End of the Yellow Brick Road

'The Wizard of Oz' made stars of 124 little people. Now just seven survive, trading on memories of Dorothy and their golden Hollywood moment. Meet the last of the Munchkins...
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The Independent Culture

In the Land of Oz, Meinhardt Raabe will always be the coroner. It's not hard to spot him in his long blue cloak and wide-brimmed hat, striding up the steps of the Munchkinland town hall bearing a death certificate for the Wicked Witch of the East. He has a vivid ginger beard and lively, sparkling eyes and stands a little over 4ft tall.

You can - if you know precisely where and when to look - catch other glimpses of Raabe in The Wizard of Oz. But it is only in this scene, where Dorothy is being presented to the Munchkin mayor, that the audience gets to see a close-up and to hear Raabe's character speak. "I was in the entire film... there are other parts of the film where you can see my hat moving up and down," he says, speaking from his home in Florida, to where he retired many years ago. "But it is only there where I am full-face."

The Wizard of Oz - the perennial Christmas favourite, due to shown this year on Boxing Day (BBC1, 2.45pm) - was produced in 1938 and released the following year, when Raabe was aged 24. Today, while the film lives on, as charming and beguiling as ever, the majority of the cast and all those actors who had major parts in it are dead. Raabe is just one of a handful of those still alive, and at 88 he is almost certainly the oldest. These days he stands at 4ft 8in, claiming to have grown six inches since he was a young man.

The team behind The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming and produced by Mervyn LeRoy, assembled a total of 124 midgets such as Raabe to perform as Munchkins, the "little people" who live in that mythical, magical land that exists somewhere over the rainbow. Today, there are only seven still alive, with those who are well enough to travel living out their days by attending festivals, events and even ocean cruises dedicated to the Oz theme. For them, it is as though their entire lives have been moulded by their involvement in that single project. "The best thing is that every time we talk to people, they all come to us to say thank you," says Raabe, who once advertised Oscar Mayer hot dogs on television. "It's very satisfying."

The story of the Munchkins - their hiring by MGM and the two months they spent shooting the Oz film at the studios in Culver City, California at the end of 1938 - is remarkable, both for the achievement of assembling such a large group of little people and for the prejudices they faced once they got there. All the Munchkins, including the mayor, earned just $50 a week, $75 a week less than Dorothy's pet dog Toto.

Then there are the stories of the wild antics of the midgets in their time off-set: drunken rampages, orgies and fights. Judy Garland, who played the teenager Dorothy Gale, did nothing to dispel the rumours. Appearing on The Jack Paar Show in 1967, almost 30 years later, she said of the Munchkins: "They were little drunks. One of them who was about 40 asked me for dinner. And I couldn't say, 'I don't want to go, I don't want to go with you because you're a midget.' I just said, 'My mother wouldn't want me to.' He said, 'Bring your ma too.'"

Neither was the reputation of the little people as hell-raisers helped by the 1981 spoof movie Under the Rainbow, which featured midgets swinging from chandeliers and trashing their hotel, with a subplot about a Nazi midget spy.

Surviving stars, though, insist that for the most part everyone acted professionally during the making of Oz. In 1996, a former Munchkin named Jerry Maren told the celebrity reporter Vernon Scott that the only trouble was with two Irish midgets named Ike and Mike Kelly, "who drank a bit during the shoot".

The Munchkins were dreamt up by L Frank Baum, who wrote the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz novel in 1900. It was he who came up with the name Munchkin, as well as that of Oz, apparently after glancing up at his filing cabinet, whose drawers were marked A-N and O-Z. When MGM decided to turn the book into a movie, the production team initially wanted 300 midgets to take part. (Midgets differ from dwarfs in that their heads and limbs are of normal proportions.) In the end they settled for 124, who travelled to California on buses organised in 42 different states.

Many of the Munchkins were supplied by an agent named Leo Singer, who originally put together a troupe of little people for a vaudeville show that toured European cities. But Raabe, speaking to the film and television historian Stephen Cox, the author of The Munchkins Remember: The Wizard of Oz and Beyond, recalled: "Any little person who showed up at the front door of MGM got a job as a Munchkin. The midget grapevine went round the country that MGM needed little people. On the basis of that I took a leave of absence from Oscar Mayer and headed out for California."

His adventures long behind him, Raabe still travels to Munchkin events around the United States, where he is treated like a movie star rather than what he essentially was and is: a movie extra. "The main thing is that you are with friends," he says. "It's like a reunion for us all."

Margaret Pellegrini, known to her friends as Popcorn or 'Lil Alabam, is another of the last few Munchkins still alive. Now 80, she was just 15 during the filming of Oz, in which she had two parts: as a townswoman with a flower-pot on her head, and one of the "sleepy heads", whose characters are still asleep when Dorothy arrives in Munchkinland. She was just 3ft 5in tall when the film was shot. "My favourite memory is working with so many little people and with Judy Garland, and getting to know her," says Pellegrini, who lives with her brother in Glendale, Arizona, having been widowed some years ago. "She was a very sweet person, a typical teenager. She was so nice and so fun."

Like Raabe, Pellegrini travels up to a dozen times a year to Oz events around America, such as the annual festival in Chesterton, Indiana, which now attracts thousands of people, drawn by the chance of having their picture taken with one of their Munchkin heroes. "The first festival was in 1982, and it was just so popular that we decided to do it again," recalls the founder Jean Nelson, a former proprietor of the Yellow Brick Road museum and store. The festival, in which most of the town is involved, always features a replica of the Wicked Witch's castle.

For the last several years Pellegrini, along with Raabe and a few other surviving Munchkins, has taken part in a week-long ocean cruise dedicated to the Land of Oz. For all-inclusive tickets that cost between $870 (£500) and $1,500, fans get to meet the Munchkins, hear them recount anecdotes from the film set and collect their autographs on board the cruiser Costa Atlantica as it sails around the Caribbean.

"I have seen people queue up for an hour and a half just to have photographs taken with them," says Steven Wallach, the president of Entertainment and Travel Alternatives (ETA), the company that organises the cruises, which have attracted up to 2,300 people. "It's amazing."

It is obvious that Pellegrini, Raabe and the others who have taken part in the three cruises - there is another one pencilled in for next year - enjoy meeting their fans and reliving their glory days. They also appreciate the opportunity to sell their products - photographs and souvenirs - which boosts their incomes considerably. "I get excited when they ask questions about the film. They are so interested," says Pellegrini. "I just like to be around people and making them happy. Everyone has a smile on their face."

Quite what it is that attracts the people who pay to see these ageing Munchkins is not so clear. Wallach believes it is more than just the universal appeal of the film, and the fact that the opportunity to meet its diminutive stars will not be around for many more years. "God gave these people a gift," he says. "You see them speak to sick children, and the children perk up. There is something magical about that."

It is a gift that is increasingly rare, though. According to Jerry Maren: "Midgets are a vanishing tribe. Thanks to new growth hormones, when a child looks like he's stopped growing they give him these hormones and he shoots up."

Clarence Swenson, who stands at 4ft 6in, is another of the survivors who takes part in the cruises, festivals and other Oz events. In the film, he played the role of a soldier, again easy to spot if you know where and when to look. As was the case with many of the midgets, Oz was not Swenson's first film. Just months before filming started, he took part in The Terror of Tiny Town, an all-midget musical western that was slated by the critics and to which history has not been kind.

Swenson, now 86, lives in his native Texas, where he still watches the film once a year. As to the secret of its longevity, he says: "Number one, I think that it appeals to all ages and all types. Number two, I think people like the idea of the heart, the brains and the courage. It has a meaning. Everybody likes that."

The father-of three adds: "To me, it means I get to travel around to all the events and return to the public what they gave me. That is the only thing that makes the little people still go back. It has gone down many generations... mum and dad and their children and then their children become mum and dad. If I'm not mistaken, I think this film will live for ever. It's touched so many people of all ages."

But Swenson admits that he and the others, some of whom stood just 3ft tall when they took part in the Oz project, were not always so fortunate. Even when the filming was taking place, they suffered from prejudice and ignorance. Now he and his fellow surviving Munchkins may be hailed as stars, but it has been a long fight. "A long time ago, the public did not especially like us. Now we have been in so many movies. It has showed the public that size does not mean everything."

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