If you thought you knew everything there was to know about the film classic “The Wizard of Oz,” then here’s a twister for you.
Everyone knows about the Munchkins, portrayed by 124 pituitary midgets in the 1939 film starring Judy Garland. These days, the word “Munchkin” -- now included in some dictionaries -- is synonymous with small. Credited in the film as the Singer Midgets, the diminutive cast was composed of little people from all over the United States, with the core group being part of the famous troupe of performing midgets managed by Leo Singer.
But not all of the Munchkins were little people. Ten young girls of normal height, ranging from 7 to 9 years old, danced and sang alongside the little people 70 years ago on MGM’s massive Soundstage 27.
Three of the former child actors cast as Munchkins recently reunited in Hollywood to reminisce about their little-known involvement in one of the most beloved movies of all time. Betty Ann Cain Bruno, 77, Priscilla Montgomery Clark, 79, and Ardith Dondanville Todd, 78, shared their memories of working together in their brightly colored, flower-adorned costumes and talked about how the “Oz” experience has affected their lives. One of their most recent memories wasn’t so sweet.
Last year, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce honored the entire diminutive citizenship of Munchkin Land with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame near Grauman’s Chinese Theatre that simply reads: “The Munchkins.” Nothing about “midgets only.” Yet, the handful of former child Munchkins who had been invited to the event were denied introduction and participation in the unveiling because they were not “vertically challenged.” Where is the Lollipop Guild and their sweet greeting when you need them?
“That was disappointing because my family was with me,” says Todd, of West Covina. “You can pick me out as clearly as any of the midgets in the film, but they knew the midgets would draw the crowds, I guess.”
Paparazzi’s cameras popped, speakers spoke, the shiny star saw its first sunlight -- and all while the onetime child Munchkins had to wait by the curb. No proclamation from the city of Los Angeles for them, only for the little people. “Oz” fans in attendance wondered why the late Johnny Grant, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and event organizers neglected these Munchkins, who rehearsed, sang and danced (and even attended school on the set).
Four of the surviving child Munchkins decided to hold their own reunion and share the memories, putting that Hollywood snub behind them (Joan Kenmore, of Dana Point, was unable to attend).
Seven decades ago, the pretty little girls with angelic faces were plucked from the local Bud Murray dance studio to fill in the female Munchkin population because MGM’s casting department lacked little women to portray the citizens of Munchkin Land. Both Todd and Clark and their mothers would drive the 20 miles together from Alhambra to Culver City each day (“before freeways,” Todd recalls) for the six weeks it took to rehearse and film in November and December 1938.
“I can pick myself out in the movie right there on the yellow brick road, dancing the skip, and I recall it so vividly,” says Clark, a former dancer and now a grandmother of four who lives in Corona del Mar. “The set was so huge. I was in awe. I felt like I was in the middle of a fairy tale. . . . “I don’t think I’d ever seen a midget before, and it didn’t matter to me that they were different. Eventually, after the film was finished, one little lady, Margaret Williams, stayed with our family for a while before returning home in the Midwest, and I got to know her very well.”
In the final moments of the Munchkin Land scene, in which Glinda the good witch (played by Billie Burke) instructs Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road, it’s easy to spot young Priscilla, near Burke, as the youngster briefly peers directly into the camera, “spiking the lens” as it is called.
“They told us to be sad during that moment in the scene, because Dorothy was leaving,” says Clark, “and I vividly recall Billie Burke’s beautiful dress with all the sparkles. I had never seen anything like it.”
The Munchkin life
Both Clark and Bruno recall the Munchkin wrap party held on the Haunted Forest set, with long tables lined up for people to eat box lunches, and where some of the Winged Monkeys rehearsed and were flown above on wires.
“I remember that very well,” says Bruno, a former television news reporter in Oakland and mother of two who now lives in Sonoma. “In Munchkin Land, I was up in one of the huts, waving during the scene. I remember I’d run around and measure myself next to the midgets sort of surreptitiously, put my hand even to the top of their head, hoping they wouldn’t notice.
“There was this guy who kept asking me out to lunch and asking my mother if we could eat together,” she recalls with a laugh. “I didn’t know what was so special about eating together. My mother would quickly clutch me to her side.”
The girls didn’t have a lot of interaction with Garland. Bruno recalls that she tried to get an autographed picture from the young star: “It was frightening. I’d go up to her trailer and knock on the door and ask for a picture. I remember screwing up my courage every day. When I asked, she’d look down at me with those great big eyes and she’d say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have a picture today. Can you come back?’ ”
The three former Munchkins said that at family gatherings through the decades, their children, and later grandchildren, watched the film and tried to pick them out.
Clark can still kick up her heels and do the Munchkin skip, the choreography they learned on the yellow brick road. Her grandkids have begged her to teach them the recognizable step.
In Todd’s family, watching it was an annual event. “All growing up, I made my kids sit and watch it every year until they got to the point where the first of December came and they’d say, ‘I guess we have to watch “The Wizard of Oz” again.’ . . . My kids are more excited about it now than ever. My grandson is very proud of his grandma being a Munchkin.
“I never knew there was such a following for the film. It was just something we did in our childhood, you know? We were kids.”