best kind of happily tearful (or tearfully happy) impact.
I think it’s safe to say that they always will.
(to be continued)
Article by John Fricke