Wamego # 131 May 25, 2021
[Above: This September 1993 Munchkin gathering at the Chesterton, IN, OZ festival included (from left) first-trumpeter Karl Slover, flowerpot-hatted Margaret Pellegrini, and soldiers Lewis Croft (rear) and Clarence Swensen (right). At Clarence’s side is his wife, Myrna, whose emergency appendectomy in late 1938 prevented her and her parents – little people all – from also appearing in MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ film. By 1993, Lewis was following in a tradition earlier established by Margaret and Clarence: he, too, had obtained a replica of his Munchkin costume, made for him to be worn at various Oz festivals, parades, and autograph sessions. As can be imagined, he and his compatriots – costumed or not -- thrilled all ages across countless occasions. Meanwhile, kneeling at the front of the photograph is your then-much-younger blogger and festival emcee, caught in the act of autographing his book, JUDY GARLAND: WORLD’S GREATEST ENTERTAINER.]
Across the 1950s and 1960s, the once-glorious Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios of Culver City, CA, gradually descended from the heights of their business-wise but creative celebration of motion picture making. They became instead a corporate-controlled and money-minded hierarchy, and the legendary MGM credo – “Do it big. Do it right. Give it class.” – gave way to grit, trend-following dramas, and budget cutting extremes.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, bell-bottom slacks, madras shirts, and facial hair were everywhere and (some thought) here to stay, and there was nothing more expendable to Hollywood and its contemporary hotshots than their own industry’s incomparable past. The March blog here offered details of the manner in which MGM at that time tossed away decades of studio records, files, scripts, orchestrations, soundtracks, and film. Dumpsters, landfills, and the Pacific Ocean benefitted; historians lost out. At Metro itself, “star wardrobe” and certain identifiable props and furniture pieces were auctioned, but uncountable thousands of other wardrobe elements were sold “off the rack” for five and ten dollars each.
And that’s what happened to most of the garb designed by Gilbert Adrian -- and made by the MGM Wardrobe Department -- for the Emerald “Citizians,” Winkie Guards, and Munchkins in THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1938-39.
[Above: Members of the Harvey Williams Midget Troupe pose on their way to California to make movies! Back row: Emil Kranzler, Carolyn Granger, Matthew Raia, and Hildred Olson; front row: James Hulse, Lewis Croft and guitar, and Alta Stevens. Harvey Williams himself can be seen in the background. Photo courtesy THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ by Stephen Cox (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2002).]
Ironically, and as of 1970, many of the costumes for the little people of OZ had been stored “complete” for more than thirty years: shoes, stockings, and hose with their individual and appropriate headgear and blouses and skirts -- or trousers and jackets and tops. (Oh, my!) Those outfits were then purchased off hangers at the MGM sale, although they were seldom acquired by collectors; such a market had barely begun to manifest itself during that era. So, in the immediately succeeding years, the various components of Munchkinland clothing were often played with or worn to shreds by children -- or disassembled and scattered in different directions for diverse purposes. Some of the pieces were used to decorate or trim other attire, and as a result, few Munchkin costumes escaped or remained intact.
As some indication of this, “Munchkin Soldier” Lewis Croft was photographed in the late 1980s while holding his OZ vest -- separated by time from the rest of the Croft costume and then owned, framed, and mounted by a savvy Kansas Oz collector who had discovered and preserved it. According to Stephen Cox’s definitive history of THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ, Lewis was “born on May 2, 1919, in Shelley, Idaho [and] the smallest of six brothers and two sisters.” He was three feet, eight inches tall when he played in OZ, later growing another thirteen inches. A latter-day favorite on the Oz festival and personal appearance circuit, Lewis would fondly recall his stint at MGM: “Meeting all the stars and being with Judy Garland was the most incredible thing.” He honestly reflected on his OZ work, as well, and admitted, “It was [just] a job, and I never in any way though it would become this big.” Lewis’s reminiscences – along with those of seven other MGMunchkins -- were also captured in the 1993 home video documentary, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS (https://youtu.be/8V16Ks629Aw). Pretty much a life-long resident of his home state, he earned the nickname “Idaho Lewis,” and he died there on April 29, 2008 -- just three days before his eighty-ninth birthday.
[Above: On this occasion – decades after OZ -- Lewis self-deprecatingly admitted that the vest “wouldn’t fit any more!” Photo courtesy THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ by Stephen Cox.]
And this month’s selection as one of the “Treasures of The OZ Museum”? Well, as famed radio commentator Paul Harvey used to put it, “that’s the rest of the story” – and some of the rest of the Lewis Croft costume! On November 24, 2014, Bonhams auction house in New York City conducted a major sale of indisputably extraordinary motion picture memorabilia. I had walked through their exhibition of “the goods’ a few days prior to the event at the invitation of Michael Maskery, a fellow Oz and Garland enthusiast from Boston and a wonderful friend. As can be imagined, the various Bonhams galleries amounted to a collector’s paradise; there were hundreds of movie posters, props, and costumes, along with vintage correspondence, paper work, and photographs. Of course, I particularly reveled in seeing Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion costume, his OZ script, a Judy Garland Dorothy “test dress and pinafore,” the “Witch Remover” spray gun, and several other OZ-related items.
Among the latter was a Munchkin soldier jacket, and when I purchased the Bonhams event catalog, I was delighted to see a photograph of the costume and its interior label, stitched into that coat. Why? Because the label boasted the name of a friend. 😊
The catalog description itself gave all the information – and confirmation! – one could desire:
A MUNCHKIN SOLDIER'S JACKETFROM THE WIZARD OF OZ: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939. Green, yellow and beige felt jacket with puffed sleeves, woven metal trim, and tails. Bearing a label inscribed in black ink, "Lewis Croft length 44 chest 29 1/2." . . . Provenance: Purchased by the consignor at the 1970 MGM auction and/or tag sale. Ranks of Munchkin soldiers wearing these jackets appear in the Munchkin Land [sic]scene, marching after Dorothy as she sets off on her journey. As evidenced by the label, the Munchkins' costumes were custom made for each actor. Adrian designed the Munchkin outfits to have strange proportions, including large sleeves and tails as in this jacket, to make them seem smaller than they actually were. In his later years, Lewis Croft (1919-2008) participated in many Wizard of Oz festivals and conventions and became one of the better-known Munchkin actors.
When I returned home from Bonhams that afternoon, I thought the specifics of the OZ auction should be shared with Clint Stueve, Executive Director of The OZ Museum and Columbian Theatre Foundation, Inc., of Wamego. The event itself was only a weekend away at that point, but he sprang into action and – by the Monday of the sale – he had been authorized to “shop.” As a result, one of The OZ Museum’s “pride of place” spaces has since then been periodically allocated to Lewis Croft’s soldier jacket.
[Above: A close view of the Croft jacket from the front – and full-length from the rear -- as showcased at The OZ Museum in Wamego.]
For those interested in the seemingly ever-increasing cost of collecting MGMemorabilia, the soldier jacket sold for $23,750. It was sent from New York to Wamego via Fine Arts Shipping, and its subsequent restoration and conservation were overseen (at the cost of another $3,000) by Melanie Sanford of Conserving Threads.
Such specifics apart, it’s a given to define this costume as a treasure – and it’s there to behold at The OZ Museum. [Please note: Among Museum holdings are several MGM OZ movie pieces, which are rotated on and off display so as to further protect them from overexposure and wear-and-tear. Even when properly draped on their specific mounts, such costumes are subject – given their weight and natural gravity -- to strain their seams and potentially stretch their vintage felt. However, and this is MOST important, ALL MUNCHKIN COSTUMES WILL BE ON DISPLAY FOR OZTOBERFEST THIS YEAR, AND THAT EVENT IS THE ONLY TIME THEY WILL BE SIMULTANEOUSLY PRESENTED BY THE OZ MUSEUM.]
For those of us who knew any of MGM’s “little people” – or got to hear their stories on newscasts, in interviews, or in documentaries like that linked above – the “save” of Lewis’s jacket and its accessibility to the public are happy symbols of the longevity, legend, and eternal life of THE WIZARD OF OZ
That jacket is also a special memory of a good friend and genuine gent. He is a treasured memory, and his garb is most definitely (and once more for the record) one of the “Treasures of The OZ Museum!”
Article by John Fricke