Dec 26, 2014 LITTLE PEOPLE…HUMONGOUS HEARTS – Part Five
[Note: The two photographs above are discussed within today’s text. But for those who might be visiting here for the first time, I should explain up-front that we’re currently in the midst of a series of blogs about the Munchkin movie performers of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 THE WIZARD OF OZ. That being said, the journalese at hand is strictly comprised of “personal memoir,” which is why this week’s pictures are about as intra-family as can be; you’ll see what I mean as you read along! Meanwhile, the preceding four entries have attempted 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 years of special events we shared. I confess that there have been a lot more tales to relate than I’d initially imagined, and for those who by now would welcome a different Oz-centric topic, I’m fairly certain this one will conclude with the first postings of 2015. Finally, for any who seek additional and/or specific biographical information about the extraordinary “little people who live[d] in this land,” I definitely direct you to the Stephen Cox book, THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2002).]
As noted here in the blog for December 12th, Munchkin Townswoman Betty Tanner and Munchkin Villager Nels Nelson were among the eight WIZARD OF OZ cast members prominently featured in the 1993 home video documentary, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS. All provided exemplary on-camera interviews, which were photographed that September in the course of their participation in the annual Chesterton, Indiana, Oz Fest. Six months later, the same eight diminutive actors reconvened (along with the documentary’s creative staff) in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, for the promotional launch of the finished product. If I’m correctly remembering, the latter event marked the final OZ appearances for Betty and Nels. He died on May 2nd, 1994, within hours of returning home from the Gulf of Mexico; she passed away the following November 8th.
While in Indiana, however, both had delivered sterling, for-posterity remembrances of their MGM association. Nels was a unique amalgam of ardent, low-key comment and instant enthusiasm -- even while he manifested minor physical traces of encroaching health issues. His final statement registered as solid declamation, for despite a lengthy and diverse show-business career, he unconditionally synopsized, “THE WIZARD OF OZ has to rank right up at the top of all the things I’ve ever done. I think [it] stands out in my mind -- more than any other show.”
Betty managed a wider and even more significant perspective on the film and its potency, especially with regard to the Munchkin players: “Oh, I think making this picture was one of the greatest things ever done. Because it makes us people – the small people, the little people – [it] makes us feel great, because we are NOTICED. Usually, people don’t notice you. When I was little, when I was in the eighth grade, I was still smaller than the girl in the first grade. I was always the smallest one. And now [I’m] noticed. I wasn’t then. But today I’m noticed. Great! GOOD FEELING!”
For countless fans, for those who’d worked on the documentary – and, speaking personally, as someone who’d come to know more than a dozen MGM Munchkins at various times in the preceding three or four years -- the loss of Betty and Nels was intensely felt. But there also and certainly arose a measure of bittersweet gratitude that their Ozzy recollections and genuine passion had been captured and preserved.
Soon after his contributions to the shoot and that initial marketing junket for WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS, Soldier Lewis Croft also suffered a health setback and retired from the OZ circuit. As a result, his brief, surprise return – to the 2006 Chesterton festival – made for a wondrous, emotion-packed reunion. My memory now is that I wasn’t aware he’d agreed to attend; his presence was a genuine stunner. When I saw Lewis “materialize” at the first night, pre-festival dinner – jauntily perched in a wheelchair and completely the self-same, genial and welcoming gentleman he’d always been in the past — it brought on the kind of heavy-duty response I had to leave the room to handle. (Okay, okay: I’ve always been a weeper when something blissful catches me off-guard! Others who have been privileged to spend time with an OZ Munchkin during these last twenty-five years will, I’m sure, comprehend that reaction.) Lewis’s amiable mien throughout the weekend echoed his overall delight about MGM’s OZ as expressed in the documentary three years earlier: “Yeah. I’m very, very proud to be in it.” He left us less than two years later but once more made headlines as recently as last month when his Munchkin soldier jacket sold at the Bonhams/Turner Classic Movie auction in New York City. With a measure of Ozian magic, it’ll someday be shared with the greater Oz community – a showcase I feel certain would again make Lewis “very, very proud,” indeed.
I’d become, by this point in the early-to-mid-1990s, a most fortunate and blessed WIZARD OF OZ fan. Since 1987, there had been invitations to produce or participate in projects that ranged from books and documentaries to VHS, laser disc, and compact disc releases. I’d lectured and emceed as a virtually annual participant in the cross-country International Wizard of Oz Club Conventions and the Oz Festivals in Chesterton, Chittenango (New York), and Grand Rapids (Minnesota). One of the supreme pleasures in all this came with the magnificently unavoidable time spent in working with – and being befriended by -- fellow Munchkins attendees. As both an OZ Sleepyhead and Flowerpot Dancing Townswoman, Margaret Pellegrini would later, kindly write, “[John] always sees that we’re looked after. He knows the questions to ask, so audiences hear our best stories. Eventually, we made him an honorary Munchkin!”
In this case, familiarity bred jubilation – and sassiness. The Munchkins, en masse, quickly learned about my earlier career as an entertainer and about my predilection for plain (and only plain!) M&M Candies. There was, in fact, a “special material” song about my chocolate addiction, included in many of the concerts or cabaret acts I performed, and the Munchkins came to request it whenever a Fricke show was scheduled as Oz fest programming. The silliness and tongue-in-cheek, confessional aspect of its lyric had made the routine a general audience pleaser, but there soon developed a noticeable difference in crowd feedback to “The M&M Song” if I sang it with Munchkins “in the house.” Invariably, at the grand finale of the number, the OZ gang stood up at their ringside seats and augmented any other spectator applause by pelting me with a score or more of tiny packets of M&Ms.
Those little people of OZ possessed, I might add, the collective and unerring aim of a prize-winning soft-ball team, and I think we all basked in their celebratory “Let’s get Fricke! And simultaneously give him dessert!” treatment -- everywhere from a Liberal, Kansas, nightclub in 1990 to the stage floor of a Caribbean cruise liner in 2002. Yet the Munchkin moment that here delivers the most potent pride is one for which I wasn’t even on hand, although the retelling thereof has long-since become a Favorite Fricke Family legend!
For several years circa 2003, the Milwaukee suburb of Greendale, Wisconsin, sponsored an annual, one-day OZ festival. Milwaukee is my hometown, and I’ve frequently returned there to visit (if pretty much actually living away since 1969). My mom, Dottie, however, resided there from the early 1940s until her passing last year. My brother Michael and sister-in-law Linda relocated back around 1991 but only went as far as nearby Campbellsport; at the time of this anecdote — just a decade or so in the past -- their two youngest daughters, Noel and Haley, were still at home.
Dottie by then had met the Munchkins several times -- in California, New York, Indiana, and on the 2002 cruise. My nieces, however, had not. Thus, when the Greendale affair was announced, Dottie, Linda, and the two little girls were in the bleachers along the parade route, eagerly anticipating the “pass-by” of Margaret Pellegrini, Munchkin Soldier Clarence Swensen, and his Munchkin-by-Marriage wife, Myrna. As luck would have it, the vehicle transporting the denizens of Oz pulled up for a brief stop just opposite the spot where the Frickes had congregated.
My four-foot, eleven-inch mom jumped up and called out, “Hi, Margaret! Hi, Myrna! Hi, Clarence!” The effect on the Munchkins is rapturously captured in the first photograph above: “DOTTIE!” they caroled and pointed. Then, compounding the mutual exhilaration, the three little people clambered down from their respective perches on the rear of their car. Simultaneously, my mom scrambled down from the stands, and the four of them held a mid-street hug-fest as hundreds of observers wondered at the serendipity of it all.
A little later, the Munchkins arranged for the Frickes to slip into their autograph session in advance of the general public. My two nieces (Haley between Margaret and Clarence, and Noel between Clarence and Myrna) thus had the opportunity to meet and pose with three very good, very treasured, and very, very kind friends.
(to be continued)
Article by John Fricke