LITTLE PEOPLE…HUMONGOUS HEARTS – Part Eight

 

Wamego#31

Jan 16, 2015    LITTLE PEOPLE…HUMONGOUS HEARTS – Part Eight

[At left: Munchkin-by-Marriage and vaudeville legend Olive Brasno Wayne gets into pucker position at the Chesterton, Indiana, Oz Festival in September 1994; Sandie Shane and yours truly are suitably impressed. At right: A year or so earlier (and also in Chesterton), I’m pictorially grabbed while autographing the then-new book, JUDY GARLAND: WORLD’S GREATEST ENTERTAINER. The blessed “surroundees” are Munchkins Karl Slover, Margaret Pellegrini, Lewis Croft, and Clarence Swensen (here, as ever, with wife Myrna, another Munchkin-by-Marriage). The elfin movie stars of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 THE WIZARD OF OZ were captured in tens of thousands of such photographs during their personal appearances, beginning circa 1985 and wrapping up in 2013. This is the last in a series of eight consecutive blogs (I’d originally thought it could be accomplished in three…) that I’ve submitted since Thanksgiving in an attempt to recount some of the Munchkin experiences I’ve been honored to enjoy -- and some of the Munchkin memories that have accrued -- over the twenty-five seasons of special occasions we shared. As noted in preceding entries, my journalese herein is strictly limited to subjective memoir. For those who seek additional and/or specific biographical information about the extraordinary “little people who live(d) in this land,” I wholeheartedly encourage you to now seek out the Stephen Cox book, THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2002) -- and next to anticipate its even-more expanded revision when Steve again sends it to market at some point in the future.]

 

 

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As has become vividly obvious to anyone who follows these writings, I seem to possess an abundance of Munchkin recollections!  I know, however, that my predilection for recall will be completely understood by any fellow Oz aficionados who had the honor of spending time with the “little people” though the years; I’ll even venture that any alternate fan reminiscences would be as preeminently joyous -- and equally, richly emotional -- as my own.

 

That being acknowledged, I’ve postponed some supremely favorite personal remembrances until this week’s “finale”….

 

One of our very best celebrations took place in September 2009, when Warner Home Video brought its superlative promotional forces to bear on a seventieth-anniversary WIZARD OF OZ press junket, invitational party, and public screening, right here on my own turf in New York City. Their publicity push launched both the first Blu-ray edition of MGM’s OZ (I’d worked for several months to co-create and/or supply the extras for that deluxe release) and the new book, THE WIZARD OF OZ: AN ILLUSTRATED COMPANION TO THE TIMELESS MOVIE CLASSIC, coauthored by Jonathan Shirshekan and myself.

 

The unquestioned focal point of the four-day fête was the participation throughout of Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, and – especially -- the five surviving performers who’d pranced their way across the Munchkinland set of OZ some seventy-one years earlier: Townswoman Ruth Duccini, Lollipop Guild “Center” Jerry Maren, Sleepyhead/Flowerpot Dancing Villager Margaret Pellegrini, Coroner Meinhardt Raabe, and First Trumpeter Karl Slover. After an initial session of five or six hours of print, radio, and video interviews, we all adjourned to prep for the exclusive evening bash at Central Park’s Tavern on the Green. There, Lorna and her diminutive compatriots posed in the basket of a six-story-tall, hot air OZ balloon, tethered in the parking lot; they walked the “yellow brick carpet” for more media encounters; and, after dinner, geared up for a unique live appearance before several hundred invited guests.

 

Beyond the pleasure of introducing Lorna in a buoyant WIZARD OF OZ medley (assembled for the date by her husband, pianist/conductor Colin Freeman), I was also privileged to serve as emcee for what turned out to be the show-stealing “conversation with the Munchkins.” Each of the five delivered a greeting to the crowd; it was a rowdy zoo of a party, but there was no mistaking the delight created by the actors’ presence in that maelstrom of supposedly-inured-to-it-all Manhattan sophisticates!

 

The next day, we did further live and taped interviews, most notably for several Sirius and National Public Radio programs. Karl is captured at the close of one such stint in this video clip:  http://youtu.be/RvT2A9OXDP4  Our final stop, late in the afternoon and all the way downtown, came at the offices of NEWSWEEK, where the by-then-definitely-weary troupers (mostly) rallied and talked for the magazine’s staff and cameras: http://youtu.be/A5s8LURnmpc

 

But the unquestioned highlight came on Saturday morning, when OZ was given an outstanding Blu-ray theatrical showing at Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center complex. Spike Lee was there; so (among other celebrities) was Jane Lahr, daughter of “Cowardly Lion” Bert Lahr, along with Michael Patrick Hearn, the preeminent -- and how! -- L. Frank Baum historian. (Baum, of course, was the author of the first fourteen Oz books.) Officers from the New York Film Festival and Warner Home Video made introductory comments, as did Lorna and – lastly -- I. But we all spoke from the podium; there was no accounting for the five chairs positioned to our left onstage. Then, at the end of my remarks, I was given the opportunity to “unleash” the surprise.

 

Believe it or not – and even given their preceding two decades-plus of cross-country traveling, autograph sessions, and festivals -- the surviving Munchkins had made no public appearances in New York City since Meinhardt Raabe and Mickey Carroll briefly participated in Macy’s gi-normous fiftieth anniversary “OZ Mania” in 1989. Several subsequently had been flown here to tape various television shows, but on those occasions, they were whisked in and out of the metropolis with minimal ceremony. Even on this Saturday in 2009, most of the thousand-strong throng in the hall weren’t aware that the Munchkins were in town.

 

Thus, when I started to present them, one by one – and they individually were escorted from the wings by Lorna and Ronnee Sass of Warner Bros. – the fever pitch in the auditorium went straight up to (and then through) the ceiling. The sudden realization of just who was coming out to face the assemblage instantly permeated the air; the audience exultation and exhilaration were palpable, tangible. An immediate low murmur instantaneously evolved into a roaring ovation, and everybody swiftly stood to cheer. It was as if their chairs had been electrified.

 

[I’m suddenly reminded of OZ director Victor Fleming, who was quoted in 1939 as saying that, whatever the actual age of any amidst the film’s spectators, he wanted them all to be exactly five years old while they watched the picture. There’s no question that, seven decades later, everybody at Lincoln Center immediately had been “juvenilized” by the presence of the little people.]

 

If the jive-some five-some (as we termed them) understandably had been worn out by the time they faced the NEWSWEEK cameras the preceding afternoon, they were – at 11 a.m. or so the next day – rested and primed for the experience and most certainly energized by the jubilation in the room. As a result, they inspired one of my mom’s classic phrases. She sometimes mixed metaphors in her later-life, sporadic moments of dementia, yet she still found ideal, and often funny, combinations of words in the process. Sitting among the Alice Tully multitude, she merrily summarized the Munchkins’ presentation and performance levels: They were, Dottie Fricke opined, “hitting on all syllables”!

 

The onlookers, of course, were on-site to see THE WIZARD OF OZ, so those of us in charge of the prelude had been instructed to keep things tight. Under the circumstances, this was best for the little people as well, so I took the hand mic, sat on the floor next to each chair in turn, and asked a specific question for which that particular Munchkin had an ever-ready response. Margaret discussed Christmas 1938 on the OZ set, MGM’s gift to Judy Garland, and Judy’s gifts to the Munchkins. Meinhardt sweepingly and bombastically kicked across his character’s (dubbed) couplet from the picture: “As coroner, I must aver….,” and Jerry sang the Lollipop Guild chorus. Ruth recalled her proudest professional achievement; this had nothing to do with OZ but came later, in the early-to-mid 1940s, when her petite stature made it possible for her to work on the narrowest interiors of World War II fighter aircraft as a “Rosie the Riveter.”  Finally, Karl brought the whole episode to a glorious, uplifting conclusion by doing what he’d done back in 1938:  When visitors came to the Munchkinland set, director Fleming would introduce them and ask the miniature Slover to give them an a cappella rendition of one of the new songs from the OZ score, “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”

 

There’s no better one-word designation of that morning but the highly-appropriate “magical.”

 

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So…there we have it: eight installments of Munchkin memories, and I don’t think I need to point out that there are others that could be shared! Some of this reportage, of course, is tinged with bittersweet, as we’ve had to say a final goodbye to all but one of these little legends since the onset of the fellowship. There were shocks along that route, too, in the unexpected passings of Munchkins-by-Marriage Marie Raabe and Elizabeth Maren; a car accident took the first and a swift illness took the second. Another Munchkin-by-Marriage, Elizabeth Cottonaro, didn’t find us until after husband Tommy had passed, but we enjoyed her company while we could.

 

There are, however, still several of those stalwart women out-and-about. Mary Ellen St. Aubin’s husband Pernell had been a Munchkin soldier, and she still blithely travels to events in and around Chicago, where they’d settled together. On request, Anna Mitchell Cucksey shares stories of her husband, Munchkin Villager Frank. And Clarence Swensen’s beloved Myrna remains a staple at the Chittenango OZ-Stravaganza!, trekking from her home in Texas to upstate New York on an annual basis every June.

 

Also, one doesn’t want to forget to recognize the surviving “Munchkids” – eight or ten Hollywood professional dancers who, as girls aged nine or so, filled in the gaps in the OZ song-and-dance production numbers on Metro’s Stage 27 in December 1938. These included Joan Kenmore Bernhoft, Viola White Banks, and Raynelle Lasky. Betty Ann Cain Bruno graced an early Chesterton Festival back in the 1990s; Priscilla Montgomery Clark and Elaine Merk Binder took a bow from mid-auditorium at the OZ seventy-fifth anniversary re-premiere in Hollywood in September 2013. The surrounding OZ devotees sent up a yell for the two women that shook the newly-refurbished Chinese Theatre.

 

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A few final thoughts: one sentimental, one risqué, and one familial!

 

SENTIMENTAL:   Clarence Swensen was an outstanding favorite of the greater OZ family; he’d directly kiss all the girls and heartily embrace all the men, while Myrna looked on in quiet, watchful pride. It was he who had the perfect capper to any Oz fest staging, and – after he’d recreate the Munchkin Soldier “goosestep” from the film – I’d always ask him to deliver the verbal grace notes to a crowd hanging on every motion and word. Texas accent unfurled, Clarence would declaim with utmost sincerity, “I want to thank the entire public… because THEY MADE US!”

 

(Over these last few seasons, I now proudly call upon Frank Baum’s great-grandson, Robert, to serve in Clarence’s stead and deliver his quote – with full Swensen credit -- as a “wrapper-upper.”)

 

RISQUE:   ‘WAY back in Part One of “Little People…Humongous Hearts,” I referenced the fact that an association with Soldier Gus Wayne and his Munchkin-by-Marriage, Oliver Brasno, led to one of the most happily hilarious and embarrassing incidents of my life. We first had met during the 1989 fiftieth anniversary “demonstrations” and reunited the following June at the airport in Minneapolis, where a delegation of Ozzy celebrities stopped en route to Grand Rapids, Judy Garland’s birthplace. The Waynes and I shared transportation to a Twin Cities hotel (and waiting press conference) with perhaps a half-dozen, very formally-dressed, young-to-middle-aged -- and obviously “non-Oz” -- businessmen. On that occasion, Olive was walking with a cane and had to very gingerly step into the small van with considerable assistance from Gus and myself. This was a new accoutrement for the normally, majorly mobile little woman; when the three of us had settled in, and the car was on its way, I asked what had happened.

 

Olive explained that she’d taken a major tumble earlier that year, and the complications to her frail bones were such that she’d been severely impaired ever since.  Apparently, she’d cracked herself out of a full plaster cast scant hours prior, determined to make the trip “to” Oz with Gus. (I should mention here that, throughout Olive’s discourse, the non-Oz businessmen were rustling newspapers and papers and folders in an attempt to maintain a blasé distance from the darling – if curious – company in which they found themselves. But they were obviously hanging on every word of her story.)

 

As I genuinely sympathized, Olive warmed to her anecdote and went into a detailed description of the heft, awkwardness, and discomfort of her just-discarded cast. It went from the tips of her toes all the way up her leg, barely coming to a stop at her hip -- and had been every bit of a rock-solid, foot/calf/thigh encasement. Gus reverently listed to her recounting, well aware that everyone in the van by that time was totally embroiled in the saga. Then, with a sudden, MAJOR twinkle in his eye, he finally contributed to the conversation in a voice that saturated the atmosphere:  “The first time I kissed her, I almost broke my glasses.”

 

There was a L-O-N-G pause. The Waynes then burst into laughter, as did I (although I was instantaneously redder than my hair). The poor businessmen? They harrumphed, coughed, and shifted violently in their seats – all the while feigning or maintaining their…what? Cool? Innocence? Lack of comprehension?

 

But it WAS funny – especially in that those two old show business troupers knew they’d knocked one WAY out of the park.

 

FAMILIAL:  Earlier, I mentioned the 2009 Tavern on the Green affair. That occasion marked what turned out to be my mom’s final visit to New York City; my sister, Patty, and I beamingly escorted her to the revelry. Her hair had been coiffed that afternoon, and she was wearing elegant black silk slacks and a beautifully beaded and sequined Chinese jacket. Prior to the onstage aspects of the event, we lounged in a set-apart, special guests’ “green room” with Lorna, the Munchkins, and a number of others. The latter group included several young New York City models and soap opera actresses, all done up to lend glamour to the gala.

 

At a juncture during dinner service, one of those young lovelies took it upon herself to approach my 4’9” mom, who was quietly enjoying her meal. Timidly but determinedly, the beautiful (if not necessarily bright) girl looked down at tiny, stunning, eighty-five year old Dottie Fricke and, with glassy-eyed enthusiasm, blurted:  “I just had to tell you…YOU were MY FAVORITE in the movie.”

 

And Dottie (a life-long schoolteacher from Milwaukee) looked up at her and – with great simplicity and noblesse oblige – replied:

“THANK you.”

 

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(And a new topic next week!)

 
 

Article by John Fricke

 

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