Wamego #27





[Note: The photos above, respectively, were taken in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when two of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s WIZARD OF OZ Munchkins appeared as noteworthy guests at conventions held by The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. At left, we see “two guys from Wisconsin”: “Coroner” Meinhardt Raabe, a native of Watertown, and yours truly, born and bred in Milwaukee. At right, the indefatigable and unforgettable Margaret Pellegrini – “Flowerpot Dancing Townswoman” and “Sleepyhead” – joins me, Club officer Peter Hanff, and an unidentified junior-league Ozian. In keeping with such art, today’s blog is the fourth chronological installment in a series about the Munchkin OZ performers of 1939, and it’s strictly a personal memoir. Those who seek specific biographical information about the extraordinary “little people who live[d] in this land” are gleefully directed to THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ by Stephen Cox (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2002). As in the last three entries -- and probably through at least a couple more in addition to this one -- I’m simply writing to recount some of the Munchkin experiences I was honored to enjoy (and some of the Munchkin memories that have accrued) across the twenty-five years of special events we shared.]


As has been noted here in recent weeks, it was the 1989 fiftieth anniversary whoopla for MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ that brought global attention to more than a dozen of the film’s surviving Munchkin cast members. No one then, however, could have predicted the subsequent public fascination that was quickly (and thereafter continually) manifested with regard to those diminutive actors. For the next two decades and beyond, the magnitude and “promote-ability” of their newfound or regained celebrity led to rabid recognition by literally hundreds of thousands of fans of all ages. There were, as a result, Munchkin documentaries, autobiographies, and – principally -- countless highly-publicized and widely-attended personal appearances.


My own recollections of the men and women of Munchkinland now make for a colossal kaleidoscope of much-appreciated encounters. Beginning in 1989 and continuing until last year, various Munchkin “representatives” and I worked together (and/or socialized) at:

  •     major Oz festivals in at least five different towns;
  •     International Wizard of Oz Club Conventions on both the East and West Coasts and in the Midwest;
  •     banquets and parties cross-country – specifically staged with a vintage Hollywood or Oz  theme;   
  •     random screenings of the 1939 film;
  •     book and home video “launches” – from the Racine (Wisconsin) “Christmas House for Cancer” to the home entertainment software convention in Las Vegas, and to Macy’s               Department Store, the Museum of Modern Art, the stage of Lincoln Center, and the Tavern on the Green restaurant – all in New York City;
  •     and on a Caribbean cruise.



As a consequence, the following thoughts are best summarized by a line of Judy Garland’s dialogue in A STAR IS BORN: “Everything just runs together, all over the place….it’s all jumbled.”


But I do recall United States Naval Lieutenant Daniel Kinske and his 2002 trip to New York City from Florida – bringing Meinhardt Raabe to town solely to pose for legendary entertainment caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. That drawing turned out to be one of Hirschfeld’s final creations; the ninety-nine year old artist died a few months later. But his image of Raabe in official guise as OZ “Coroner” then served as the cover of Meinhardt’s lavishly designed and art-crammed autobiography, MEMORIES OF A MUNCHKIN, coauthored with Lt. Kinske (New York: Back Stage Books, 2005). I’ll never forget Raabe’s pride in that hardcover treasury, especially after hearing -- across many years and meetings -- his candid and forthright opinions about some of the earlier Oz historians and their merchandise. Fortunately, he was partial to the output of Fricke and of Steve Cox; one did not want to be on the receiving end of the declarative dismissal he felt for an author whose name he never got right in recollection but who was forever disdained, in Meinhardt-ese, as “Jean Hormosa.”


Raabe possessed a wonderful memory bank when it came to tales of his participation in Metro’s OZ and selflessly shared them with partisans and interviewers. Additionally – and ever in character as the gentleman we fondly dubbed “The Mercenary Munchkin” -- he consistently remained on the prowl for further photo-selling and autograph opportunities.  But his presence and willing repetition of the Coroner’s couplet (as penned by lyricist E. Y. “Yip” Harburg for the eight-minute “Munchkinland” musical segment of the picture) was an integral highlight of innumerable OZ events. It should be acknowledged as well that Raabe’s eternally patient wife, Marie, was the genial, gracious buffer who kept him in line and, when necessary, diffused the long out-of-fashion, patriarch-age behavior he’d learned as a boy, growing up on his grandparents’ farm. Marie endured as both the omnipotent observer and conscience “behind the throne,” and she and her husband comprised a solid team.


If Marie Raabe tempered Meinhardt, there’s no doubt that it was Elizabeth Maren who motivated and supplied much of the power source for her own husband, Jerry. The “Lollipop Guild” kid-in-the-middle was, of course, a font of fun and camaraderie all on his own, and a champion of interplay with the devotees who approached him -- particularly the youngsters. Omnipresent cigar at hand, he ceaselessly signed pictures and posed for photos, although truth be told, Jerry’s concentration at times drifted to the prospect and promise of televised sporting events back in his hotel room! But Maren aficionados knew and venerated his character from the OZ movie with more up-front affection than they initially demonstrated for any other Munchkin, and Jerry blossomed in their reflected joy. He was the second of the minute OZ players to pen an autobiography -- this with the assistance of Steve Cox. Their bountifully-illustrated work reached book stalls in 2008 via Cumberland House as SHORT AND SWEET: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE LOLLIPOP MUNCHKIN. (Elizabeth Maren’s teasing and intentionally irreverent comment about the three-word, principal title: “Well, it’s half-right, anyway….”)


Jerry’s feisty showmanship occasionally led to cherished, once-in-a-lifetime episodes. Circa 1989, he joined fellow Munchkin Fern Formica and several others at an Oz signing in Topeka, Kansas, followed by food and relaxation at a private home later in the evening. The “Lollipop” Kid and “Dancing Milkmaid” began to reminisce about their initial Ozzy meeting in an MGM rehearsal hall – and how, a season or two afterward, they teamed up for a double act, designed to play nightclubs and theaters. Evidently, the professional partnership was short-lived, but on request and despite the forty-nine intervening years, Jerry spryly rose from that dining room table, took Fern by the hand, and encouraged her to join him in a recreation of one of their routines. He positioned himself on the adjacent foyer landing; she dashed around the corner to wait for her cue. A cappella, Jerry began to sing her 1940 entrance music, the old musical comedy classic, “Irene”: “I-rene…a lit-tle bit of salt and sweet-ness! I-rene! A dain-ty slip of rare com-plete-ness! Mann-er-ism! Mag-ne-tism! Eyes of youth in-vi-ting! Dan-cing by, with glan-cing eye…. Tipp-e-ty-witch I-rene O’Dare!” By bar four, the duo was arm-in-arm, parading across the living room parquet in a sweetly-reprised bit of ageless show business.


Jerry regularly took part in the informal panel discussions that proved to be a popular segment of many Oz festivals beginning in 1989; at such moments, I was privileged to take stage as moderator to the attending Munchkins. Unfortunately, these festivities often came after hours of their autograph sessions and promotions, and Jerry suffered the added burden of starting some of those days as the early-morning host of fund-raising golf outings with local investors. By seven o’clock, he was generally grumbling and more than ready to retreat for the evening. But he respectfully soldiered through…until the memorable night when -- in his general exhaustion -- he let slip an inadvertent and cavalier four-letter word as punctuation to his otherwise circumspect reminiscences. There were instant gasps: from the other Munchkins, from the nonplussed emcee, from the rife-with-children audience, and from the suddenly-aware Jerry himself. Then there was one, brief “beat” of silence….and an ensuing, laughter-punctuated, show-stopping round of applause. Suffice it to say that Jerry’s singular charm not only made the salty language momentarily palatable to everyone, it also, invariably, brought down the house.


Then there was the time in 2009 when we both were to be interviewed at the prestigious Los Angeles theater of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Jerry went on first; I was sitting in the front row, scheduled to be separately brought forward to answer questions and introduce a showing of the OZ film.


Certainly, it always presented a challenge to appear after a Munchkin, but (as it turned out) never so much as on that outstanding occasion. At the conclusion of his droll, ingratiating exchange with an AMPAS official – and all the while seated onstage -- Jerry received a prolonged ovation. He grinned, nodded his head, and waved again and again in gratitude. But the audience couldn’t be controlled, and they continued to roar their adoration.


Finally, he graciously rose to take a bow – and his pants fell down to his ankles.


Try to follow that.


Coming up! A little more about Jerry…and Betty Tanner, Nels Nelson, and Lewis Croft. Plus: Remembering Ruth Duccini, Karl Slover, and Clarence and Myrna Swensen. Not to mention the night Margaret Pellegrini slept with my head on her bosom. And My (Probably) Most-Embarrassing-Moment-Ever…with Gus and Olive Wayne.

                                                                (to be continued—obviously!)


Article by John Fricke


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