Fifty-nine years ago, 124 midgets arrived by bus, plane and car from all over North America to the Culver Hotel in Culver City. It was only a few short blocks from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where “The Wizard of Oz” was going into production. They had been cast as little people called Munchkins.
Many had never seen another midget before, let alone been away from home. All but one had never been in a movie. What none of them knew was that they were stepping into history, a classic movie and becoming legends themselves as Munchkins.
Every American over age 3 inevitably knows the Munchkins. Just the word “Munchkin” brings a smile, resonates childhood dreams, and summons up Oz and the Yellow Brick Road.
A little bit of history happens tonight, as the seven surviving Munchkins who are able to travel (14 are still alive) reunite for the first time where it all began, at the Culver Hotel. The three-day gathering, to which the public is invited, will celebrate the Munchkins; their reunion at the Culver Hotel, which housed many of them; and Halloween, which has become a massive national celebration for everything “The Wizard of Oz” believes in: fantasy, play, dress-up, scares and sweetness.
Like Halloween (a costume party will be part of the festivities) and the movie, there is a yin-yang of darkness and light to a first local reunion of a group whose members are quickly dwindling. And amid the celebration, the need by all concerned to correct a long-standing rumor of debauchery, drugs and ransacked rooms at the Culver Hotel. And the oft-quoted lore of drunk midgets swinging from the rafters.
“The rumors started years ago, that they just trashed the hotel and were swinging from the chandeliers. There were some parties, but nothing like Hollywood legend. I interviewed more than 30 of them, and they said that there wasn’t time for partying when they were making ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” says Munchkin specialist Stephen Cox, author of “The Munchkins of Oz.”
Ironically, it was Garland, says Cox, who fueled the legend in the early ‘60s, not long after “The Wizard of Oz” had begun to appear annually on CBS. “She was one of the chief people who spread the rumor when she appeared drunk one night on the Jack Paar show. She said as a general statement that all those midgets were drunk,” Cox says. “She was on the show herself battling alcoholism and drug dependency, and slurring the words as she said it. The little people took umbrage at that.”
But former Munchkins ultimately recognize Garland as a kindred spirit, who went out of her way to be friendly to the midgets--many terrified of being on a sound stage for the first time--while herself being exploited by the studio. “Judy was a terrific gal. A typical teenager. On the set in the morning, she’d always say to us, ‘Hi, gang’ or ‘Hi, kids, how are you?’ ” remembers Jerry Maren, 77, the infamous Lollipop Kid. “And when she left, she always said, ‘See ya in the morning. And get some rest. It’ll be a long day.’ ”
Garland’s days during the “Oz” shoot lasted upward of 15 hours, says Mickey Carroll, another former Munchkin who stayed with Garland while the film was shooting. “We’d come home at 10 or 11 p.m. after a 14-hour day, but she wouldn’t come home until 2 in the morning. They had her rehearsing off the stage, rehearsing another movie, rehearsing songs. She was only supposed to work two hours, but they got around that. Just as long as she wasn’t on the set, she didn’t violate the rules. So she was apparently already on drugs when ‘Oz’ was shooting.”
But this event is clearly a festival, focusing on the bright side. Tonight, the Munchkins will gather in the lobby of the Culver Hotel, where they will meet fans and sign photos (available for $5, Maren says). There will also be a display of “Oz” memorabilia, mostly centered around the Munchkins: three Munchkin costume pieces, including the coroner’s hat, a Munchkin vest and a spear from the witch’s guards. The entrance fee that night is $10, $5 for kids.
Friday night, Halloween, will feature a costume party with the Munchkins. The catered affair costs $25 and features a cash bar. “Costumes are suggested but not required,” says Elaine Willingham, the St. Louis-based organizer of the event and president of Beyond the Rainbow, a mail-order company specializing in Oz memorabilia.
And Saturday night, the final night, will be an Oz collectors exchange, where collectors, novices and interested fans can peruse the memorabilia pertaining to the film and book by L. Frank Baum, whose great-grandson Robert Baum and two granddaughters will attend the event, as well as author Cox, who will sign copies of his updated “The Munchkins of Oz,” being republished by Cumberland House.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of misinformation, including obviously the behavior of the Munchkins, who were actually exceptionally courteous and cooperative,” Cox points out. “Only about two dozen of the 124 Munchkins were professional performers. The rest were non-entertainers who returned to private life after the film was shot.” Among the professionals, Cox says, the most established were Billy Curtis and Little Billy Rhoades, as well as Mickey Carroll.
Carroll recalls: “I had already worked with Judy in vaudeville on the West Coast. I lived with George Burns before he met Gracie. I worked with Al Jolson. I did ‘Call for Phillip Morris’ in 1933. I’m an entertainer. When I open up my fridge and the light goes on, I do five minutes.”
Largely forgotten in the intervening decades is the man made famous for managing midgets, Leo Singer. They were known as Singer Midgets, says Maren.
“Leo Singer had a world-famous midget troupe. They were from all over the world. L.B. Mayer said to Singer, ‘You take care of the little people.’ And, boy, he took care of us. He was getting $100 a week for each of us, and pocketing half. We got $50 and he got $50. That’s a lot when you count 124,” Maren says.
And at the Culver Hotel, the midgets were assigned three to a bed. “It was just one of those things,” Maren says with a shrug. “What the hell, I had slept with my brother.”
The hotel was Culver City’s only skyscraper, according to official Culver City historian Julie Lugo Cerra, but even so, held only half the midgets. “The overflow went across the street to the Adams Hotel,” Cerra says.
The midgets were used in primarily two set pieces: Dorothy’s entry to Oz after the witch is killed, until she goes on the Yellow Brick Road. And as Winkies at the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. For most people, the Munchkins are most indelibly linked with the Yellow Brick Road, which was shot on Stage 27, the largest sound stage on the former MGM lot, and in Hollywood.
And almost everybody remembers the Lollipop Kid, one of the trio who swaggers up to Dorothy. Kids still have nightmares about Maren’s snarl.
“The mouth movements came from the director, Victor Fleming,” Maren remembers. “He said, ‘They don’t look tough enough. Have them move their mouth.’ Fleming was way up high on the movie crane. My one idea was to put my hands on my head like a fighter, after our business was done with Dorothy.”
Choreographing the Munchkins was more an issue of crowd control than actual dancing, remembers Dona Massin, whose job was Munchkin choreographer as assistant to MGM dance director Bobby Connelly.
“The little we had to teach them was not really called dancing. A little skipping around, a little routine, little circles and things. Which house they should stand near,” says Massin, who thinks she may have been responsible for Dorothy’s skipping. “I just happened to do that skipping thing. I just started doing something, and Bobby said, ‘That’s good.’ Ray Bolger was there at the time,” says Massin, 80.
Carroll remembers it differently. “I said, ‘Victor, why don’t they skip down the Yellow Brick Road?’ ” Carroll says. “They can come out, and have some motion. And they did.”
And nearly 60 years later, evoking the Munchkinland sequence, a proclamation has been issued naming the week Munchkin Week in Culver City. Says local downtown business association President Jay Handal, who helped Willingham organize the event long distance, “It’s kind of like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Like they clicked their heels, and said, ‘They want to go home.’ It feels like the place it should be done.”
“Every place I go, I’m a part of history,” says Carroll, who is flying in from his home in St. Louis. “And everyone wants to be a part of it.”
Munchkins reunion, Friday through Sunday at the Culver Hotel, 9400 Culver Blvd., Culver City. For information: (310) 670-3200, Ext. 717, or (310) 253-5914.