Down munchkin memory lane
Of the original 124 little people who made up the town of Munchkinland in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz,” only seven are still alive.
They are wrinkled and mostly hard of hearing. Some of them are slightly confused and they all move slowly. But they still have stories to tell -- in unexpectedly high-pitched voices -- and on Monday night at a special screening of the film at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, they told them. Sort of.
The evening was sponsored by several companies and put together by an “Oz” buff from Illinois named Ted Bulthaup.
Bulthaup, a theater owner, also helped pay to have the seven actors honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which they received Tuesday morning.
Even a casual viewer of the film will remember a few of the remaining munchkins --Jerry Maren played the member of the tough-guy Lollipop Guild who got to hand Judy Garland the giant lollipop and Meinhardt Raabe played the coroner (sing along: “She’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.”)
The other five had such roles as the first trumpeter, the town crier and a sleepyhead (“Wake up you sleepyhead/ Rub your eyes, get out of bed/ Wake up the Wicked Witch is dead”).
Comedian and film archivist Stan Taffel was charged with the difficult duty of interviewing the actors before the screening began. Even though Taffel speaks in the smooth, loud tones of a radio host, some had trouble understanding him.
“Didn’t you work as an accountant before working for Oscar Mayer?” he asked Raabe, who was wearing his coroner costume: a bright blue wide-brimmed hat and matching cloak.
Raabe didn’t know what to make of this question and said nothing.
“You worked as an accountant and then you worked for Oscar Mayer, right?” Taffel tried again.
Several minutes later Raabe finally blurted out, “I traveled the country in a giant hotdog. I was known as the smallest chef in the biggest wiener.”
“It took some doing, but we did pull that one out,” Taffel said.
Margaret Pellegrini, who was in a green and white Munchkinland villager costume with a flower pot on her head, said she was a teenager when she took a train from Alabama to Hollywood to be in the film. “I got around real good and I was only 15,” she said of her time on the set.
“Southern girls are active,” Maren quipped.
When Pellegrini reminded him he that married a Southern girl, he shot back, “And boy, am I glad I did.”
Ruth Duccini, who traveled from Minnesota to play a Munchkin villager, said she had never seen another little person in her life before she showed up on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” which is where she met her husband. She did not stay in show business though, and later worked as a riveter during World War II.
“I could get in all the small places the bigger people couldn’t get to,” she said. “I’m very proud of that time in my life.”
Taffel asked Maren, who had grown up doing vaudeville with Judy Garland, to show off his dancing skills and the 4-foot-7-inch actor was only too happy to comply.
Then he told some of his old vaudeville jokes.
“I think I see my priest in the audience,” Maren said. “Hey father, how come priests don’t get married? Then you could have a wife and see what hell is really like.”
And with that, Taffel ended the questions. The munchkins ambled off stage and the crowd settled in to watch one of the most beloved movies of all time.
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