Jan 9, 2015 LITTLE PEOPLE…HUMONGOUS HEARTS – Part Seven
[Note: At left: Munchkin Townswoman Ruth Duccini during her final OZ-related engagement, September 2013, at the legendary Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. At right: Three days later, Jerry (Lollipop Guild) Maren posed in the forecourt of the same locale, immediately following his “cement event.” Jerry here reunites with Ronnee Sass, Warner Bros.’ crack publicist, promotional sorceress, and all-around great gal. The Munchkin movie performers of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 THE WIZARD OF OZ were captured in -- quite literally -- tens of thousands of such photographs during their personal appearances, beginning circa 1985 and wrapping up in 2013. This is the latest in a series of consecutive blogs 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 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 seek out the Stephen Cox book, THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2002).]
I have to confess that, when I started to write about the Munchkins a couple of months back, I envisioned this as a topic that might extend to two or three installments. Today’s observations instead comprise -- as noted above -- a seventh sequential “chapter,” and I hereby promise that next week will wrap up any further comments I have to make on this theme. (But if these ramblings have been even a percentage as much fun to read as they’ve been to record, the protracted text has been infinitely worthwhile!)
In past submissions, I described my initial meetings with the surviving diminutive stars of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ, and how that early crowd of more than a dozen quite rapidly began to thin out between 1989 and 1991. Post-2005 or so, there remained a solid core of seven or eight of the actors who were still with us, well enough, and willing to travel to the various annual festivals and individual one-time Ozzy events around the country. “Sleepyhead/Flowerpot Dancing Townswoman” Margaret Pellegrini even trekked to Australia (or -- at least during her tenancy -- Oztralia).
Since then, the concluding career moments of the last of the Munchkins pretty much have managed to be all that one could wish for them. Beloved “Soldier” Clarence Swensen made his last appearance in November 2007 at one of the all-time superlative Munchkin “honorariums.” After years of write-in letters and lengthy-petition campaigning, Chicago-area cinema owner and entrepreneur Ted Bulthap achieved for them their own “star” on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. Clarence joined six others – Margaret, “Townswoman” Ruth Duccini, “Coroner” Meinhardt Raabe, “Lollipop Guild” Representative Jerry Maren, “First Trumpeter” Karl Slover, and “Townsman” Mickey Carroll -- for the “reveal” along Hollywood Boulevard. They were surrounded by a mass of media and a legion of fans who had journeyed from around the world to take part in the celebration. It was a proud moment for all the Munchkins, as they’d been anticipating the ceremony and its inherent recognition for several seasons. Clarence especially was visibly satisfied and moved by the fact that he’d “made it,” and he thoroughly cherished his ability to take part.
Appropriately and nicely, universal favorite Karl Slover took his final bow in 2011 after another Bulthap affair: the regular November weekend that Ted produced for many years at his suburban Chicago theaters for the Munchkins and their devotees. Within hours after that interaction with his admirers, Karl quietly went to sleep at his home in Georgia. Yet the thought of his gentle-but-outsize personality continues to brighten every moment one remembers sharing with the jolly Mr. Slover. His contagious, spontaneous laughter never failed to delight any audience anywhere, and to spur merriment in response. Such natural ebullience was almost unbelievably at odds with his childhood in Slovakia, where his father “sold” him, at age nine, to a touring show -- this after failing in a raft of far-fetched, dangerous attempts to physically stretch tiny little Karl to greater height and length. Whenever Karl recounted his personal saga, however, he would quite gleefully giggle at the incongruity of it all, sage and wise in appreciation of how far he’d come.
Four months before her passing, Ruth Duccini had what turned out to be a colossal send-off when she returned to Hollywood in September 2013 for the re-premiere of THE WIZARD OF OZ at the onset of its seventy-fifth anniversary year. Warner Bros. launched the 3D/IMAX version of the film at the scene of its original debut – the Chinese Theatre -- and although there were celebrities galore on hand, the ruby-red carpet saw its singular highlight when Ruth waved, wafted, and “interviewed” her way into the edifice. Prior to the movie, I had the privilege of serving as the afternoon’s emcee, with the specific joy of heralding Ruth and bringing her onstage from a seat in the first row. The entire audience stood to cheer and then continued to carry on in sheer exultation at her presence. Each of her remarks won vibrant reaction, and perhaps the most heartfelt and sensitive statement of the day came when she proudly acknowledged her accolade as belonging to ALL those who had taken part in the creation of the Munchkinland sequence in 1938.
Ironically, we’d lost what many of us treasured as the “heart’s warmth” of the extant Munchkins just a month earlier. Margaret Pellegrini had been (as the old saying goes) enjoying poor health for a number of seasons. Yet she’d always managed to rise above, regroup, and surge ahead to set off once again for the various Oz jubilees. Just hours before the onset of her last illness in March 2013, she videotaped a charming conversation, destined to serve as a centerpiece of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF OZ exhibition in Rockland, Maine. Her memories subsequently played in a happy video loop for six months in the Crosman Gallery of the prestigious Farnsworth Art Museum, beginning in October 2013. Somehow, it’s literally a given that Margaret managed to enchant and thrill people even after her own departure “over the rainbow.”
Today, the only living “little person” from Metro’s THE WIZARD OF OZ is Jerry Maren, who resides in quiet retirement and privacy in Southern California. Jerry’s most recent public recognition came in an absolutely unique Munchkin tribute that took place just three days after Ruth Duccini’s September 2013 appearance -- and in the same locale. But Jerry “worked” outside, in front of the Chinese Theatre, when he joined the galaxy of rare movie greats who have been invited to immortalize their handprints, footprints, and autograph in a cement block. It was a hot, sunny, glaring September morning, and the legendary Maren faced a battalion of news journalists banked in front of him. Ever the showman, he was spurred on to exemplary effect by their barrage of TV lights and flashing cameras, singing the “Lollipop Guild” couplet a half-dozen times – his shoes in the muck -- to accommodate press requests. Belying his ninety-three years, he then went to the barricades beyond the forecourt to greet hundreds of cheering onlookers who clamored for his attention. Jerry selflessly, smilingly, and elatedly posed for pictures and selfies; he sang his song again and again.
If that event turns out to be his final moment of professional glory, it’s impossible to imagine a greater reception – or a more glowing, beaming, or grateful recipient.
[Next week: The finishing chapter in these personal meanderings about the Munchkins – with recollections of their “last hurroz” in New York City at Lincoln Center and Tavern on the Green in 2009.]
Article by John Fricke