Wamego #29


[Note: Above, at left:   First Trumpeter Karl Slover offers a laugh and clasp at the Chesterton, Indiana, Oz Festival in September 1994. At right: Roughly a decade later, the effects and privilege of a duo-Munchkin embrace are happily apparent. The “book-ending,” in this case, is provided by Soldier Clarence Swensen and Flowerpot Townswoman Margaret Pellegrini; it occurred during one of the regular Chittenango Oz celebrations in upstate New York. The Munchkin movie performers of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 THE WIZARD OF OZ posed for (quite literally) tens of thousands of such pictures during their personal appearances, beginning circa 1985 and wrapping up in 2013. This is the sixth consecutive blog 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 years of special events 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 seek out the Stephen Cox book, THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2002).]


As I’ve mentioned -- since late November! -- I originally thought I’d be able to relate my Munchkin stories in two or three of these installments. Yet every time I transcribed one anecdote, it seemed to bring to mind another, and I’ve consequently given free rein to the reminiscing. The rationale behind the rambling comes down to one undeniable fact: there is an abundance of (to use Margaret Pellegrini’s phrase) Munchkin Love out there, especially among the countless aficionados who encountered them “in person.”  I dare say we one and all cherish vivid recollections, and I hope these columns both please and “ring true” for those who participated in the depicted or similar occasions.

At this point, so much of what comes to mind is a mélange of overwhelming pleasure – or (mostly) pleasurable craziness!

A couple of episodes back, I referenced a few of the madcap carry-ons (as non-litigious a phrase as I can muster…) that were publicly perpetrated by Munchkin Townsman Mickey Carroll. In the decade prior to the regroupings and re-gatherings of the extant, diminutive MGM stars, Mickey often claimed to have portrayed either the Mayor of Munchkinland or the Village Coroner in the OZ motion picture. Those roles were enacted, in reality and respectively, by Charlie Becker and Meinhardt Raabe, but Mickey blithely signed photographs and labeled himself as the thespian in one or the other of those costumes. (Given the ongoing Carroll chicanery, it’s probably safe to venture that he would have maintained that he played both parts -- IF the two characters hadn’t obviously worked together while on-camera.) Eventually, Raabe himself came on the scene to sign his own photos, and the further surviving Munchkins clearly remembered Becker’s contribution.  Mickey therefore had to reconfigure his narrative, yet honesty pretty much continued to elude him in many of his successive, unrestricted pronouncements. He’d fictionally boast that: a) he ‘lived with Judy Garland” during the making of THE WIZARD OF OZ; b) he dubbed the voice of Clara Blandick’s “Auntie Em” as she caterwauled, “Dor-theee! DOR-theeeee!” during the cyclone sequence; and c) he provided singing voices on the OZ soundtrack for many of the Munchkin entertainers when they chanted (among various ancillary phrases), “Follow the Yellow Brick Road!”  As time went by, it was more and more difficult for those of us who’d been elected Ozzy festival spokespeople to put out all the fires, and Mickey himself was less and less inclined to acknowledge any wrong-doing. The irascibilities of age and illness didn’t help, and whenever he was around, all one could do was aspire to patience and try to rise above the fabrications, whether major or minor.

It was his fellow actors who unfortunately and often bore the close-up brunt of Carroll’s ceaseless proclamation. As a result, however, Munchkin Townswoman Ruth Duccini remains the heroine of an eternally-popular, behind-the-scenes “frictional” account that occurred at the Wamego, Kansas, Columbian Theatre during the concluding moments of OZ-toberfest a number of seasons back. She, Mickey, and two or three of their Munchkins cohorts were sitting onstage behind a closed curtain. Out front, some of the supplementary Ozian guests were making their farewells to a capacity throng; I was there with them, ready to next announce the OZ cast members for a grand finale. Suddenly, we heard a raft of fractious language, spilling out from behind the velour, and loud enough to carry into the auditorium itself. It seems that Ruthie -- who was grace, peace, and quiet personified but who also suffered no fools gladly (or otherwise) -- had finally, softly, and definitively told Mickey to cease-and-desist his endless exaggeration, inappropriate clowning, upstaging, lying, and noise. (As I recall, she didn’t say much more than a genteel version of “Shut UP!,” but the implications were clear!) There were immediate rumbles of concurrence from the rest of the Munchkins on hand, and Mr. Carroll howled into a series of curses and denunciations. After a LOT of fluttering fabric as he argumentatively stormed off-stage behind the draperies, he then popped out a side door at house left and -- honking and grousing in full view of the audience -- barreled down the auditorium staircase, careened up the aisle, and burst out of the theater.

(Now I KNOW it isn’t NICE to say this, but…no one minded!)

All of that aside, Mickey (when he chose) also could be thoughtful, kind, charismatic with kids, and generous-from-the-heart. His status as an MGM movie Munchkin was not his only claim to deserved historical fame in terms of the greater Oz legend. His family operated The Standard Monument Company in the St. Louis area for more than sixty years; Carroll himself took over its management after his retirement from active show business. In 1996, historian and researcher Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner located the 1898 headstone – by then in a sad state of deterioration -- for Dorothy Louise Gage at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington, Illinois. The infant Gage had died at age five months and is considered by many to be the namesake for the heroine of THE WIZARD OF OZ, as author L. Frank Baum was her uncle. When news of the monument’s condition reached OZ devotee Elaine Willingham, she approached Carroll to ascertain the cost of a replacement. Mickey leapt into action and took both the creative and financial responsibility for supplying a new, tastefully elaborate headstone for the child, which was dedicated in October 1997.

There are many such heartwarming or joyous or outrageous memories that stretch out across the course of any Munchkin chronicling. The annual Chittenango Oz festival originally occurred for many years on the weekend nearest May 15th, birthdate of native son L. Frank Baum. But as a consequence of such scheduling, some of the daily outdoor meet-and-greets were decidedly chilly -- not to say blustery -- affairs, even at that point in the upstate New York spring. One Sunday morning in the late 1990s, we actually awoke to several inches of white slush, entirely and deeply covering the ground. Children’s snowsuits and boots already had been packed up for the season, but fest organizers scrambled to pull everything out of storage. They weren’t looking, however, to garb their kids; the heavy clothing was bundled around the Munchkins to get them back and forth to their final duties of the event – all of which were hastily moved indoors to a room above the firehouse. The Chittenango festival continues to thrive to this day, but its yearly merriment now and permanently takes place during the first full weekend in June.

Chittenango also spurred another tale that – in retrospect – is a favorite to retell, but which created its own panic and angst when it happened. One autumn in the early 1990s, coordinators Barb Evans and Colleen Zimmer planned ahead with their usual professionalism and diligence: hotel bookings were made for the following spring to accommodate the Munchkins and assorted special invitees. Everything was in place, much in advance. Unfortunately, when closing its books on one year, the motel forgot to transfer the Oz reservations for the next. Come May, there suddenly was no place anywhere in the vicinity to billet the arriving tiny celebrities. Evans & Zimmer, in desperation, ultimately commandeered a combination religious retreat, camp, and lodge, halfway up a mountain. It “boasted” multiple bunk beds in a handful of rooms, communal toilets and showers, no television, and a ban on smoking. As I recall, there was a hurried and very UNofficial dispensation for Jerry Maren’s ever-present stogie, and the girls just as quickly brought in a small, black-and-white, portable TV (complete with rabbit ears and Reynolds Wrap) to assuage his pervasive appetite for late-evening sports-viewing.

All of us got to know each other somewhat better across those two or three nights….

From the Festival circuit, several of the little people segued to independent involvement in the recurrent conventions of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc.  Program developers in turn created unique videos to precede separate visits from both Margaret and Jerry: the Munchkinland sequence of OZ was copied to a second tape and “freeze-framed” every time one of them appeared. In that manner, as assembled attendees anticipated the presence of a real-time Munchkin, they first enjoyed seeing that small star at work, some five decades earlier. Whenever the movie paused for three or four seconds, the evening’s emcee would point to a certain spot on the screen and offer, “There’s Margaret!” (Or “There’s Jerry!”) Because both were very young and very tiny at the time of OZ filming in December 1938, fifteen-year-old Pellegrini and eighteen-year-old Maren were much-utilized in that segment of the picture. Director Victor Fleming would position one or both in the background behind Judy Garland, as “Dorothy Gale” conversed in a close-shot with an off-camera Good Witch Glinda. When the corresponding view of Billie Burke next flashed on the screen for her dialogue-in-reply, Fleming had Margaret and/or Jerry in the Munchkin mob behind her, as well.  Of course, no one “back in the day” had any expectations about the film’s longevity – or the fact that it would become readily accessible for constant re-playing and examination (and freeze-framing) in every home in the world that possessed video equipment.

Via a number of such organized encounters, the Munchkins and many Oz fans developed singular friendships. I was extremely blessed in this, for I served as their frequent master-of-ceremonies and kibitzer, whether formally on stage, TV, and radio, or informally as we traveled or shared meals and down-time. On an increasingly consistent basis, Margaret manifested the epitome of sauciness and savvy during our public presentations. I’d glowingly (and accurately!) introduce her and ask some standard questions. Once the onlookers were thoroughly entranced by her replies, she’d then refuse to relinquish the microphone, move away from me onstage, and continue to randomly talk and tease. The crowd was in an uproar; I learned that I was able to blush WAY up into my fifties…and Margaret reigned supreme.

Needless to say, everyone reveled in it – Ms. Pellegrini most of all. And trust me: When you’ve been “given the business” by a best-loved Munchkin, you know you’re considered a trusted compatriot; there’s no greater accolade.

Of course, the joking worked in both directions. Circa 1993, there were two Fricke books in print: THE WIZARD OF OZ OFFICIAL 50th ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL HISTORY [1989] and JUDY GARLAND: WORLD’S GREATEST ENTERTAINER [1992]. As a publicity ploy, Evans and Zimmer -- or, as my mom would have affectionately described them, those Chittenango “birds” -- produced a souvenir T-shirt for sale at their festival. It displayed the covers of both volumes and (at top right) one of my “author photo” headshots. As fate would have it, this was the year that Margaret’s luggage was delayed en route to New York. To sartorially equip her until her promised suitcase arrived the next morning, she was supplied with a Fricke T-shirt by Barb and Colleen for use as a nightgown. Thusly draped, and before heading to bed, Margaret paraded the hall of the motel, modelling her new-found finery for one and all.

The payoff was swift and eternal. What with the grinning author image over her heart as she took to her bed, Margaret ever-after had to hear about the night that she “slept with John Fricke’s head on her bosom.”

(Okay, okay – so we were easily amused!)



                                                                 (to be continued)


Article by John Fricke


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