[Above: On the Oz Festival circuit from 1989-2010, Jerry Maren was invariably the most-recognized of the surviving “little people” of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ movie. Why? Because he was the center member of “The Lollipop Guild” trio: a green-clad Munchkin who presented Judy Garland with an outsize, swirly-decorated, all-day -- and then some! -- sucker.]
Last week, we said goodbye to someone we all knew and loved, whether in person or on a motion picture, television, computer, pad, or cell phone screen. Countless thousands met him during his decades of appearances at Oz festivals, screenings, and special events. Since 1939, well over a billion people have watched him clog-step his way forward in the OZ film – flanked by Jackie (Jakob) Gerlich and Harry Doll – to ‘tough-guy’ sing, “We represent the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild. And in the name of the Lollipop Guild -- we wish to welcome you to Munchkinland!”
Jerry Maren -- born Gerard Marenghi on January 24, 1920, in Roxbury, Massachusetts -- was the youngest of twelve children, although the only “small one” among his siblings. In 1938, his sister Rae saw a newspaper notice that MGM was seeking (in Rae’s words) “little fellows” for their forthcoming motion picture production of THE WIZARD OF OZ. She sent in Jerry’s photo and address; within weeks, Metro’s representative for the Munchkin cast members, Leo Singer, telegraphed the teen an offer to appear in the film.
Jerry was one of those who traveled with a couple of dozen other little people on a chartered bus from Times Square in New York City to Culver City in California. His stories about the seven weeks he spent working on OZ are essential reading or viewing, whether in his autobiography, SHORT AND SWEET (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2008), in Steve Cox’s extraordinary history, THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2002), or in Cinema Video’s 1993 VHS documentary, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS. Jerry’s role in OZ led to immediate, subsequent employment in one of the OUR GANG comedy shorts, as well as in The Marx Brothers’ feature, AT THE CIRCUS. Thereafter, he never looked back and enjoyed a career of film, stage, TV, and commercial work that seldom abated. (Remember Jerry as “the little German general” on THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW? Or as the diminutive white-tie-and-tails gentleman who tossed confetti at the end of episodes of THE GONG SHOW?) In 1975, he married Elizabeth Barrington, the oldest of a family of twelve children, and – again -- the only little person among them.
[Above: A collage of some of Jerry’s roles: as a 1950s commercial spokesman for both Buster Brown Shoes and Oscar Mayer (as “Little Oscar, the World’s Smallest Chef” – who traveled by Wienermobile!), and with Groucho and Chico Marx in AT THE CIRCUS (1939).]
Given the teleshowings of THE WIZARD OF OZ that began in the 1950s, Jerry’s “Lollipop” fame began to catch up with him. By the late 1970s, he was invited to participate in panel discussions about his Munchkin role. When the film’s fiftieth anniversary rolled around in 1989, it launched him (accompanied and cheer-led by Elizabeth) on what evolved into a coast-to-coast circuit of weekend festivities in Chittenango, NY (birthplace of OZ author L. Frank Baum), Grand Rapids, MN (birthplace of MGM’s “Dorothy,” Judy Garland), Chesterton, IN (for many years the largest of the Oz gatherings), Liberal, KS – and then Wamego, KS – and countless others. He appeared on TV and radio, at theaters and fairgrounds, and in parades and stage shows. Whomever his other Munchkin compatriots on those occasions, the specific familiarity and likeability of his OZ character made Jerry ever the standout. (That being said, all his costars had their partisans, as well. Meinhardt Raabe was recognizable as the Coroner and chanted his E. Y. Harburg lyrical couple on request: “As Coroner, I must aver/I thorough examined her . . .” and etc. In OZ, Mickey Carroll had an identifiable solo stroll across the screen [from left to right] as a Munchkin townsman and later danced as one of the Five Little Fiddlers. Karl Slover was the first of the three trumpeters who strode out to herald the Munchkin Mayor. Clarence Swensen could pick himself out of the corps of soldiers, where he marched with Gus Wayne and Lewis Croft. Nels Nelson and Emil Kranzler were villagers. Dainty Nita Krebs was the tallest of the three Lullaby League ballerinas. Fern Formica – in blue! -- was one of the first to creep from the bushes when Glinda beckoned, “Come out, come out, wherever you are . . . .” Ruth Duccini and “Little Jeane” LaBarbera were identifiable in stills and behind-the-scenes photos. Betty Tanner stepped out front with the female dancers. Margaret Pellegrini wore the blue flowerpot hat as she danced – and later pantomimed “Rub your eyes! Get out of bed!” in baby clothes and bonnet in the “Sleepyhead Nest.”)
But Jerry? Jerry was the surviving member of the Lollipop Guild – and across those Oz festival years, he sang (and danced to) his stanza literally thousands of times for fans. He made his final major public appearance in September 2013 when invited to leave his hand and footprints at Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theatre. Jerry glowed with joy and pride at the opportunity to participate in “the cement event,” sang his song for throngs of newsmen, cameramen, and TV reporters, and then graciously greeted hordes of fans behind the protective barriers -- and sang and posed for them, too.
[Warner Bros.’ ace publicist Ronnee Sass and I were among those who joined Jerry for his “cement event” at the Chinese Theatre.]
Just twenty years ago this week, Jerry took part in one of the two CARNEGIE HALL CELEBRATES THE MUSIC OF JUDY GARLAND evenings that I wrote and associate-produced in New York. Walking onstage as a twenty-eight-piece orchestra played “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” he garnered a huge ovation – so much so that it threw him a bit. Even with all his years in the public eye, he appreciatively and a little nervously marveled, “Wow. Carnegie Hall. This gives me bragging rights!” He rambled a bit – while the sell-out crowd joyously hung on every word – and then, his “old pro” mode kicked in. He was handed his replica, balsa wood, swirly-painted lollipop, and he went into his song-and-dance. The roof came in!
[Above: In 2003, Jerry kindly helped me “unveil” the debut copy of my new book, JUDY GARLAND: A PORTRAIT IN ART & ANECDOTE. The ceremony launched the 2003 WIZARD OF OZ FESTIVAL at beloved Jean Nelson’s Yellow Brick Road Gift Shop & Museum in Chesterton, IN. At Jerry’s right: one of Judy Garland’s OZ stand-ins, Caren Marsh Doll.]
A most treasured “Maren Memory” came very early on in our association. There were many OZ events during the 1989 anniversary year, and in late October, Jerry, Margaret Pellegrini, and Fern Formica found themselves in Topeka, KS, in company with me and author Steve Cox, whose early edition of his “little people of OZ” treatise -- then titled THE MUNCHKINS REMEMBER -- had appeared that summer. (If I remember correctly, we were all autographing at some sort of special, uber-major Wal-Mart outlet.) After work one evening, the “OZ Guests” were given a dinner party at a lovely private home, and the conversation eventually turned to the careers and associations that blossomed during the making of the film. Looking back, Jerry and Fern recalled for the assembled partakers that they’d briefly teamed as a double act for supper clubs circa 1939; then, suddenly, he rose from the table. Without missing a beat (or cue) – some fifty years later, mind you – he led Fern by the hand to a slightly elevated hallway area adjacent to the dining room. As she danced elegantly and gracefully around him, he crooned to her the Broadway standard: “Irene! A little bit of salt and sweetness! Irene! A dainty slip of rare completeness! Mannerism! Magnetism! Eyes of youth inviting . . . !” They did a brief reprise of an obviously fondly-remembered soft-shoe routine – and it was quietly, incomparably magical.
[Above, from left: Fern Formica, John Fricke, Margaret Pellegrini, Jerry Maren, and pop culture author/historian Steve Cox in Topeka, KS, in 1989. Cox’s initial book about the OZ Munchkins, published that year, very much brought them to a public awareness – and fascination – that never quit. I had first come to the Oz circuit in 1989 as well, as the writer of THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE OFFICIAL 50th ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL HISTORY coffee-table book, as well as co-producer of (and spokesperson for) the MGM/UA Home Video anniversary VHS tape.]
After his blessed, cherished Elizabeth died in 2011, Jerry left behind all the hoopla. He lived peacefully and comfortably in Southern California retirement -- big cigar often at the ready. (As noted after his passing on May 24th: “If there wasn’t a smoking section in Heaven before, there is one now.”) With his decades of hard work in the past, he seemed content to once again become Gerard Marenghi, who left his New England home in 1938 and found a Yellow Brick Road to career, fame, fortune, and fans.
There are still six Munchkins from the MGM movie with us today: a half-dozen of the ten (or so) little girls from a Hollywood dancing academy who filled in on the OZ set -- and some of whom are quite visible in the finished film. They’re all normally-sized women now, of course, and in their eighties. So, to reiterate and clarify: Jerry was the final surviving “little one” who welcomed Dorothy to Oz. He said a few years ago that he didn’t “want to be the last.” Well, okay; say not “the last,” then -- but certainly one of the most loved.
And most recognized.
And most assuredly – and most happily -- one of those to be remembered . . . forever.
Article by John Fricke
P.S. As I was about to submit this, I received an email from Steve Cox, who has remained a superlative friend since 1989. He shared some personal thoughts about Jerry – and then, with exemplary kindness, gave me permission to publish them here. I doubt that many (if any) knew and understood Jerry Maren better than Steve, so his words are especially telling and meaningful; I wholeheartedly thank him for this contribution:
“I can say this, but Jerry never would: He was maybe the most successful of the Munchkins, in a show business career as well as financially speaking.
“One thing that I remember distinctly was his generous heart with respect to his fellow little people -- those from OZ and those who weren't. It wasn't a secret that Jerry could be almost stereotypically frugal, but he was serious when -- at many departing parties at Oz festivals -- he would privately and individually pull aside a few of his Munchkin alum and tell them, ‘Now, if you need any money, you let me know.’ And he meant it; I saw it happen more than once. There was not a boastful bone in his body, but I think he wanted his little friends to know they could count on him. He knew he'd done well in life.
“Jerry was unfailingly kind to fans, and as long as he was feeling good, he would greet you with a grin -- and an autograph, if you wished. In response to my first letter to Jerry back in the late 1970s, he sent a couple of very nice autographed 8x10 glossy photos. Not all actors did that; today, almost none provide such a courtesy. Later in his career, Jerry attended Oz festivals, and as is common in any star's personal appearances, there was a merchandise table. This was work to him now, and he didn't mind selling books, photos, posters, and the like. He didn't need to, but he wasn't going to hand out photos for free either -- the lines would have never ended! Yet . . . if Jerry noticed someone who wasn't able to purchase a photo, but really wanted it, he'd give it away.
“He wanted those smiles.”
Thank you, Steve.
And thank you, Jerry.
Article by John Fricke