Meinhardt Raabe: One of the last of the surviving Munchkins from ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the last surviving Munchkins from the enduring fantasy film The Wizard of Oz (1939), Meinhardt Raabe has a place in film history as the flamboyant coroner who gives official notice that the Wicked Witch of the East is dead, killed by the farmhouse that landed on her in a tornado that has also brought young Dorothy from Kansas to Munchkinland.

Costumed in a high-collared indigo cloak and enormous hat with a curled brim, Raabe had his brief moment in the limelight as he proclaimed the Harold Arlen/E. Y. Harburg chorus, "As coroner, I must aver, I thoroughly examined her. And she's not only merely dead, She's really most sincerely dead." In fact, it was not Raabe's voice heard singing on screen, for he was dubbed by the MGM contract player Harry Stanton, but he was to perform the words himself countless times when making public appearances, giving lectures to children or attending Oz conventions.

There were 124 Munchkins in the film (some played by children), but only nine had speaking parts, including Raabe who, at four feet tall, was one of the tallest little people who acted in the film. Raabe (pronounced Robby) was born in 1915 in Watertown, Wisconsin, and he continued to grow until he was in his thirties, though he reached only 4ft 7in.

In his Memories of a Munchkin (2005) he stated that he never heard the words "dwarf" or "midget" while growing up, and it was only when he attended the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, where a midget village was one of the attractions, that he realised that there were others like him. The following summer he worked as a barker for the show.

In 1937 Raabe graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelor's degree in accounting, but he consistently failed interviews; one personnel manager told him that he belonged in a carnival. He was working as a meat salesman in 1938 when he heard that MGM was hiring midgets, so he obtained leave and took a train to California. The impresario Leo Singer provided many small people for the film from his vaudeville company of hypopituitary performers, but many more were needed to populate MGM's vast set. Raabe credited his fine diction, honed from his experience as a barker and a salesman, for getting him the part of the coroner.

MGM had originally planned that the Munchkins would sing for themselves, but after tests the studio decided to get professional vocalists to sing the numbers to a piano "click track". These recordings were then played back at a faster speed, and the orchestra was added to these takes. Raabe's lines as the coroner were sung by Harry Stanton, best remembered as the voice of the stevedore (Bern Hoffman) who sings the aubade "I Feel Like I'm Not Out of Bed Yet" at the opening of On the Town (1949). In The Wizard of Oz, Stanton was also heard as one of the three members of The Lollipop Guild. Later, he was one of the male voices accompanying Judy Garland as she sang "Embraceable You" in Girl Crazy (1943).

In the Second World War, Raabe served in the Civil Air Patrol and was reputed to be the smallest pilot in uniform. After the war he paid his way through further education, earning a Masters degree in business administration from the Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1970.

The Oscar Mayer meat company, famous for their hot dogs, made him their mascot, Little Oscar, "The World's Smallest Chef", and for nearly 30 years he toured the US in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, promoting the company's products. In later years, he was in demand as a motivational speaker for young people, and he was feted at Oz conventions and film fairs.

His wife, Marie, a former vaudeville performer, was the same height as Raabe, and they were married from 1947 until 1997, when Marie was killed in a car crash as Raabe was driving them back to their retirement home from an outing. Ten years later, Raabe attended the ceremony when a star honouring the Munchkins was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He spent his last years in a retirement home in Florida, his memory still sharp.

Tom Vallance

Meinhardt Raabe, actor and motivational speaker: born Watertown, Wisconsin 2 September 1915; married 1947 Marie (died 1997); died Florida 10 April 2010.