“L. Frank-ly, My Dear, We WILL Give a Fest!”

by John Fricke

Above: This line drawing of Dorothy Gale – as created by W. W. Denslow for the first edition of L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900) – welcomes you to the longest-running, most widely-attended, and (arguably) most jubilant annual event of its kind: OZ-STRAVAGANZA! The picture’s been doctored up a bit for its use here, but read on below, and you’ll find out why.

Given the paraphrased title of this month’s blog, may I remind you that this year marks the 85th anniversary of THAT film, too . . . . 😊

However, there’ll be no further homage to GONE WITH THE WIND! We’re all about ALL THINGS OZ, and we’re here to herald and celebrate both the 85th anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ movie, as well as the forty-seventh annual OZ-STRAVAGANZA! festival in author L. Frank Baum’s birthplace.  Or to put it more simply, The Place To Be from Friday afternoon, May 31st through Sunday afternoon, June 2nd is Chittenango, NY. (Turn right at Syracuse. 😊 )

In our efforts to combine Baum OZ and MGM OZ, we’ve seen to it that the vintage Dorothy above has momentarily switched out the silver shoes of the first Oz book for the later ruby slippers of “that film.” But there’s much more that you need to know, so on with the show – and “Hey, leader, strike up the band!”

And what do you want to hear? There are numerous commemorative choices, as referenced in the series of forty “official” Oz Books. (Baum himself wrote the first fourteen of those, and six other authors carried on after his passing.) Anyway, what’ll it be? You can select “The Oz Spangled Banner,” “Oz and Ozma Forever,” “What is Oz Without Ozma?,” “The Grand March of Oz,” “The Land of Oz Forever,” or “I’ll Sing a Song of Ozland.”  Or maybe you’ll opt for such Hollywood and Broadway compositions as “The Merry Old Land of Oz,” “The Rainbow Road to Oz,” “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”/“We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “Ease On Down the Road,” or the incomparable “Over the Rainbow.”

I reference all of these, as it seems there ought to be bells, whistles, sirens, and a whole lot of music to honor America’s Own Fairyland – especially when one considers its world-widespread popularity and fame. Beyond the Judy Garland WIZARD OF OZ movie and the Oz books, Baum’s characters, countries, and stories have inspired such additional entertainments as THE WIZ (right now and once again on Broadway), WICKED (now in its twenty-first consecutive year on Broadway – and soon to be seen in a multi-million dollar, two-film screen adaptation; part one opens at Thanksgiving), OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, RETURN TO OZ, JOURNEY BACK TO OZ . . . and on and on to new books, new products, cartoons, TV programs, and diverse events and merchandise of all types.

And then there’s – to return once more and however gently to the “commercial” – OZ-STRAVAGANZA! You can see examples of (and history about) all the projects referenced above at Chittenango’s ALL THINGS OZ Museum, open for special hours across the three days of the festival:

The wealth of emerald green and Munchkin magic actually permeates the whole town during OZ-STRAV! weekend. There’s a real Yellow Brick Road bordering Genesee Street. There’s the 2 p.m. parade on Saturday. There’s the cOZtume contest and the writing contest. In centrally located Oz Park, there’ll be rides and vendors and food and crafts and Oz memorabilia and three special silent auctions (one on each day). There’s free live music and entertainment across all three days – and (ditto!) free meet-and-greet (and-pose-and-snap) moments with some of the most recognizable characters in history. They’re shown here with Shawn Ryan – kneeling left, in the hat — who designed their costumes, and Jeffrey Lane Sadecky, their convivial and consummate wrangler:

And for the Ozians, Ozites, Ozzys, Ozmites, collectors, historians, fans, entertainment seekers, and the just plain pop-culture-curious, there’s the free Celebrity Tent, where the OZ-STRAV! special guests will hold forth for autographs and pictures every afternoon. Additionally, and free-of-charge, they’ll also be part of special interviews and presentations on Friday and Saturday evening at 6 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church, immediately adjacent to Oz Park. 

Finally, it’s a pleasure to outline here the dazzling line-up of Oz luminaries. We have two guests who will specifically acclaim THE WIZARD OF OZ movie, which first premiered eighty-five years ago this summer. One is the preeminent book editor, packager, and writer Jane Lahr – and if her last name sounds familiar . . .  it should! She’s the daughter of the movie’s one-and-only Cowardly Lion, the unforgettable Bert Lahr himself:

Jane’s recollections of her incomparable father have to be heard to be fully experienced – and the same may be said about Robert Welch, who comes with memories and multiple visual examples of the OZ work of his grandfather, A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie. Buddy was, for decades, the genius (and there’s no other word for it) behind the MGM special effects department, and he and his coworkers created all the magic of Oz for the screen – long before there was CGI or AI or anything else other than makin’-it-up-out-of-imagination-and trial-and-error-and-actual-physical-properties:

Want to know about the full-size monkeys? the miniature rubber monkeys? the thirty-five-foot-long tornado? Robert will tell all about these accomplishments (and more!) in his very first appearance at an Oz Festival.

Yet Jane and Robert are just the beginning. Gracing the Celebrity Tent and stage with them is Gita Dorothy Morena, great-granddaughter of L. Frank Baum — THE WIZARD OF OZ author himself. Her family reminiscences and insights are drawn from her own revered career as an author, lecturer, and psychoanalyst:

Another first-time visitor to Chittenango is the supreme artist, Irma Starr, whose achievement in ceramic art, commemorative plates, decorative ornaments, jewelry, and figurines is renowned.  Irma has been commissioned to “create” for private collectors, corporations, the White House, and the Smithsonian Institute; the fact that her work includes Oz imaging makes her an ideal OZ-Stravaganza! guest:

Returning after a few years’ absence (and MOST welcome) is Broadway songwriter, arranger, and orchestrator Steve Margoshes. (Some of his work is presently being heard on the Great White Way in this season’s revival of THE WHO’S TOMMY.) For the past decade, Steve has been composing and assembling an original “Oz Song Cycle,” drawn from the fabled books and combining his own inspired gifts with their fantasy, whimsy, joy, and philosophies. He’ll debut and reprise some of this work for program attendees.

Finally, we two resident hambones (I say this affectionately about him and honestly about me) will be on-hand as well! Gabriel Gale is the conceptualizer of the AGES OF OZ novels for middle-school students (and children of all ages), as well as the wondrous talent behind the beautiful THE ART OF OZ coffee-table book. The latter, published three years ago, showcases his own inventive, exciting portraits of citizens of Baum’s Oz and “Borderland of Oz” titles. (Additionally, THE ART OF OZ juxtaposes the Gale drawings with those by Denslow and John R. Neill from the original editions of Baum’s work.) Gratefully and proudly, I’ll add that I was selected to write the text for Gabe’s book, adding that title to the seven others I’ve been privileged to do about the OZ movie, Judy Garland, and the greater Oz franchise in the past thirty-five years:

In addition to comments about our current projects – separately and together – I can tell you that Gabe has just returned from Hollywood and will also share advance and special news about the forthcoming WICKED movie.

[Please note: Once again, the Friday and Saturday presentations begin at 6 p.m. On Friday, the rundown includes Gita Dorothy Morena and Robert Welch; on Saturday, the speakers will be Steve Margoshes, Gabriel Gale, and Jane Lahr. I’ll be the master-of-ceremonies and sometime interviewer on both occasions.]

And – believe it or not! – the 1,300+ words through which you’ve just read offer only the lightest touch of the hours and hours of magic and fun awaiting every generation at OZ-Stravaganza! The Celebrity Tent will also boast the presence of other writers, illustrators, and creators who carry on the legends, myths – and realities! – discovered by Baum and his associates. This year, we welcome:

Also, for the first time this year, Stickles Park – at the head of Chittenango’s Saturday parade route – will open at 10 a.m. that day with diverse food treats, special entertainment, and costumed characters on hand. It’s the perfect way to launch “a day in Oz”!

I reiterate — with no sense of exaggeration but with hopefully pardonable exhilaration – that if you’re seeking “The Land of Oz” from May 31st – June 2nd, we’ll have it for you in Chittenango, NY. As ever, we anticipate the pleasure and exhilaration of YOUR company.

Many thanks for reading – and as I can’t possibly do justice to all of it here, please check www.oz-stravaganza.com for the complete OZ-Stravaganza! schedule!

Gratefully and happily, as ever,
John

“ILL-OZ-STRATIONS” — DIVERSIFIED! Part Two

by John Fricke

Above: In 1956, Reilly & Lee – then the sole publishers of the entire Oz Book Series except for THE WIZARD OF OZ — was finally able to add that title to their roster. Dale Ulrey did the illustrations for the new edition, and these were initially offered in black and red. Across the next nine years, the book went through additional printings, and the interior palette expanded into black and yellow, blue, and green, as well. (We’ve selected Ms. Ulrey’s drawings from a later print run for this blog to emphasize more of a “rainbow road to Oz.”) Just above, you’ll see her full-color, front-cover dust jacket for the Reilly & Lee THE WIZARD OF OZ, which was utilized for the first three years of its publication. She depicts the title character as a somewhat portlier gentleman than did her predecessors, W. W. Denslow and John R. Neill.

A bit of background to begin! Part One of this two-part series may be found by simply scrolling down past this entry; therein discussed are some of the early artists who pictured L. Frank Baum’s book, THE WIZARD OF OZ. There were comparatively few such illustrators, however; from its initial publication as THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ in 1900 – and through 1943 — the predominant editions of the story used and/or adapted the original pictures done by William Wallace (W. W.) Denslow for its first release at the turn of the twentieth century.

Evelyn Copelman’s drawings completely supplanted these in 1944, and although a handful of other artists supplied pictures for abridgements and picture books of THE WIZARD OF OZ between 1939 and 1956, her work remained in print for decades. The copyright expired on THE WIZARD OF OZ text in that latter year, however, and a flock of new versions of OZ – whether in complete or abbreviated format — hit the market. As a result, diverse artists were given the opportunity to “compete” with Copelman and supply their own variations of Baum’s characters and concepts.

The new “public domain” status of THE WIZARD OF OZ was particularly important to The Reilly & Lee Company of Chicago. They – or their predecessor, Reilly & Britton – had published all of the other titles in the official Oz series from 1904 through 1951: thirty-eight books in all. Now, in 1956, they could finally add Baum’s preeminent classic to their list, and they immediately thought in terms of a more contemporary appearance for the publication itself.

They’d actually begun considering such modernization for the series a year or more earlier. To that end, a bright and gifted graphic artist, Dale Ulrey, was selected to re-illustrate Baum’s 1918 book, THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ, for publication in 1955. (History has it that the Reilly & Lee stock of TIN WOODMAN was running low at the time, and rather than merely reprint the title, the company rationalized that updating its appearance might make of it an experimental test case.) The Ulrey TIN WOODMAN also featured a new interior layout and fresh typesetting – “New Plates Throughout!” as Reilly & Lee trumpeted in its jacket copy — and the Ulrey style, both charming and attractive, was worthy of the new adaptation. Ms. Ulrey maintained the energy of John R. Neill’s original illustrations, emphasized the personalities (comical and otherwise) of the familiar Ozians, and re-cast Dorothy’s image as that of a sweet and sunshiny child of the 1950s.

(It should be noted that — in addition to THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ — Ulrey had also worked on an earlier Baum project for the publishers, providing art for an edition of his JAGLON AND THE TIGER FAIRIES.  This 1953 storybook was adapted from one of the writer’s “Animal Fairy Tales,” as published across nine months in THE DELINEATOR magazine, January through September 1905.)

All in all — and especially after her work on THE TIN WOODMAN – Dale Ulrey was a logical pictorial “select” for Reilly & Lee’s initial printing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s also interesting to note that, at this point in history, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s classic THE WIZARD OF OZ motion picture had enjoyed theatrical releases in 1939, 1949, and 1955 but had not yet begun its virtually annual, national television appearances. This meant that Ulrey didn’t have to worry about fulfilling many expectations of her reading audience in terms of any deeply implanted “movie” visuals of Ozzy citizens or terrain.

That being said . . . ! Whether or not Ms. Ulrey meant to imply that the wafting wagon and other detritus shown here — mid-funnel — would filmically float by Dorothy’s window is unknown. But one of her first dominant images for the new 1956 edition of THE WIZARD was this vivid, energized depiction of the little girl’s transportation to Oz:

As a graphic artist, Dale Ulrey was best known “in the industry” for her years of drawing such popular, long-running newspaper comic strips as MARY WORTH. That character – if suitably Ozified – might have made a potential lookalike for Baum’s Good Witch of the North. As shown here, however, the illustrator opted out of any such temptation, and the mature sorceress, however unintentionally, seems more a semi-ringer for actress Agnes Moorehead. (This was four years before Ms. Moorehead would play a cranky, Cockney Mombi in the NBC-TV adaptation of Baum’s THE [MARVELOUS] LAND OF OZ to launch THE SHIRLEY TEMPLE SHOW in 1960 – and eight years before the actress would find eternal familiarity and fame as the elegant, sophisticated, and sometimes spiteful Endora on ABC-TV’s BEWITCHED.) Meanwhile, the Munchkins remain unembellished and true to Baum’s descriptions:

In much of her approach to THE WIZARD OF OZ assignment, Ulrey was judicious in continuing the predominant visions of Neill, who’d done the pictures for thirty-four of the preceding books in the series. Prior to that, Denslow had contributed a basic architectural template of a typical Oz house, but Neill had embellished it, and Ulrey substantiated his tradition as she showed Dorothy and Toto during their first day’s journey down the Yellow Brick Road.

Ulrey’s splendid interpretations continued as Dorothy and Toto met their three incomparable companions:

Although Baum never gives the child’s age in his text, Dorothy had been drawn by Denslow as a six- or seven-year-old with brown braids. Neill, in turn, had then given the Oz heroine a shorter, blonde style throughout his thirty-eight year tenure as artist, and Ulrey followed suit. This gave the ingenue’s appearance a happy and logical resemblance to the girl familiar to readers of all of the rest of Reilly & Lee’s Oz Book Series.

The Poppy Field sequence of THE WIZARD saw three of our five protagonists succumb to the potent power of the floral aroma. Ulrey then captured, in excellent fashion, Baum’s detailed description of the rescue of the Cowardly Lion from the deadly poison – on a Tin Woodman-built cart pulled by thousands of field mice. (The idea that that poppies would be neutralized by a snowstorm sent by the Good Witch of the North was first implemented in the 1902 stage musical of THE WIZARD OF OZ and further adapted by MGM for their film, thirty-six years later.)

Following Baum’s textual cues, Ulrey presented Dorothy in her new Emerald City dress when the child went for her first, private audience with the Wizard; the latter, of course, presented himself as “an enormous Head.” The artist also provided an interesting point of view when — a chapter later — she offered the moment the Winged Monkeys arrived with the girl and her dog as their prisoners in the Winkie Country, presenting them to the anticipatory Wicked Witch of the West.

There was additional and ongoing loyalty to Baumian detail when Ulrey chose to recreate the moment that the “Great and Terrible” humbug found himself revealed to Dorothy & Co. In an attempt to frighten the Wizard into granting their requests – and per the book’s written passage — “the Lion . . . gave a large, loud roar . . . so fierce and dreadful that Toto jumped away from him in alarm and tipped over [a] screen that stood in the corner.” There, the five travelers “saw . . . a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face . . . The Tin Woodman, raising his axe, rushed toward the little man and cried out, ‘Who are you?’”

It’s a reasonably well-known fact that MGM both departed from and added to Baum’s plot line in numerous cinematic ways – yet they remained true to the author’s intent in a number of others. As Dorothy prepared to leave for Kansas with the Wizard, “Toto had run into the crowd to bark at a kitten, and Dorothy at last . . . picked him up and ran toward the balloon. She was within a few steps of it, and Oz was holding out his hands to help her . . . when, crack! went the ropes, and the balloon rose into the air without her.” Ulrey maintained the same loyalty to the Royal Historian in sharing this moment of the saga:

The final adventures undergone by our friends are equally faithfully represented by Ulrey. She portrays each of the four challenges they met during their trek to the Quadling Country to seek aid from the Good Witch of the South: the fighting trees, the Dainty China Country, the giant spider monster, and the fractious, armless, telescopic-necked Hammer-Heads:

Finally, when the palace of Glinda the Good is ultimately reached, the famed Sorceress of the South proves to be as lovely as Baum’s description — and Ulrey’s portraiture:

For the last chapter, last page, and last Ulrey illustration, Reilly & Lee – and most probably unintentionally – parroted a THE WIZARD OF OZ art concept that dated back to Denslow and the 1900 first edition. Therein, that remarkable artisan often melded his line drawings with the book text: overlapping, underpinning, or just plain enhancing the awe-inspiring nature of his style and approach.  (Of course, it’s just an imaginative indication of my age that Aunt Em is pictured here by Ulrey as a much more bucolic Mary Worth . . ..  😊 )

While there’s no disputing the inherent entertainment in — and pictorial beauty of — Ulrey’s work in THE WIZARD OF OZ, the public response to it and the redrawn THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ (for all its own splendor) weren’t readily accepted by the public. Their response to such illustrative updating was quiet rejection, and when Reilly & Lee brought out the gloriously re-presented and manufactured “White Editions” of Baum’s fourteen Oz stories in 1964-65, they reinstated Neill’s art in TIN WOODMAN and replaced Ulrey’s work in THE WIZARD with adaptations of Denslow’s original pictures.

Still, there are tens of thousands of children (or more) who grew up in the decade between 1955-65 – or who later inherited copies of those two titles – and who maintain fond recollections of what Dale Ulrey contributed to the history of Oz publication. Her obvious dedication to her assignment provided art that was unquestionably entrancing, exciting, magical, and appealing – adjectives that happily and indubitably apply as well to Baum’s topography, terrain, and types of characters.

It’s a privilege to celebrate and share some of those drawings here!

“ILL-OZ-STRATIONS” — DIVERSIFIED! Part One

By John Fricke

Above: This color plate was one of many drawings by Evelyn Copelman, who was hired by The Bobbs-Merrill Co. to illustrate a new edition of THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1944. Although her work was described on the book’s title page as “Adapted from the Famous Pictures by W. W. Denslow,” many of Copelman’s characterizations and backgrounds were seemingly inspired by images recently familiar to the public from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Judy Garland OZ film, released five years earlier. This is worth noting, because — apart from a few separately licensed and minor retellings of the story — the 1944 Bobbs/Baum/Copelman edition marked the VERY first time since 1900 that the full-length WIZARD OF OZ novel appeared without its original, much-embraced Denslow pictures — once heralded as inseparable from the text. Additionally, that 1944 publication would informally mark the beginning of an endless onslaught of fascinating — it’s the safest word! — representations of Oz by an uncountable number of creative, imaginative, limitlessly gifted, and sometimes overwhelmingly innovative artisans.

Even occasional visitors to these blogs – or to Oz in general – will recognize the name William Wallace [W. W.] Denslow. It was his dazzling color pictures, artful book design, and character and setting concepts that helped make L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ the best-selling children’s book of 1900. For more than four decades, the vast majority of WIZARD OF OZ editions continued the Baum/Denslow amalgamation, although as twentieth century publishing grew more cost-effective across those years, much of Denslow’s work lost varying degrees of color. Additionally, many of the plates themselves were dropped, along with much of his interior art and motifs.

Yet the reading (and read-to) OZ audiences of all ages generally — and in many cases,

exclusively — knew Dorothy and her friends from Denslow’s visual interpretations. In the Denslow color plate below (from a reprint of the 1900 volume), the famous foursome – and Toto, too! — are hospitably hosted for dinner in a family’s home just outside the Emerald City:

Yet by the late 1930s, Denslow’s unique standing as the singular graphic adjunct to the pages of THE WIZARD OF OZ story was about to be challenged — and then eliminated. Today, we (gratefully) live at a time when facsimiles of the very first edition of THE WIZARD OF OZ (with Denslow in excelsis) are once again eminently available. Any artistic loss has thus been corrected. Conversely, there also has been an enormous benefit in the fact that Denslow WAS supplanted – for diverse reasons to be revealed. His displacement ultimately led to the innumerable, joyous, different (and apparently ceaseless) visualizations of Oz by others during the last eighty-plus years.

On behalf of the All Things Oz Museum, this brief new blog series will touch on some of the earliest “re-illustrations” of Baum’s masterwork. Yes, it’s history – but we thought it would be the perfect justification for mentioning the facts and then getting out of the way so as to share lovely and/or curious pictures!

Admittedly, there had been a few interpretations of THE WIZARD OF OZ adventures drawn by others even before Denslow’s art was completely dropped from the book. In 1939-40, separately licensed adaptations or abridgements of the story appeared in North America — and beyond — in conjunction with the debut of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Judy Garland musical movie. MGM’s copyright on their special treatments of the characters, storyline, and settings, however, meant that the new illustrators had to determine their own pictorial approach to the Girl from Kansas & Company. Grosset & Dunlap issued a brief, board-bound retelling of the Baum tale for which he received the author credit; no other writer is referenced. Oscar Lebeck, however, is cited for pictures, many of them in full color. Here is his cover design and a fanciful view of the Winkies at work to restore the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman after their devastation by the Winged Monkeys. The fact that there are seven little men here need not be interpreted as a private homage to Walt Disney’s 1937 success, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. (And yet . . . ! 😊 )

There was also a Whitman Publishing Company paint book, with H. E. Vallely’s cover definitely and only semi-discreetly inspired by MGM stills of Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow and Jack Haley

as the Tin Woodman. The interior captions and art, however, followed Baum’s text with more originality.

Bobbs-Merrill themselves issued this very brief, ten-page picture book, with art by Percy Leason and a linen-like finish:

Meanwhile, there were other storybooks and coloring books. Bobbs-Merrill adapted its regular edition of the full text by adding film stills to its endpapers; some of Denslow art appeared in the interior, as well. British versions took a similar approach, and there were also foreign language imprints, at least one of which told the movie story — Miss Gulch and all!

These were, of course, of their specific time, and once the MGM film had run its full course of theaters, Bobbs-Merrill went back to business as usual. Their standard edition of THE WIZARD OF OZ in the early 1940s continued to offer all of Baum’s words and increasingly minimized glimpses of Denslow — until 1944. As noted with the picture and caption at the top of this blog, that’s when the publishers brought in a new but accomplished talent in Evelyn Copelman to re-picture the full WIZARD OF OZ book, completely eliminating all of Denslow’s work. (His stunning designs wouldn’t be seen again in their entirety until a marvelous paperback effort by Dover Publications in 1960.)

Copelman proved masterful in updating and remodeling, both in her color and black-and-white art. Although she later denied that the MGM film had influenced her approach (and she may have been legally obligated to do so), there are obvious overtones, as can be seen here in two of her plates and one of her interior visuals. The multihued gathering of the gang just below and the portrait two pictures past that offer a Scarecrow easily perceived in characteristic Bolger-like poses or attitudes. Additionally, the Wizard here is diplomatically Frank Morgan in both stance and appearance, and Dorothy is a little-girl Garland. The middle of these three Copelman pieces is enhanced by a Margaret Hamilton-green, two-eyed Wicked Witch of the West (unlike the Baum-described, non-color specific, but one-eyed creature). Her castle staircase and chandelier are straight out of MGM’s scenic department in Culver City as well.

The 1949 theatrical reissue of the MGM film led to another spate of WIZARD OF OZ abridgements. Though far from the number of editions that appeared a decade prior, the new

crop included versions that remained “in print” well into the 1950s and even beyond.

In 1950, Random House brought in Allen Chaffee to abbreviate Baum’s story for an excellent picture book, illustrated by Anton Loeb in artwork that was detailed, accessible, and appealing to youngsters. As can be seen below, the cover was emblazoned “For Ages 5 to 9”; also shown is the artist’s atmospheric conception of the travelers as they “keep to the West, where the sun sets” in their attempt to find and destroy the Wicked Witch.

In addition to the Random House volume, Bobbs-Merrill also licensed an adaptation of THE WIZARD for the popular Wonder Books series in 1951. The perky, full-color art was drawn by Tom Sinnickson; here’s his cover design (with Dorothy ever more a little girl of the era) and a glowing view of the first part of “journey achieved” for our friends:

Then, in 1956, all Oz broke loose. So to speak.

Not only did the MGM film receive its first, sensationally received and top-rated, coast-to-coast CBS telecast, but the copyright expired on THE WIZARD OF OZ book. This meant that any publisher anywhere could bring out an edition of Baum’s story, whether word-for-word or condensed. No licensing needed to be done, and residuals were no longer payable to the Baum heirs. (An important note: The MGM film script, its new characters, and its revisions remained under copyright in 1956 and do so to this day. Thus, no one can release a book that retells the movie story; portrays Miss Gulch, Professor Marvel, or the farmhands; places Dorothy in ruby slippers – and etc.)

In 1956, however, THE WIZARD OF OZ became fair game at publishing houses throughout the land. Grosset & Dunlap rehired Evelyn Copelman to add extra images to those she’d done a dozen years earlier and produced three new editions of THE WIZARD in varying degrees of “luxe.” Whitman, whose (if memory serves!) fifty-nine cent editions of classics were then rampant in dime stores throughout the land, also put out the full Baum text in 1957, bound in glossy boards and with brand new art throughout by Russell H. Schulz. As the latter drew Dorothy for his color cover, she sported a sort of mouseketeer-styled Annette Funicello “do.” She returned to her braided self a moment later on the endpapers and in the rest of the Schulz pictures:

A year later, Scholastic Book Services jumped into the fray with a paperback version eventually uber-familiar to a couple of decades of children who eagerly anticipated their elementary school’s annual “book fair.” (Those were the days!) Scores of titles would be on display, whether “in person” or in a catalog; all were available to order from Scholastic at vastly reasonable prices. Paul Granger did their OZ cover (below), and his sketchy but evocative blank-and-white pictures dotted the text. In the art below the cover here, Dorothy’s friends are shown during the rare moment of their final farewell as she actually begins her flight home to Kansas:

One of the more sumptuous, “quick-to-take-advantage-of-its public domain status” editions of THE WIZARD OF OZ was published as IL MAGO DI OZ in Milan in 1957. Per the April 1962 issue of THE BAUM BUGLE – magazine of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. (ozclub.org) – it was translated into Italian by Emma Saracchi “and beautifully illustrated in color by Maraja. The publishers were Fratelli Fabbri Editori . . .. The next year, this version was issued, with English text, simultaneously in England (W. H. Allen) and the United States (Grosset & Dunlap).” It also appeared in French in 1959 as LE MAGICIEN D’OZ.

Such world-wide appeal speaks not only of Baum’s timeless, ageless, boundary-less story but also of Maraja’s art: bright, gorgeously and richly rendered, yet delicate and singular. Below, you’ll see (from top): a) The 1958-59 cover picture. b) The fivesome as they listen to the confession of the Great & Powerful Humbug; Dorothy appears to be channeling the visage of a sort of blonde Pippi Longstocking. c) The age-appropriate Good Witch of the North as she balances her hat on her nose; it’s about to turn into a slate on which the directive is written, “LET DOROTHY GO TO THE CITY OF EMERALDS.” d) A blue-garbed Munchkin in front of his blue-garbed home, paying homage to the girl who has liberated his country from the Wicked Witch of the East.  e) That touching overnight moment en route to the Emerald City when the Scarecrow – after filling Dorothy’s basket with nuts from the nearby trees to help stave off her hunger – keeps “a good distance away from the flames, and only [comes] near to cover Dorothy with dry leaves [to] keep her snug and warm.” And f) What may well be the all-time amalgamation of Glinda as a slinky, sloe-eyed, seductive sophisticate: the Scarlett O’Hara of the Quadling Country!

By now, you’ve gotten the idea. Denslow started it all and reigned pictorially supreme in terms

of THE WIZARD OF OZ book – until fate stepped in, as these examples have shown. There were others in the late 1950s, of course, and as the annual film telecasts kicked off in 1959 and extended deep into the 1990s, incalculable different editions attempted to sate the public reading appetite. They, too, were often augmented by clever, beauteous, bizarre, funny, weird, superb pictures.

There’s one more point to be made and one more 1956 edition to be referenced. From 1903-1956, Bobbs-Merrill had held ONLY the copyright on THE WIZARD OF OZ book. There were, as of 1951, THIRTY-EIGHT OTHER FULL-LENGTH OZ BOOKS, published by Reilly & Britton (or, later, Reilly & Lee). In terms of variety, they basically defined the Oz marketplace and had done so since Baum began to continue the series in 1904. After he passed in 1919, the saga was continued by Ruth Plumly Thompson, John R. Neill, Jack Snow, and Rachel Cosgrove. Neill also illustrated all but three of those sequels; as a result, his work was even more deeply associated with Oz than that of Denslow.

Thus, it was a major event for Reilly & Lee and their audience: In 1956, they could finally top off AND head up their list of Oz titles with THE WIZARD OF OZ — champion of them all. Neill had died in 1943, however, so they had to ponder the question of an illustrator to take on such an important job as picturing their own “official” version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Fortunately, they knew of someone both appropriate and already well-schooled. A year earlier, they’d hired Dale Ulrey to draw new pictures for Baum’s 1918 title, THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ. This came about because Reilly & Lee wanted to “test the waters” in terms of updating the look of the Oz series; THE TIN WOODMAN was selected as the test case. Ulrey’s drawings thus went into a refashioned 1955 reprint, and Neill’s art was abandoned.

Ms. Ulrey did a sleek and vivid job with THE TIN WOODMAN OF OZ, and she quickly accepted the assignment to picture THE WIZARD. After all, she had just learned to align the famous Neill characters with a mid-1950s modernity. She had just depicted Dorothy as a blonde, in keeping with the girl’s hair color and style in every “official” Oz book in which she appeared post-Denslow – and Ulrey had also proved capable of contemporizing the little girl while maintaining her classic qualities. And as noted, the artist already proved that she knew how to draw many of the other legendary Ozians.

Here, as a teaser, is one of the first of her WIZARD OF OZ book drawings: the now baby-boomer Dot . . . and that wonderful (if somewhat portly) title character himself:

Thus, in 1956, Reilly & Lee finally published their own version of the first Oz book with pictures throughout by Dale Ulrey. Next month, we’ll pay tribute to those results . . . and reflect on what happened – and why. 😊

Thanks for being here – with all of these extraordinary artists!

“THE LITTLE PEOPLE WHO LIVE[D] IN THIS LAND” – CONCLUSION

By John Fricke

Above: The impact made by the 1989 coast-to-coast, fiftieth anniversary celebrations of THE WIZARD OF OZ was predicated on two factors: the undiminished glory of the film itself and the sudden public reappearances by Munchkins from the motion picture cast. Even more importantly, such joy continued, and — for more than twenty years thereafter — the however gradually-diminishing number of “little people” of OZ were ceremoniously feted at festivals, movie screenings, charity events, parades, tap dance competitions, lectures, and (as shown above) on the “Munchkin Cruise”! This week-long Caribbean sojourn featured (standing in back, from left:) Robert Baum, the great-grandson of OZ author L. Frank Baum; auditor-only Dotty Fricke (my mom!); and yours-truly-OZ-historian John Fricke. Seated across in front (from left): flowerpot-hatted dancer/Sleepyhead Margaret Pellegrini, soldier Clarence Swensen, first trumpeter/soldier Karl Slover, and Coroner Meinhardt Raabe. Clarence is one of those who are heralded in this month’s blog; six others – “MunchKid” Betty Ann Bruno, villager Ruth Duccini, Lollipop Guild mainstay Jerry Maren, and Margaret, Karl, and Meinhardt — have had blogs written about them in this series during 2023. Please scroll down beyond this entry to find those.

FOREWORD

In our August 26th entry for 2023 — posted on Chittenango’s All Things Oz and OZ-Stravaganza! Facebook pages (as well as on this blog site) — we celebrated the Oz festival of last June. The highlights of that weekend, of course, were provided by the song, dance, autographing-and-reminiscing participation of ninety-one-year-old Betty Ann Bruno, an original “MunchKid” from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 feature film, THE WIZARD OF OZ. This was Betty Ann’s second annual visit to the upstate New York village where L. Frank Baum was born in 1856. Mr. Baum went on to write THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900) and thirteen other Oz Books, and everybody involved in OZ-Stravaganza! (which has joyously honored him for more than four decades) happily anticipated that Betty Ann would make many return trips to his birthplace in the future.

Incidentally, for those unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s important to note here that the unofficially named “MunchKids” group was comprised of a dozen little girls from Hollywood dance schools who mostly “filled in” background spots on the MGM OZ set. Five, as of earlier this year, were still among us, although – as all are in their nineties – it was only Betty Ann who traveled.

Most unexpectedly, however, she herself passed away just a month after Chittenango’s forty-sixth festival. That shattering loss has since reminded me of other MGMunchkins, whose local appearances beginning in the late 1980s were much responsible for putting the village’s long-term Oz event on the map.

These men and women were among the approximately 124 “little people” (as they preferred to be called) who played in the film. More than five years have passed since we lost the last of them, and it’s been more than a decade since any were able to appear in Chittenango. Although I was regularly on site for the local festival beginning in 1990, I wasn’t writing a blog for All Things Oz at any point “back in the day[s]” of the Munchkins’ 1989-2012 era of participation. This past summer, when Betty Ann left us, it occurred to me that it was more than appropriate that this space now provide a means of remembering some of the others who preceded her in enthralling central New Yorkers, as well as Oz fans from all over the world who found their way to “Baum Country.” In this manner, we’re able to again celebrate their contributions, as we did those of Betty Ann in 2022 and 2023 blog entries.

In line with that concept, this space has — across the last five months — heralded Munchkins Ruth Duccini, Karl Slover, Meinhardt Raabe, Jerry Maren, and Margaret Pellegrini. Now we move on to reference a number of others – as well as the treasured Swensens and a certain Ms. Formica!

Above: You’ve heard, of course, of Alice in Wonderland. What we have here is Chaos in Munchkinland – and director Victor Fleming hasn’t even called “Action!” Please note that this between-takes image captures horses, carriage, a goodly percentage of actors, Fleming himself – just to the left of Judy Garland, “Glinda” Billie Burke (holding what appears to be her on-camera wand/staff), a technician just to the right of Ms. Burke (holding her alternate wand/staff, with a less ornate star at its peak), and a mass of other staff and technicians. Just to the right of center at the bottom of this photo, an inked-on arrow points to OZ assistant director Wallace Worsley, with his back to the still photographer.

IT’S GOING TO BE SO HARD TO SAY GOOD-BYE:

CLARENCE AND MYRNA AND FERN & COMPANY

In 1989, I was privileged to extensively travel the country to promote THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE OFFICIAL 50th ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL HISTORY book (for which I served as principal writer), as well as the best-selling VHS tape of the film. (I was enlisted to help in that assemblage by MGM/UA Home Video.) In the process, I got to meet many Oz enthusiasts, collectors, and — among the best of all — a number of those who’d actually participated in the creation of the movie in 1938-39. 

More than thirty of the film’s Munchkins were still alive in 1989, although roughly half of them were unwilling (or too frail) to travel. During that year, however — and across a couple of subsequent seasons — upwards of fifteen of them gathered in Los Angeles, Minnesota, Indiana, and Kansas to publicly celebrate their “dual citizenship” in the United States and Oz. In the photograph below (taken in Chesterton, Indiana, circa 1990), I got to pose with the brilliant pop culture and Munchkin historian Steve Cox (top right) and uber-fan Richard Mikell (top center). Immediately in front of us (from left) are Munchkin-by-Marriage (hereinafter MBM) Fred Duccini, dancing villager Fern Formica, and soldier Lewis Croft. The next row shows just the hair of MBM Elizabeth Maren; she’s standing next to MBM Marie Raabe, villager Ruth Robinson Duccini, and coroner Meinhardt Raabe. Across the front are Lollipop Guild member Jerry Maren, dancing villager/Sleepyhead Margaret Pellegrini, and MBM Mary Ellen St. Aubin.

Another early-era festival photo – also 1990 — gathered a bunch of us in Liberal, KS. From left: Ruth Duccini, Marie and Meinhardt Raabe, Mrs. Lewis (Eva) Croft in the background, Fern Formica and Margaret Pellegrini in front of her (and draped over me; I did not have to manufacture that smile!), soldier Lewis Croft, soldier/villager Emil Kranzler and his MBM wife Marcella, and (again) Fred Duccini, Ruth’s husband. The tall lady in the back on the right is blessed Jean Nelson, who put her Chesterton, IN, Oz Festival on the radar by inviting soldier Pernell St. Aubin to appear there from 1982-1985 with his MBM wife, Mary Ellen.

Across the years, Oz events were graced – whether for one go-round or several — by Nita Krebs (tallest of the three “Lullaby League” ballerinas), villagers Betty Tanner and “Little Jeane” LaBarbera, and soldier Gus Wayne. There were other MBM guests, as well, notably Anna Mitchell, widow of villager Frank Cucksey, Olive (Mrs. Gus) Wayne, and Mary Ellen (Mrs. Pernell) St. Aubin. The latter was beamingly omnipresent for decades at Midwest Oz happenings and attended one of her final events at age 99 in 2019 in Tinley Park, Illinois. Several of the MunchKids also participated along the way, including (in her case, both early on and across these past two years) the beloved Betty Ann Bruno.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Mickey Carroll was probably the most “controversial” of the surviving Munchkins. He became a semi-regular event attendee in 1989, but prior to that — and away from the watchful eyes of his fellow actors — he had been for years meeting and greeting fans and signing movie stills with the claim that he’d played the Munchkin Mayor (actually Charlie Becker), Coroner (the aforementioned Meinhardt Raabe), or appeared as a member of the Lollipop Guild trio. Once Mickey began festival jaunts with others, however, he had to pull way back on such declarations, although he then summoned up another series of odd pronouncements! His statements continue today in vintage video and print interviews and can be safely dismissed. Just for the record, however: He did not dub the soundtrack cries of Clara Blandick (Aunt Em) as she screeched “DORRR-THEEE!” during the tornado; he did not dub numerous singing voices of the Munchkins; he did not stay at Judy Garland’s house while appearing in the film; and he did not suggest to director Victor Fleming that the Munchkins skip as they sang “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”

But where credit is due, Mickey Carroll WAS a Munchkin solider; and one of the five little fiddlers who escorted Judy to the border of Munchkinland; and — in a purple-jacketed villager costume — he can be seen walking from left to right across the screen at the onset of the Munchkin musical number. (This appearance comes as the dubbed voices echo, “Kansas she says is the name of the star.”) So it was right and proper that Mickey joined six other surviving Ozians when “the little people who live in this land” received their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on November 20, 2007. In this picture, Mickey is posed at the far left; to his left: Clarence Swensen (more about him below!), Jerry, Karl, Ruthie, Margaret, and Meinhardt.

If Mickey was infamous for his voluble chicanery, he was also hallowed for a number of other qualities. Among such hallmarks: His indefatigable energy as he greeted and entertained fans, especially children; his ongoing kindness to (and care of) his disabled nephew; and – especially — for his heartwarming and generous gesture that will live on. In 1898, L. Frank Baum and his wife Maud were much saddened by the death of their five-month-old niece, Dorothy Louise Gage. Family history convincingly suggests that Baum then named the heroine of his book, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900) as a memorial to the child. Some nine decades later — after scrupulous research by preeminent history Sally Roesch Wagner — the much-weather-worn gravestone for the child was discovered in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington, Illinois. Mickey Carroll soon heard about this situation, and as his family had owned and operated a tombstone business in St. Louis for sixty years, he caringly donated a superb new headstone for the child, which was dedicated on May 31, 1997. The replacement marker states the Gage birth and death dates as they appear on the original stone; it was later confirmed that Dorothy Louise actually passed on November 15, 1898. Regardless, it’s thanks to MGM Munchkin Mickey Carroll that there is now a stunning remembrance of – as it plainly states – the “namesake of Dorothy In THE WIZARD OF OZ”:

Gus Wayne was one of nearly thirty little people who traveled by chartered bus to MGM in Culver City, California, from New York City in November 1938. Another of these bus pictures – taken as the Ozians-to-be assembled in Times Square before leaving town — was used here to accompany the blog about Jerry Maren a couple of months ago. This one, however, features future Munchkin soldier Gus as the first gentleman at left in the front row – and diminutive Jerry is the second traveler to his left. Both were just eighteen years old.

The bus contingent congregated at MGM on November 12, 1938 – with roughly one hundred additional Munchkinland actors – and work began in earnest. There were immediate rehearsals and costume measurements, followed by costume, hair, and make-up tests; these occupied the first month or more of their assignment. Actual filming of the “Munchkinland Musical Sequence” and scenes began in mid-December and continued for approximately two well-organized weeks. In this behind-the-scenes photograph, the massive Technicolor camera and its operator are swooping in from the left to capture the jubilant action:

Finally, we come to three special denizens of Oz: an unforgettable lady, a miraculous gentleman, and his own MBM: Fern Formica and Clarence and Myrna Swensen.

We lost Fern early on, but she was an extraordinary and dazzling personality. Once people on the “Oz Circuit” met her, she was invited EVERYwhere, although she was only able to enjoy such appearances until about 1992 or 1993. A life-long smoker, Fern had a wondrously deep voice and a wise, sparkling, sometimes sassy, sometimes flirtatious, always straight-from-the-shoulder (and heart) individuality. Her passion, compassion, and repartee were precious and treasurable, and she wholeheartedly embraced life, including her MGM past. She owned, operated, and taught from her own ceramic shop, turning out craft items that were certifiably “Munchkin-Maid-Made!” She was also the first of the reappearing Munchkins who had a duplicate of her OZ costume created to wear at events.

We used the photo just below in an earlier entry in this Munchkin series, but the version here is – as you’ll see – personally special. Beyond that, however, it also couldn’t be more appropriate. Fern autographed it during the first weekend we met, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, at the Judy Garland Festival in June 1989, and she is the only really visible Munchkin on hand in the image! Enjoy her expression of caution and awe as she acts her way out of the bushes, harking to the command of Billie Burke/Glinda to “meet the young lady who fell from a star.”

This frame grab offers a happy Munchkinland moment. Billy Curtis is front and center as he carols out (again, with a dubbed voice), “And, oh! What happened then was rich!” Margaret Pellegrini (in the light blue flowerpot hat) is immediately to his left; Fern, in blue, is second to his right; and Betty Tanner (in brown) is to Fern’s right:

This rare photo of Munchkinland activity shows the actual filming of one “take” (or perhaps rehearsal) when the camera tracked down the line of little people, immediately after Billy’s line. This is just conjecture, but I think that might be Mickey Carroll in his striped top and purple coat, about four or five people from the top. Five or so Munchkins down the line from (maybe!) Mickey, it looks like little Margaret, facing Billy in his tall, tall hat. And if I’m wrong . . . I still like the thought! (If I’m right, Fern, and Margaret, and Betty have switched places since the preceding shot. 😊 )

I was always so pleased and grateful when I was able to share several of the OZ fiftieth anniversary events with my mom and dad. Wally Fricke was a lifelong movie fan; I first watched THE WIZARD OF OZ on a black-and-white TV, sitting on the floor at his feet. (Well, I did briefly crawl up into his lap when the Wicked Witch of the West sent the Winged Monkeys to the Haunted Forest to “Bring me that girl and her dog!,” but I was only five at the time.) This happened on November 3, 1956 – the movie’s initial nationwide telecast. From then on, both Wally and my mom, Dotty, were each other’s equal in supporting me in an instantly blooming passion for Oz and Judy Garland. That’s a whole other story of joy and caring and love, but they joined me in my excitement on many occasions. Here, in December 1989, mom and dad have gathered at St. Luke’s Christmas House for Cancer in Racine, Wisconsin, with Fern Formica, Margaret Pellegrini, the oldest Fricke son (that’s me!), and two local actors in costume. This was a long-time annual event in Racine: a different and appealing theme would be chosen each year (OZ was a natural in 1989), a vintage home was appropriately decorated, people paid to tour this unusual holiday locale, and the money went to a very fine cause. We were there to sign photos and books across several days.

And now . . . here’s to one of Nature’s Noblemen: Clarence Swensen — a marching Munchkin soldier of OZ. In 1938, he’d not yet met his wife-to-be, Myrna, but that’s because she and her parents (each of the three of them little people) were an MGM “no-show.” Though all had been offered roles in OZ, the family had been kept at home in Texas, thanks to Myrna’s emergency appendectomy; by the time she recovered, it was too late for them to make the trek to California. Fortunately, however, fate managed to align Clarence and Myrna back in Texas just a few years later.

If I’m correctly recalling the facts, Clarence was the first of the male Munchkins to have a replica costume made for his latter day Oz appearances. A dedicated fan created one for him, and he wore out a couple more – with pride! — as the years went by. Clarence and Myrna were glorious contributors to every festival and occasion, and after he died, she continued to be a delightedly welcome and honored guest, until her own health precluded attendance.

There are so many adjectives to ascribe to Clarence. He was appropriately affectionate and known for his hugs – yet he was always a gentleman of the old school: courtly, unfailingly polite, ever aware of what was going on around him, dignified — and jolly. (And if you’re thinking that’s a colossal package, you’d be right!)  When interviewed on stage and a request was made, he was delighted to leap up, in costume, and demonstrate the Munchkin soldier “goose-step” – at which, in his case, no one could take offense. Even better was a statement he used to make at the end of every Munchkin presentation. He would advance to the edge of the stage and say, with simplicity and sincerity: “I want to thank the public, because you made us what we are today.” (This photo typifies the warmth and glow of the Swensens – taken in Indiana circa 1994 or 1995.)

As noted, Margaret Pellegrini and Clarence were two of the Munchkins who presented themselves “in costume” at every event. The jolt of surprise and visible, tangible thrill this caused in audiences of all ages had to be seen — and felt — to be believed. As a result, and after many visits to Chittenango, both Margaret and Clarence wanted the All Things Oz Museum to possess one of each of their recreated ensembles. Here they are, now on permanent display among the other outstanding archival holdings in the central New York State village of Frank Baum’s birth.

What to say in conclusion – amidst all the memories, experiences, and gratitude? I could never express enough appreciation to all of the Munchkins referenced or pictured here, or in the preceding five blogs. They grew to trust me, which was a major point of pride. Over two decades, we arranged to travel and appear together whenever we could. Then, once we were “on location,” we’d sit up late or get up early — to eat or talk or both. In 2009, Jonathan Shirshekan and I invited Margaret Pellegrini to write the introduction for our seventieth anniversary book, THE WIZARD OF OZ: AN ILLUSTRATED COMPANION TO THE TIMELESS MOVIE CLASSIC. She kindly and beautifully summarized the association by offering, “[John] always sees that we’re looked after. He knows the questions to ask, so audiences hear our best stories. We finally made him an honorary Munchkin”!

As is shown by the Christmas House for Cancer photo above, the “miniature Metro mob” was also infinitely welcoming to my family — especially Ms. Pellegrini and the Swensens. I wasn’t even around for one of the most memorable of those occasions, when Margaret, Clarence, and Myrna were riding on the back of a flatbed truck in a suburban Milwaukee parade. They waved, nonstop, to streets lined with fans; among them were my mom, my sister-in-law, and my two youngest nieces, sitting in bleachers along the route. When the flatbed truck came briefly to an unexpected stop directly in front of the Fricke faction, my mom stood up and called out, “Hi, Margaret! Hi, Clarence! Hi, Myrna!” The three heads snapped in the direction of the greeting, and – as if they’d rehearsed it – they excitedly exclaimed, “DOTTY!” “DOTTY!” “DOTTY!” Then the three of them, heedless of the parade route, clambered OFF the truck into the street to greet the four Frickes — holding up the procession but elating my gleeful gang. 😊

This last is another previously used photo, but I have to share it one more time. It was taken of Clarence, Margaret, and me in OZ Park in Chittenango – the place where, of course, Oz “began.” And I am still surprised, in awe, and yet again five years old in viewing proof that I knew these two extraordinary and favorite Oz people – among all of those many others who have helped insure the continuing bliss, legend, and rapture of “homeboy” Frank Baum’s creation.

One all-important additional fact. It’s important to state that the kindness of the Munchkins to me was nothing out-of-the-ordinary. They were that kind of gracious and caring to everybody. They earned and warranted their retroactive fame and attention; “in person,” they made literally hundreds of thousands of people immeasurably euphoric in the process. “The little people who live[d] in this land” have now again become “the little people who LIVE in this land” – never, ever to be forgotten.

—————-

A special note of its own: I’m sure that everyone reading here will be moved and exhilarated to learn that one of Betty Ann Bruno’s replica Munchkin costumes has also been given to Chittenango’s All Things Oz Museum. It will be unveiled and dedicated there during the annual OZ-Stravaganza!, May 31st through June 2nd, 2024. 😊

“THE LITTLE PEOPLE WHO LIVE[D] IN THIS LAND” – PART 5

By: John Fricke

Above: This photo unquestionably captures one of the many Mt. Everest-like pinnacles of my own Oz festival associations. It was never anything less than the greatest joy, the greatest pleasure, and the greatest privilege to work several dozen times with the incomparable Margaret Pellegrini, movie Munchkin from THE WIZARD OF OZ. We were “caught” here, clowning on the Munchkinland bench in the Oz Park Poppy Field in Chittenango, NY, during a wonderful weekend roughly two decades ago. Her flowerpot hat upstages me – but Margaret could do that with a simple aside to an audience, and they loved it almost as much as I did. 😊

FOREWORD

In our August 26th entry for 2023 — posted on Chittenango’s All Things Oz and OZ-Stravaganza! Facebook pages (as well as on this blog site) — we celebrated the Oz festival of last June. The highlights of that weekend, of course, were provided by the song, dance, autographing-and-reminiscing participation of ninety-one-year-old Betty Ann Bruno, an original “MunchKid” from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 feature film, THE WIZARD OF OZ. This was Betty Ann’s second annual visit to the upstate New York village where L. Frank Baum was born in 1856. Mr. Baum went on to write THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900) and thirteen other Oz Books, and everybody involved in OZ-Stravaganza! (which has joyously honored him for more than four decades) happily anticipated that Betty Ann would make many return trips to his birthplace in the future.

Incidentally, for those unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s important to note here that the unofficially named “MunchKids” group was comprised of a dozen little girls from Hollywood dance schools who mostly “filled in” background spots on the MGM OZ set. Five, as of earlier this year, were still among us, although – as all are in their nineties – it was only Betty Ann who traveled.

Most unexpectedly, however, she herself passed away just a month after Chittenango’s forty-sixth festival. That shattering loss has since reminded me of other MGMunchkins, whose local appearances beginning in the late 1980s were much responsible for putting the village’s long-term Oz event on the map.

These men and women were among the 124 “little people” (as they preferred to be called) who played in the film. More than five years have passed since we lost the last of them, and it’s been more than a decade since any were able to appear in Chittenango. Although I was regularly on site for the local festival beginning in 1990, I wasn’t writing a blog for All Things Oz at any point “back in the day[s]” of the Munchkins’ 1989-2012 era of participation. This past summer, when Betty Ann left us, it occurred to me that it was more than appropriate that this space now provide a means of remembering some of the others who preceded her in dazzling central New Yorkers, as well as the Oz fans from all over the world who found their way to “Baum Country.” In this manner, we’re able to again celebrate their contributions, as we did those of Betty Ann in 2022 and 2023.

In line with that concept, this space has — across the last four months — heralded Munchkins Ruth Duccini, Karl Slover, Meinhardt Raabe, and Jerry Maren. Now we move on to arguably the best loved of all the festival-going corps of little people: “Miss Margaret” Pellegrini.

Above: Here’s a rare, peaceful moment on the Munchkinland set. Glinda, Dorothy, and Toto – i.e., Billie Burke, Judy Garland, and Terry – are all three either quietly rehearsing or just on momentary “hold.” As soon as Glinda begins her welcoming song, however (“Come out, come out, wherever you are, and meet the young lady who fell from a star”), they’ll be joined by more than one-hundred-and-thirty of those who “live” in that surrounding village.

THE FAVORITE . . .

MARGARET PELLEGRINI: THE MAGICAL MUNCHKIN

If you track down the 1994 home video documentary, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS, you’ll see a brief audio/visual clip that was photographed a year earlier at the Chesterton, IN, Oz Festival. The moment in question depicts three or four children costumed as movie characters from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ. They’re crowded around an open convertible; the vehicle is parked in line with other cars, preparatory to driving on to the annual parade.

Perched on the back seat of that car, however, is one of the approximately 124 “little people” who appeared in the 1939 film. Garbed in a duplicate of her townswoman/villager wardrobe and sporting a flower-pot hat on her head, she’s welcoming and encouraging to the kids. Suddenly, one of the children unhesitatingly and colloquially pipes up, “Are you theREALLY Munchkin?”

To which Margaret Pellegrini instantly responds, “Yes, I’m REALLY a Munchkin!”

She was, of course, so very much more. Yet her ultimately international fame came as an indefatigable representative of the cast of Metro’s OZ. During twenty-seven years of personal appearances at Ozzy events, festivals, and conventions, Margaret was sought after, greeted, hugged, and then held in fond memory by hundreds of thousands of people.

Above: In this closer view of Glinda, she assures the Munchkins they have nothing to fear from the recently arrived girl from Kansas. As for Margaret Pellegrini? She’s posed here in her dancing townswoman wardrobe, and you’ll find her just to the right of Judy Garland’s left hand. Notice, though, that a renegade Ozzy palm frond obscures most of her classic flowerpot hat. Margaret also had a second costume for the Munchkinland sequence, and in her own words, it was “a pink nightgown and bonnet with white lace trimming. I was put in the Sleepyhead Nest – I’m the second in the back. That nest was beautiful; it was pink satin. Even the eggs were lined in satin.”

The Pellegrini back story is best found in Steve Cox’s definitive history, THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ. As Steve notes, Margaret’s unexpected show business career and subsequent life as mother and grandmother (and eventually great- and great-great grandmother) was surprisingly topped off when Oz collector Tod Machin tracked her down – along with fellow Munchkins Fern Formica and Hazel Resmondo — to invite them to a 1985 birthday party for a senior citizen fan in Liberal, KS. By the time the OZ film celebrated its 50th anniversary four years later, the concurrent first edition book of Cox’s round-up research had been published as THE MUNCHKINS REMEMBER, and multiple other diminutive cast members also took to the circuit.

All the little people were feted. But from the onset, Margaret was In the forefront. She and Fern were the two youngest of the surviving little people, and the Pellegrini energy, accessibility, and spirit were outstanding. Always game, always rarin’ to go, she would stand (seldom sitting) through hour after hour of autograph sessions, photo ops, handshaking, and hugging.

Above: To save time, MGM catered the Munchkins’ noon meal in an area adjacent to their set. The challenge for the cast, of course, was to keep their costumes clean and food-free, but they managed it. Fifteen-year-old Margaret is shown as she comes down the aisle on the left, completely decked out for OZ and carrying her lunch tray.

Margaret Pellegrini embraced the world, from Sheffield, Alabama, on September 23, 1923, to Phoenix, AZ, on August 6, 2013 — and there’s no counting the stops in between. She was a strong and vital human being, withstanding occasional chaos at home and surviving the loss of husband, both her children, and a great-great grandchild. But she found renewal, peace, and company both with the family she loved and among the hordes of strangers everywhere who ecstatically recognized and embraced (figuratively and literally) a true Ozian. The International Wizard of Oz Club certainly honored her; she was the 2011 recipient of their L. Frank Baum Memorial Award.

My own personal memories of Margaret are incalculable. There were shared hours on stages from coast-to-coast, where — once we knew each other well, and SHE knew she could tease me to the max — she’d sometimes commandeer my microphone and stride to center stage so as to take over and joyously disrupt the proceedings. The voluble glee of the all-ages audiences on every such occasion doesn’t need to be described. 😊

There was, as well, the visual, visceral joy one felt at seeing a muumuu’d Margaret walking hotel hallways after-hours, looking to unwind with the festivalgoers who’d long since become trusted compadres. This invariably led to her lighting upon a chair in the lodging’s lobby or on the bed in someone’s room, as many loyal constituents and courtiers relished the never-waning thrill of sitting on the carpeted floor in a semi-circle at her feet. She and we would talk away the hours, tackling – it seems — a million or more topics. Sometimes, those late-night conversations would enable Margaret to privately, wisely, and pointedly vent about those whom she felt had somehow betrayed Oz. Or we’d hear about her original “discovery” by other little people, as she passed out potato chip samples for her brother-in-law at the Tennessee State Fair. She was then too young to accept their invitation to leave home and join their legitimate troupe, but on request, she nonetheless gave them her contact information. A year or so later, she heard from a Los Angeles theatrical agent, who offered her a job.

It was THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Above: One of the tiniest, cutest, and most talented of those playing Munchkins in OZ, Margaret constantly found herself placed in view on camera. Sometimes, she’d be in the distance; sometimes (as in these two pictures), she’d be more to the fore. At top: In this frame from footage taken just prior to (or just after) a “take,” you can plainly see Margaret and her blue flowerpot hat, above Judy Garland’s right shoulder. Below that photo, the Munchkins are shown after they’ve escorted Dorothy to the border of their country. Margaret was a good dancer and – moments prior to this shot – she was one of the preeminent females to swing out of the throng and into formation behind the five little fiddlers. As the citizenry marched and frolicked forward in farewell, they sang, “You’re Off to See the Wizard,” and this moment captures the finale of their rendition. The blue flowerpot is once again your “clue”; this time, Margaret is in the second row, far to the right and just behind the fifth miniature violinist.

Perhaps the best of all these late night activities came with the opportunity to watch in amazement as Margaret — after twelve or more hours of stand-up, hard work at “posing and signing” – gleefully galloped back to the hotel; doffed the Munchkin garb; donned slacks, comfortable shoes, and a formal, iridescent pullover top; and then trotted off to the nearest casino until the wee hours. (She more-than-frequently seemed to win, too!)

There’s no question that THE WIZARD OF OZ Munchkins had to wait a long time to be recognized for their movie-associated fame. But how fortunate were the countless fans to find that nearly three decades of Oz festivities eventually came to be populated and led by “the little people who live[d] in” that land. To be sure, it would have been wonderful to see Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, or Judy Garland in an Oz parade. Yet by the 1980s and 1990s, their ages and altered appearances would have been confusing (at best) for the myriad young fans along any route. The Munchkins, however, were instantly identifiable: they were still small, still child-size, still conceivably direct from the Yellow Brick Road.

Or at least Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Above: All the surviving Munchkins became popular and public favorites. Here – from left – the jubilant “first trumpeter” Karl Slover, Margaret, and “Lollipop Guild” mainstay Jerry Maren are shown in a celebratory mood during a festival “wrap party.”

Finally! Here and now, for me, for many of us — and for the record and with no exaggeration whatsoever — I want to state that the most adored of all our Munchkin little people was Margaret Pellegrini. It didn’t matter what she was wearing; in street garb, formal garb, gambling garb, or in the petticoats and plastic that “poofed” her costume skirt and puffy sleeves (not to forget the omnipresent and headache-inducing flowerpot hat), she was everyone’s pal, everyone’s cherished companion, everyone’s wise counsel.

Everyone’s irreplaceable and indisputably magical Munchkin. 

Above: We end as we began: Same duo! Same location! At the Chittenango OZ-Stravaganza! (But it’s a different year than that shown up top.) Margaret and I were like everyone else: We knew that such event participation was an honor, and we elatedly anticipated our reunions around the country, year after year. Some of the attendant magic was captured in the aforementioned VHS documentary, the box cover of which is also shown above. There’s a bad copy of the film on YouTube; it’s been inexpertly transferred, and we’re all stretched sideways! But it provides an opportunity to hear eight of the extraordinary little people tell their own stories. I don’t think anyone seeing it — or reading here — will doubt my sincerity when I say that I will spend the rest of my life indebtedly acknowledging that “I knew the Munchkins!” 😊

[This blog was expanded and edited from a briefer John Fricke feature that appeared in THE BAUM BUGLE: A JOURNAL OF OZ (Winter 2013) — a publication of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. (ozclub.org)]

“THE LITTLE PEOPLE WHO LIVE[D] IN THIS LAND” – PART 4

By John Fricke

Above: Eighteen-year-old Jerry Maren is the “Lollipop Guild” representative in the center here — most certainly “caught in the act” at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Culver City, CA, in December 1938. On the left is Jackie Gerlich, twenty-one; on the right, Harry Doll, who was nearly forty. Age wasn’t a consideration when the three men were cast together; they were matched for the Munchkin trio because they were basically the same height, and it was felt that they would look good together.

FOREWORD

In our August 26th entry — posted on Chittenango’s All Things Oz and OZ-Stravaganza! Facebook pages (as well as on this blog site) — we celebrated 2023’s Oz festival. The highlights of that weekend, of course, were provided by the song, dance, autographing-and-reminiscing participation of ninety-one-year-old Betty Ann Bruno, an original “MunchKid” from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 feature film, THE WIZARD OF OZ. This was Betty Ann’s second annual visit to the upstate New York village where L. Frank Baum was born in 1856. Mr. Baum went on to write THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900) and thirteen other Oz Books, and one and all involved in the OZ-Stravaganza! that has joyously honored him for more than four decades happily anticipated that Betty Ann would make many return trips to his birthplace in the future.

Incidentally, for those unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s important to note here that the unofficially named “MunchKids” were comprised of a dozen little girls from Hollywood dance schools who mostly “filled in” background spots on the MGM OZ set. Five, as of earlier this year, were still among us, although – as all are in their nineties – it was only Betty who traveled.

Most unexpectedly, however, she herself passed away just a month after Chittenango’s forty-sixth festival. The shattering loss of Betty has since reminded me of other MGMunchkins, whose local appearances beginning in the late 1980s were much responsible for putting the village’s long-term Oz event on the map.

These men and women were among the 124 “little people” (as they preferred to be called) who played in the film; more than five years have passed since we lost the last of them, and it’s been more than a decade since any were able to appear in Chittenango. As I wasn’t doing a blog across the 1989-2012 era of their participation, it occurred to me that this autumn might be an opportune time to especially remember some of them. In that manner, we’re able to again celebrate their contributions as we did those of Betty Ann in 2022 and 2023.

So, in keeping with such a “tribute” concept, this blog heralded Munchkins Ruth Duccini, Karl Slover, and Meinhardt Raabe across the last three months. Today, we move on to one of the most recognizable of all of Judy Garland’s Ozian welcoming corps: “The Lollipop Guild” kid in the middle!

Above: Moments after her arrival from Kansas, Dorothy Gale looks around Munchkinland. It’s a posed still, as Judy Garland is actually never seen on the bridge in the OZ film itself. This art, however, gives a rare, clear view of a good portion of the set, as — once Billie Burke (Glinda) hove into view and beckoned “the little people who live in this land” to “come out, come out, wherever you are” — the plaza was never again this uninhabited for the rest of the sequence!

“AND IN THE NAME OF THE LOLLIPOP GUILD. . . ”:

HERE’S JERRY MAREN!

He’s one of very few MGM Munchkins from THE WIZARD OF OZ to write – in company with revered pop culture historian Steve Cox — a full autobiography. (Betty Ann Bruno and Meinhardt Raabe are two of the others.) Yet it’s safe to say that one could do no better than to seek out a copy of SHORT AND SWEET/THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE LOLLIPOP MUNCHKIN (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2008) to get a sumptuously illustrated sense of the life and times of — as it’s put in the heralding copy — “The Most Famous Midget Since Tom Thumb.”

As Jerry’s professional career spanned nine decades, we can only trace highlights here. Gerard Marenghi was the youngest (and the only height-challenged) of twelve children, born January 24, 1920, in Roxbury, MA. His entertainment career began informally; he followed Anna, one of his sisters, to her dancing classes, aced any challenges there, and by the time he was sixteen or seventeen, he ended up performing in a hotel cabaret show with his dancing teachers. They were billed as Three Steps and A Half – the latter two words, of course, referenced the diminutive Jerry. In best traditional “show biz” fashion, he was seen in that act by an agent, who offered him a not-great-deal to appear in the all-midget western movie, THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN. A family counsel of Marenghis wisely turned it down, but it was Jerry’s sister Rae (“she was my encouragement”) who soon thereafter saw the following newspaper notice: “Mervyn LeRoy needs 100 midgets for WIZARD OF OZ, address him at MGM.” She submitted Jerry’s photo and received in return a telegram from Loew’s, Inc. (Metro’s parent company), asking that Jerry come to New York to catch the bus and meet two dozen other little people who were being driven west to be in the film. As MGM’s offer included transportation, hotel, meals, and fifty dollars a week, Jerry – fresh out of high school – accepted it.

When he got to NYC, Loew’s put the teen up at a hotel and the next day, he foregathered in Times Square for a promotional “photo op” before getting out of town. In the top picture below, he’s third from the left in the front row. In the second picture, he’s the second actor in the fourth window from the left, under the CHARTERED signage. (This photo was chosen for our blog because it both shows Jerry — already seemingly happy, excited, and “at home” with all the strangers — and provides a clear view of the ballyhoo banner that would promote MGM’s forthcoming film — ten months prior to its release! — as these Munchkins-to-be were carted across country. 😊 )

The work itself began in an MGM rehearsal hall, where Jerry’s life became increasingly exhilarating. Quickly cast as one of “The Lollipop Guild,” he was told that his salary — while filming — would jump to $100 per week; his later recollection is that impresario/entrepreneur Leo Singer took a twenty-five per cent cut of that. (Singer held the contract with the studio to provide most of the Munchkins appearing in the picture, and it was his vaudeville troupe of two dozen or more little people that made up the nucleus of that specific OZ ensemble.) Although savvy businessman Maren would die a millionaire eighty years later, the teenage Jerry didn’t worry much about financial arrangements in 1938. He and his compatriots elatedly jumped into four weeks of music rehearsal, staging, wardrobe fittings, and make-up and wig tests. The costume reference photo below, taken at Metro in December 1938, shows the Munchkin trio who were termed the “3 Little Tough Boys”; Jerry is once again center, with Jackie Gerlich (misspelled Gerligh on the chalk board) on his left and Harry Doll on his right:

As rehearsals progressed, those in charge realized that Jerry had unusual presence and charisma – and that he was one of the tiniest and cutest of the Munchkin cast. Director Victor Fleming, choreographer Bobby Connolly, and his assistants Dona Massin and Arthur “Cowboy” Appel thus utilized the kid from Roxbury all over the set. One of the most quietly comical Maren moments happens when the Wicked Witch of the West explosively appears, mid-plaza, in Munchkinland. Jerry is upstage, on the right hand side of the screen. On cue, he dashes from right to left and jumps in the window of one of the Munchkinland huts. Thereafter, whenever that hut is seen during Margaret Hamilton’s scene, there’s a pair of striped green and white stockings sticking out of the window frame. Additionally, there are some close-ups of Glinda – with several Munchkins, including Jerry, behind her — as she’s speaking to Dorothy. When the film cuts to a response shot, with Judy talking to Billie Burke, there are Munchkins behind Judy, too . . . also including Jerry! He’s frequently that omnipresent, as in the moment illustrated below as the gathering sings “We welcome you to Munchkinland” to Dorothy. The latter holds the lollipop Jerry had given her moments before: 

Even though their singing voices were dubbed (per surviving studio records by Billy Bletcher, Pinto Colvig, and Harry Stanton), the “3 Little Tough Boys” made an immediate hit with OZ audiences when the film premiered. Harrison Carroll reviewed the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre opening night screening for the Los Angeles HERALD-EXAMINER, and the next day (August 16, 1939), he wrote, “Three midgets who receive no program credit offer a scene-stealing bit in [the ‘Munchkinland’] sequence.” The moment that especially tickled the audience came immediately after the “Lollipop Guild” song, when Jerry, Harry, and Jackie backed up — each with his own two hands clasped together and raised triumphantly over his head — in the then-standard imitation of a prize-winning boxer at a sporting event. This production still depicts the moment just before that:

Gleefully enough, Jerry was there at Grauman’s to share that memorable moment of spectator recognition. He and four fellow Munchkins were enlisted by MGM to “inhabit” the theater courtyard – wearing costumes from the film – so as to greet the stars and general public in attendance. Here they pose with Glinda herself, Billie Burke; from left: Tommy Cottonaro, Jerry (wearing the garb of the Munchkin Mayor just for the occasion), Billie, Nona Cooper, and Victor Wetter. In this shot, the latter two unfortunately and pretty much completely obscure another Munchkin, Billy Curtis:

When filming of “Munchkinland” was completed circa New Year’s Eve 1938, most of the little people — some as singles, some In duos, some in groups — went back home or returned to their respective vaudeville, supper club, theater, and circus engagements. Jerry, however, stayed in Hollywood – and really never left.

He also – at least seemingly — never again stopped working. Just days after completing OZ, Jerry was cast by MGM in an “Our Gang” short subject, TINY TROUBLES.  This was immediately followed by a featured role in THE MARX BROS. AT THE CIRCUS, and throughout the next sixty-plus years, he conquered every entertainment medium. Jerry amassed more than seventy motion picture and television credits; the former include HERE WE GO AGAIN (in which he played the running, dancing, and highly active incarnations of Edgar Bergen’s ventriloquist dummies, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd), SAMSON AND DELILAH, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, PLANET OF THE APES, HELLO, DOLLY!, THE APPLE DUMPING GANG, and UNDER THE RAINBOW. (Heavily cloaked, Jerry was even one of the “Dinks” in SPACEBALLS.) He also did “doubling” and/or minor stunts for child actors, and that work included television shows, as well. These days, and thanks to nostalgia TV cable channels, it’s very easy (and a lot of fun) to watch for Jerry’s appearances on such classic series as – among others — THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, BEWITCHED, HERE’S LUCY, THE ODD COUPLE, THE WILD, WILD WEST, STAR TREK, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, and NIGHT COURT. He had a recurring stint on THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW (as the Little German General) and a regular job as finale confetti-tosser on THE GONG SHOW. Perhaps topping much of the foregoing, Jerry and his real-life wife, Elizabeth Barrington, played the parents of Kramer’s girlfriend in a definitive episode of SEINFELD.

Amazingly, there was much more. The diverse Maren talents extended to radio roles; a World War II USO tour with fellow ‘little person” Billy Curtis; and a song and dance coupling with Jeanette Fern. (Both Curtis and Jeanette were OZ veterans as well.) Onstage, Jerry appeared as the Munchkin Mayor in a production of OZ and as one of the seven dwarfs in a massive mounting of Disney’s SNOW WHITE at the outdoor, eleven-thousand-seat St. Louis MUNY Opera. Finally, there were his lucrative commercials and product representations; outstanding among these were long-term employment as both Buster Brown and Little Oscar. (In the latter capacity, he extensively toured with the Wiener Mobile!) Those extraordinary occupations were followed by a ten year stint with McDonalds – primarily as either The Hamburglar or Mayor McCheese.

Just above, you’ll have read a reference to Elizabth Barrington. Another little person, she was the opposite of Jerry in that she was the oldest (but, again, the only height-challenged) of twelve kids. Jerry and Elizabeth married in 1975, built a Hollywood house for themselves “to scale,” and thereafter worked both separately and together. In the latter category – and in Jerry’s own “return to the rainbow” – the Marens appeared in a brief Munchkin fantasy sequence in THE DREAMER OF OZ (1990), a TV-movie biography starring John Ritter as L. Frank Baum. In the publicity art just below, Courtney Barilla appears with Jerry, Elizabeth, and Joe Griffo. (Ms. Barilla played a real-life niece of Frank Baum who died very young. Her parents had dubbed her Dorothy, and very soon thereafter, Baum used that name for a little girl about whom he was writing a book . . ..)

By that juncture in Jerry’s life, however – and amidst all else — Oz was never far away. Reunions of surviving Munchkin players were launched with the fiftieth anniversary of the MGM film in 1989. Oz festivals sprang up around the county, and pending their budgets, imported the little people as special guests – and very special attractions. Some of the occasions were one-time-only events, but several others became annual festivals. Additionally, the Munchkins began to turn up in countless TV and radio interviews, on talk shows, and in video documentaries.

A long-overdue and deserved honor was then provided them when Chicago-area theater manager, Ted Bulthaup – who’d featured the Munchkins as special guests at his venues — began a lobbying campaign within the film industry to get the Munchkins their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Major influencers fell in line to endorse Bulthaup’s idea and to appeal to the Mayor of Hollywood to get onboard with the project. (Among those in support:  Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ted Turner, Roger Ebert, Hugh Hefner, Tippi Hedren, Mickey Rooney, Leonard Maltin, TCM, the AFI – and every major Hollywood studio: Warner Bros, Universal, MGM, Sony, Disney, and Paramount.) It all came to pass on November 20, 2007; from left, below: Clarence Swensen, Jerry, Mickey Carroll, Karl Slover, Ruth Duccini, Margaret Pellegrini, and Meinhardt Raabe:

Two years later, Jerry and four of the Munchkins — plus Lorna Luft (Judy Garland’s daughter) and yours truly joined forces in New York City for three days of press conferences, radio, TV and internet interviews, and a by-invitation-only party at Central Park’s famed Tavern on the Green restaurant. Our efforts hailed the new seventieth anniversary OZ book (which I coauthored with Jonathan Shirshekan) and seventieth anniversary DVD set (which I helped produce). All these festivities were capped by a screening of THE WIZARD OF OZ at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. Oddy enough, for all their coast-to-coast festivals and gatherings, the Munchkins – en masse — had never before done an open-to-the public Manhattan appearance. When they took stage that morning, it was a complete surprise for the supposedly urbane, sophisticated (and all-ages) NYC audience, which went immediately and unquietly mad. The crowd — including Spike Lee — gave increasingly greater response to each brief anecdote or song snippet rendered by the five little people. (Lovingly, Jerry never tired of singing his five-line theme to an appreciative throng – and no spectators anywhere could ever get enough of it.) Across those days, the constant posing resulted in this photograph; from left: Meinhardt, Jerry, Ruth, Margaret, Karl, Lorna Luft (at right) and me (at left):

Jerry made what was basically his last formal public appearance by returning again to the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. This time, however, it was all about him, as he autographed – and placed his hand and footprints in — a block of cement. Swamped by photographers from international news services, he obliged one and all, and when the ceremony was over, he then willingly moved to the barricades beyond the theater forecourt to greet some of the hundreds of fans who’d gathered to concur with that day’s unique entertainment accolade. Ronnee Sass of Warner Bros. Classic Home Video was largely responsible for propelling the event to reality; we lost Ronnee in 2021, but she’s shown in the picture below with Jerry and me “on the day” in September 2023. (I was on hand for his “cement event,” as it was one of many anticipatory, celebratory aspects initiating another OZ anniversary. This included the launch of an even more elaborate deluxe DVD set and — notably! — inaugurated the debut of the 3D version of the film itself. Warner Bros. invited me to serve as their spokesperson for all the seventy-fifth birthday proceedings, and these included emcee duties at the 3D premiere, held right back at the Chinese Theatre, where – as referenced above – the film had received its official Los Angeles debut in 1939.)

During those days in 2013, Jerry also enjoyed a reunion with Ruth Duccini; at that point, they were the final surviving little people Munchkins of THE WIZARD OF OZ. He poignantly and privately told her that he didn’t “want to be the last” to go, but Ruthie quietly preceded him in 2014. Meanwhile, Jerry’s Elizabeth had unexpectedly passed in 2011, and it was left to Jerry to retire and otherwise quietly withdraw. He welcomed and enjoyed the occasional familiar visitor to his assisted living situation; he much more frequently and much more often enjoyed his omnipresent cigars — until he, too, passed on May 24, 2018.

Needless to say, there are countless other Maren career highlights. (Please seek out the Maren/Cox tome mentioned above; it’s a journalistic and pictorial beauty!) Finally, however, I’ll speak personally — grateful and privileged to be able to note that Jerry and Elizabeth and I worked together perhaps eighty times between 1989 and 2010. Their nickname for me was “Big John,” and my memories of their dynamism are vast and powerful.

So this month’s blog comes (as always) with gratitude to them – and to any and all of you for reading this far and sharing in recollections of some of Jerry’s countless accomplishments. He was a lovely but “real” human being, with an extraordinary sense of humor, memory, and loyalty. The last photo, below, is the Jerry I knew and continue to treasure. He was about to launch one of his innumerable appearances, with his lollipop prop and his ready smile – and the anticipation of his own joy at the opportunity to please another few hundred children (and people who used to be children). Lining up, sometimes for hours, they never could believe they were going to meet HIM. . . yet there he was: ready to sign, to kibitz, to josh with the very youngest of his cult. 😊 (Sudden remembrance: how he’d invent, on the spot, alliterative nicknames for the kids: “Your name is Patty? I’m going to call you ‘Patty Petunia’!”)

And I’ll never forget Elizabeth, always right there, alongside: a cheerleader, a caregiver, a wonderful wife. With her at hand to help with the fans and photos and fun, Jerry was ever-ready, and – to the benefit of all – ever on the circuit, just as you see here.

One last thought and realization: For Jerry Maren — as with so many of us – it all started with Oz! 😊

“THE LITTLE PEOPLE WHO LIVE[D] IN THIS LAND” – PART 3

By John Fricke

[Above: This famous MGM OZ still has been colorized, but it gives an inkling of one of the surprise elements the movie provided audiences back in the day — when “real” Technicolor was new, bright, and exciting. Metro’s publicity department chose it as one of the most representative of the Munchkinland moments, and it’s been widely reprinted for more than eighty-four years — although generally in black-and-white. Of course, front and center is Judy Garland, while (a couple of little people to her left) is Mayor Charlie Becker, and immediately to her right is the subject of this particular blog: the one-and-only Meinhardt Raabe as the Munchkin Coroner!]

FOREWORD

In our August 26th entry, posted on the various Chittenango, New York, All Things Oz and OZ-Stravaganza! Facebook pages (as well as its blog site), we celebrated 2023’s Oz festival. The weekend highlight, of course, was the song/dance/autographing/reminiscing participation of ninety-one-year-old Betty Ann Bruno, an original “MunchKid” from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 feature film, THE WIZARD OF OZ. This was Betty Ann’s second annual visit to the birthplace village of L. Frank Baum – author of the original book and next thirteen titles of the subsequent series — and we joyously anticipated she would make many returns to us in the future. Incidentally, for those unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s important to note here that the unofficially-named MunchKids were comprised of a dozen little girls from Hollywood dance schools who mostly “filled in” background spots on the MGM OZ set. Five, as of earlier this year, were still among us, although — well into their nineties – the only one who traveled was Betty.

Most unexpectedly, however, Betty Ann herself passed away just a month after that forty-sixth festival. Such a shattering loss has since reminded me of other MGMunchkins, whose appearances beginning in the late 1980s were much responsible for putting Chittenango’s long-term, annual Oz event on the map.

These were among the 124 “little people” who played in the film; five years have passed since we lost the last of them, and it’s been more than a decade since any were able to appear in Chittenango. As I wasn’t doing a blog across the 1989-2012 era of their participation, it occurred to me that this autumn might be an opportune time to especially remember some of them. In that manner, we’re able to again celebrate their contributions as we did those of Betty Ann in 2022 and 2023.

In keeping with this concept of tribute, we heralded Munchkins Ruth Duccini and Karl Slover in September and October. Today, we move on to one of the most recognizable of all Dorothy Gale’s Ozian welcoming corps: the famous Coroner.

[Above: Although the interior of the Emerald City itself was the largest of THE WIZARD OF OZ sets, Munchkinland was certainly a near-equal. This rare overhead photograph, taken from an MGM catwalk, offers an insider’s view of the darkened soundstage – with the actual set bathed in the intense hot lights then required to film in the three-strip Technicolor process.]
MY FIRST MUNCHKIN MEINHARDT RAABE

By the late 1970s, The International Wizard of Oz Club had begun its third decade of organized Ozian activities. Their publication, THE BAUM BUGLE had appeared – consistently – since summer 1957 and become not only an entertaining fanzine but an ever-more valued, professional, bountifully illustrated, and extraordinary periodical. The BUGLE has consistently shared an immeasurable abundance of research and rapture: long-past and previously unavailable Oz history, contemporary Oz news, insight as to collectibles of all vintages, biographical information re: salient Ozians, bibliography . . . and oz-cetera!

The Club’s sortie into the social aspects of joy-OZ-ly celebrating the L. Frank Baum (et al) creations had burgeoned from the onset of the group, as well. The first “Oz Convention” was held in 1961 in the Midwest, and it thereafter continued for decades as an annual event, spurring other meetings and parties in that basic area — plus regional assemblies “down South,” “up North,” and on both East and West Coasts. The get-togethers often bore titles that reflected their geographical locations in terms of places in Oz; thus the eventual designation of the East Coast “Munchkin” Convention.

Across its first decade – from the late 1960s into the late 1970s – that latter assemblage hosted such notable celebrities as “Royal Historian” Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote twenty-one Oz books between 1921 and 1976, and Mrs. John R. Neill, widow of the great Oz illustrator (and sometime author) from 1904-1942. But it wasn’t until Meinhardt Raabe — pronounced Mine-heart Robb-ie – read about the “Munchkin Convention” in a local East Coast newspaper that the Club met its first REAL Munchkin from the cast of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ movie musical. The press announcement was brief and generic enough to lead Meinhardt to believe that the gathering was a get-together of other little people from that area – who had nothing whatsoever to do with Oz. As he unwittingly strode into a hotel meeting room full of Oz decorations and diverse Oz maniacs, however, he was as amazed by what he saw as were those who watched his entrance. Yet the mutual curiosity was quickly supplanted by vibrant enthusiasm on all sides.

[Above: Flanked by two other eminent Munchkin-ians, Coroner Meinhardt Raabe and Mayor Charlie Becker pose for costume, hair style, and preliminary make-up tests. All four are perched on a small platform at MGM Studios, Culver City, California, in December 1938.]

Katie and Susan Koelle were young women at that point, but we’d already known each other for a decade or more. They were regular attendees (first as little girls with their mom, collector/vital Club participant Barbara Koelle) at the national Oz Club convention in the Midwest. Supremely hip, hep, and adult early on, they became good friends to me and were well aware of my own initial “passage to Oz” at age five, when I saw the MGM movie on TV. Thus, when Meinhardt made his surprise experience near Philadelphia – the Koelles’ Eastern USA home locale — they were kind enough to get his autograph for me, which they then mailed off and (politely!) asked if I could confirm his Munchkin legitimacy. He really didn’t need such confirmation – but I could and did offer it. 😊 Under judicious prodding from incomparable Club Secretary Fred M. Meyer – this was circa 1965-66 (when I was fourteen or fifteen) — I’d undertaken to research and prepare what turned out to be the first-ever history of the making of MGM’s OZ. It had appeared in the Autumn 1969 issue of THE BAUM BUGLE, celebrating the film’s thirtieth anniversary, and one included factoid was the text from my hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, theater ad for the local premiere engagement of OZ in 1939. That booking also boasted a concurrent, “live” onstage appearance by “Munchkin Coroner Meinhardt Raabe”!

[Above: Meinhardt took a leave-of-absence from his job with The Oscar Mayer Company when he went off to film THE WIZARD OF OZ. He was, as shown here, for many, many years one of the company’s mainstays. He’s garbed in his MGM costume, so this image probably dates from his promotional appearances in late 1939-early 1940, as he toured with the movie. Note, of course, the Wienermobile!]

Over the second decade of the Munchkin Conventions across the late 1970s into the late 1980s, Meinhardt and his treasured wife, Marie, were periodic and informal “drop-ins.” (I met him at one of those – and he was, indeed, My First Munchkin!) The Raabes’ subsequent visits inspired him to delightedly bring along “show’n’tell,” including his set of original 1939 OZ lobby cards. (He’d received them as a gift from a theater owner when Meinhardt and his Oscar Mayer wiener samples and Wienermobile toured the Balaban and Katz cinema chain to promote the movie in its initial release.) He also displayed the extensive scrapbook of movie star autographs and signed photos he collected during his approximately seven weeks on the MGM lot while working “in” OZ. Primary among them was an eight-by-ten portrait of the film’s sixteen-year-old star, which had been signed: “To Meinhardt, a perfect coroner and person, too. Love, Judy.”

Then, the film’s golden anniversary in 1989 led to an astonishing media and product onslaught. I was very fortunate to be caught in the middle of it all, having written THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE OFFICIAL 50th ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL HISTORY and authoring besides a thirty-five page booklet, packaged with the ultimately outrageously best-selling (three million units!) VHS tape. Between Warner Books and MGM/UA Home Video, I was sent to more than a dozen major cities for TV and radio appearances and book signings; I was also given the opportunity to begin a series of emcee and speaking duties at the burgeoning Oz festivals around the country. One of the major boons of this came in working with Meinhardt and, in turn, launching a warm and wonderful alliance with nearly twenty other MGM Munchkins. Although only a dozen or so were thereafter available or willing to continue traveling to meet their fans – and the surviving little people seemed to lose their fellow actors on a regular basis after 1990 – that core of hardy and hearty types made it to Chittenango, to Grand Rapids, Minnesota (Judy Garland’s birthplace), Chesterton, Indiana, Liberal, Kansas (and then Wamego, Kansas) . . . and on and on.

The Raabes were an integral feature of all those locales and venues. In fact, I owe Meinhardt maximum gratitude for recommending me to the Chittenango Oz faction. After he and I worked together multiple times for the fiftieth anniversary, he told the organizers in L. Frank Baum’s hometown – where he’d already appeared — that I knew a lot about Baum, Oz, and the MGM movie, and that I might make a good addition to their event. In early 1990, I received one of the many phone calls that has beautifully impacted on my life, and I’ve been part of the Chittenango excitement (now officially OZ-Stravaganza!) ever since.

[Above: Here are some of us at a wrap party after one of the first of the Chittenango Oz Festival appearances I was invited to do. Collector Extraordinaire Michael Mickacel (from Canada) was part of this “fare-thee-well” pose; otherwise, from left: Jerry (“Lollipop Guild”) Maren and his wife, Elizabeth; “Sleepyhead-In-the-Nest” and “Flower Pot Hat” Dancing Munchkin Margaret Pellegrini; and Marie and Meinhardt Raabe.]

Meinhardt’s estimation of my worth always meant a great deal. The fact that we were both proud natives of Wisconsin (he from Watertown, born on September 2, 1915) gave us extra “foundation” when we began building our friendship. At this point, I can’t recall all the places we first aligned, but several special occasions here in New York City in August 1989 remain vivid recollections. Meinhardt was part of the Macy’s tie-in celebration, when their Herald Square flagship store was transformed into Oz for a couple of weeks: emerald-green carpeting, scores of Oz mannequins, parties, receptions, presentations – and even “Tap-OZ-Mania.” This last saw 4,877 people gather outside the building on West 34th Street to perform a routine to the deleted OZ movie song, “The Jitterbug.” Across the next few days of merriment, Meinhardt and Marie (among several other OZ Munchkins) came by my one-room apartment for a welcome-to-NYC reception for my mom and dad. Once again, the Raabes were genuinely pleased to meet fellow Wisconsin-ians and manifested a genuine rapport with Dotty and Wally Fricke. (Meanwhile, the residents of this Times Square-area building spoke for years afterward about the startling thrill of getting into an elevator that was transporting residents of Oz!)

Finally, there was an invitational, official anniversary screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that August where both the PICTORIAL HISTORY BOOK and new video were launched. On the way into the theater for the presentation, one of the MGM executives asked me if I would “take over” and introduce the special guests and movie. His confidence was much appreciated, but it would have been nice to have more than a three-minute warning! However, as I have blessedly and thankfully found is often the case, “God sends the words” – and I knew that whatever I said was going to be acceptable to that elite crowd . . . because when I introduced Meinhardt, and he took a bow, the purportedly sophisticated New Yorkers let out a thrilled holler that forever decimated the idea that these City Dwellers were too blasé to suppress a life-long love of Oz – and couldn’t wait to salute a real, live Munchkin in the process.

[Above: A rare variation of the standard Munchkinland still shown up top; this one is much more informal and “in action.” Or, perhaps, it’s “in between” takes, as the actors all look as if they’re in comfortable conversation rather than performance mode. I was able to purchase this still (for $1.00!) back in the 1960s and always treasured it for its informality and unusual view. It was then, in 1989, a proud “share” in the 1989 50th Anniversary OZ coffee-table book.]

The same reaction – even greater – came with one of Meinhardt’s final appearances here in 2009 for the film’s seventieth anniversary. This go-round, the film was shown at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Cener, and while the packed crowd was once again celebrity-strewn (Spike Lee among them), the showing was open to the public as well. However, they only expected to see the movie. Period. When I was introduced and “oversaw” the positioning of five onstage chairs – and began to introduce five MGM Munchkins — there was another indescribable roar of ecstatic glee (or gleeful ecstasy). This was only surpassed when each of the little people offered a “bit” about themselves or some recreation of a bit from the film itself. Although his voice was actually dubbed in the motion picture, Meinhardt had absolutely no problem in chanting “live”—for one and all — the E. Y. “Yip” Harburg lyrical couplet about the Wicked Witch of the East: “As Coroner, I must aver/I thoroughly examined her/And she’s not only merely dead/She’s really most sincerely dead!”

[Above: Watertown, Oconto, and Milwaukee are respectively represented by these three born-and-bred Wisconsinites: Meinhardt, center; my mom, Dotty Fricke; right, and yours truly on the left. This was taken on the Munchkin Cruise, circa March 2002.]

Another shared bond, amidst all those years, led to one of the singular interactions of our lives. In 2002, I was asked to participate in a week- long Caribbean “Munchkin Cruise.” L. Frank Baum’s highly personable great-grandson Robert, his equally nifty wife, Clare, and several of the little people were also among the special guests. Meanwhile, my mom (who by then knew all the surviving Munchkins) flew down and joined the ship at embarkation in Florida. There were several dozen specific aficionados who were part of the onboard Ozzy contingent; one of them was the drily ebullient Pat Kinske of Michigan. We’d met before, and as her son, Navy Lt. Daniel Kinske, was then anticipating the conclusion of his service and wanted to pursue work in journalism, we discussed writing as a career. In the process, Pat learned that Danny was stationed near Meinhardt’s home in Florida, so we arranged a meeting between them. The Lieutenant’s first major project thus became the gloriously assembled, gorgeously mounted, and colorfully pictured MEMORIES OF A MUNCHKIN: AN ILLUSTRATED WALK DOWN THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD by Mr. Raabe himself.

In truth, it was Dan who invested the time, money, and industry to assemble one of the most lavish of all the OZ movie history books. Yet it was Meinhardt’s memories and reputation – and the public affection in which he was held – that made a saleable product and very well received souvenir.

By now, it must be apparent that these decades of professional memories are endless. The personal memories of Meinhardt, however, center on his love for – and feisty relationship with – his treasured-by-all wife Marie. (Her patience with his idiosyncrasies was sometimes off the charts, but everyone adored her for it!) Many can also reflect on the garden named for him behind the Chittenango Village Hall, which he faithfully tended during his visits to Baum’s birthplace; on his radiant face as he posed on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” when the Munchkins received their pavement “star”; and the fact that – despite his increasing frailty and diminished energy – all one had to do was hand him a microphone and ask him to kick across “his” OZ lyric. To the very end, it then rang out with power, volume, distinction, enunciation, and pride!

Early on in life – despite his college education and because of his size –Meinhardt was initially dismissed by educators and employers. So, from the onset of his careers, he would then quietly, calmly, and determinedly demonstrate his perseverance, intelligence, abilities and dedication – and get the jobs. He was treasured for decades as one of the “Little Oscars (the World’s Smallest Chef)” by The Oscar Mayer Company. He was additionally esteemed as a pilot — and immeasurably successful, later on, as an educator, botanist, and human being. And he was — ever and always — very, very much a gentleman of the old school.

He would, it’s true, sometimes privately rankle the other surviving Munchkins in his sotto voce comments to event organizers about additional work; he never wanted to be left out of an Oz event of ANY kind, anywhere. He was ever eager and happy to sell his autographed photos and would sometimes lobby for a table space near the public entrance so as to be the first to “capture” the attention of collectors and fans.

[Above:  Late in life, Meinhardt posed with one of the many pieces of OZ movie merchandise that focused on or included him. Note: None of the actors, from the stars to the extras, received any residual or product placement royalties from their participation in THE WIZARD OF OZ. This wasn’t – lest social media start unduly whining and moaning about this, too! – a sly move on the part of MGM to cheat the film’s participants. It’s just that 1939 was long time before such contractual stipulations made possible such “cut-ins.”]

Meinhardt was ninety-four when he died in Orange Park, Florida, on April 9, 2010. Very soon thereafter, his sometimes rabid and misunderstood campaigning to sell memorabilia was made startlingly clear. His native Watertown, WI, birthplace was near the Bethesda Lutheran Home, and he was well aware of their decades of efforts to aid the disabled of many ages. Perhaps, in part, because of the discrimination and prejudice based on his size, he identified with the Bethesda residents and their more serious handicaps. Thus, after Meinhardt passed, it was discovered that he had donated more than $3.5 million in estate gifts and legacy donations to Bethesda — even prior to his death. Five years later, his estate contributed another $1 million for their use.

This certainly explains his determination to work as long as he could, and to live as frugally as he did. As such, his legacy continues – and will continue – to benefit countless people for decades to come.

And beyond that . . . :  How much joy did he bring to how many people in his OZ-related appearances? How many autographs did he sign across the years of festivals and fun? How many hearts will he have touched before that film and this world are no more?

And just HOW many people did he teach the definition of “aver”?!!

😊

[Above: A close-up of twenty-three-year-old Meinhardt in make-up and garb on the set of THE WIZARD OF OZ, December 1938. He looks much younger here than in the finished film, where final touches to his face provide him with a more severe adult appearance.]

God bless him!

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Article by John Fricke

[This blog was expanded and edited from a briefer John Fricke feature that appeared in THE BAUM BUGLE: A JOURNAL OF OZ (Spring 2010) — a publication of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. (ozclub.org)]

“THE LITTLE PEOPLE WHO LIVE[D] IN THIS LAND” — PART 2

by John Fricke

[Above: Karl Slover proudly poses with a personal, take-away souvenir from the Hollywood Walk of Fame “Star Ceremony” that honored the actors who played Munchkins in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s THE WIZARD OF OZ. The event was held on November 20, 2007, near the forecourt parameter of the former Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. OZ had enjoyed its gala West Coast premiere there on August 15, 1939.]

FOREWORD

In our August 26th blog — posted on the various Chittenango (New York) All Things Oz and OZ-Stravaganza! Facebook pages — we celebrated 2023’s Oz festival. Its highlight, of course, was the song/dance/autographing/reminiscing participation of ninety-one-year-old Betty Ann Bruno, an original “MunchKid” from MGM’s feature film. This was Betty Ann’s second annual visit to the birthplace village of L. Frank Baum – author of THE WIZARD OF OZ book — and we joyously anticipated she would make many returns in the future.

Most unexpectedly, however, Betty Ann passed away just a month after that forty-sixth festival. Such a loss has since reminded me of other MGMunchkins who were much responsible for putting Chittenango’s annual Oz weekend on the map, beginning in the late 1980s. (Four of the MunchKids are still among us, although — well into their nineties — they don’t travel.) Moreover, five years have passed since we lost the last of the OZ “little people,” and it’s been more than a decade since any of them were able to appear in Chittenango. As I wasn’t doing a blog across the 1989-2012 era of their participation, it occurred to me that this year would be an opportune time to remember some of them here. In that manner, we’re able to again celebrate them as we did Betty Ann in 2022 and 2023.

[Above. Here’s a reference photo of a small corner of the massive Munchkinland Plaza, as created for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s OZ. Across two weeks of filming in the second half of December 1938, the gi-normous set provided a workplace for some 124 “little people” — a term they themselves preferred to “midget.” Their musical comedy portrayals of the Munchkins of Oz were augmented by the presence of a dozen short-statured little girls, who ranged in age from seven to twelve. Those latter dancers have since been nicknamed the MunchKids. You’ll notice, though, that it’s one of the actual little people who has crept into the right-hand edge of this set reference still: Frank Cucksey, otherwise known as “Townsman #2”!]

In keeping with this concept of remembrance, we heralded Munchkin townswoman Ruth Duccini here in September. Today, we recall the cherished Karl Slover. As a result of THE WIZARD OF OZ, he joins those who have their own distinctive immortality, and it’s a special sort of awe and bliss to recall Karl’s individual history and our times together – whether elsewhere around the country or in the birthplace village of the man who first discovered Oz and its inhabitants.

MUNCHKIN KARL SLOVER: ALWAYS IN JOY

Whether remembering his visit to a different Oz set on an adjacent MGM soundstage (“That durn apple tree made a FACE at me!”) – or recalling a first in-the-mirror glimpse when garbed in one of his Munchkin wardrobe changes (“I didn’t even recognize my own self!”) — or bringing down the house at special Oz appearances from coast to coast with an a cappella rendition of “We’re Off to See the Wizard” (“ . . . Becoz of the wonderful things he does! TRAH-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LAH!”) – Karl Slover created an immediate, immeasurably joyous bond between himself and his awed following. It’s safe to say, however, that a similar connection was established with any of the coworkers, friends, or strangers who encountered tireless, indefatigably upbeat “little Karl” across the majority of his ninety-three years.

[Above: As representatives of Leo “Singer’s Midgets,” Karl and several others were among the first called to come into MGM to help costume designer Gilbert Adrian – and seamstresses, cameramen, and lighting designers – in their determination to find a best approach to designs, fabrics, colors, and “fit” of early Munchkin and OZ wardrobe concepts. This is an actual frame of silent test film dating from August 1938; it shows Judy Garland as a potentially blonde Dorothy, and she is ringed here by Nona Cooper, Karl, and Nita Krebs.]

Karl’s quotes above refer: a) to his 1938 saunter through the OZ apple orchard and Tin Woodman’s cottage set (where the men inside the tree trunks were directed to surprise their diminutive guest); b) to the fact that he played several Munchkin roles – primarily the first trumpeter, a soldier, a townsman, and – attendant to his comment overhead – a townsWOMAN, as well (there were more male than female little people who turned up to work in OZ); and c) to the finale of his happy rendition of THE WIZARD OF OZ “marching song.” (If I was doing the interviewing, I always made sure that Karl wrapped up any Munchkin encounter in that manner – from the stage, in a park, at an autograph signing, for TV cameras and radio microphones . . .  and etc.!)

Karl’s life – gratefully – evolved into those kinds of exultant, memorable, and funny experiences, although his first dozen or so years were infinitely more challenging. Steve Cox’s THE MUNCHKINS OF OZ (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2002) gives well-warranted space to the Slover history and is highly recommended. For our purposes here, the basic facts will suffice: Born Karl Kosiczky on September 21, 1918 (in a later-annexed section of Hungary), he was the only little person in a family of five children. His mother and four sisters adored him; his father was apparently deeply disturbed when it became evident that his son would always be unusually small. With astounding grace and good humor, Karl later reflected on the methods his father employed to “enlarge” the little boy. He buried Karl up to his neck in the backyard, leaving him there in hopes that he’d grow like a plant. He scalded him in a barrel of burning hot water — mixed with coconut leaves! — until his skin was bright red and about to blister. (His mother stepped in and rescued him.) Finally, Kosiczky turned the child over to doctors who strapped Karl on a hospital stretching machine that pulled him in multiple directions until his bones began to make cracking sounds. Fortunately, the doctor who brought the boy into the world appeared and intervened at that moment.

In a final attempt to erase his perceptible shame, Karl’s father sold his son – age nine – to a traveling European midget show produced by Leo Singer. The child (probably mercifully) never again saw his father, but nor was he able to return to Europe to reunite with his mother and sisters until 1963. The story of that meeting, after a thirty-five year separation, was always told by Karl with glistening eyes – but with his beaming face of absolute glee, as well.

The adjustments he made in his final years abroad as a child – learning to be an entertainer, learning to work with other “little ones,” learning English – were an immense and ongoing challenge. Instead of becoming hardened in the process, however, Karl stoically and with an apparently seldom-wavering attitude of “ever onward” seemed to take everything in stride. When he came with the Singer troupe to the United States, his diminutive size, acquired professionalism, and ceaselessly pleasant personality launched a long show business career. 

Through the 1930s, Karl (he eventually took a new surname, Slover, from his later manager and “adoptive” family) appeared in films with a number of major motion picture stars of the day. These included Alice Faye, Laurel & Hardy, the Ritz Brothers, and Wheeler & Woolsey. He was among the multitudinous Broadway cast of the legendary circus musical, BILLY ROSE’S JUMBO (1935) – a lavish production that played the five-thousand-seat Hippodrome Theatre in NYC and top-billed Jimmy Durante and Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra. Therein, and in addition to other assignments, Karl rode an elephant; the wardrobe department was then required to supply the two-foot-tall teenager with leather pants to keep his skin from being torn up as he perched on the needle-like hair of his pachyderm. (All that — plus such hit songs by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart as “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” “My Romance,” and “Little Girl Blue.”)  During those years, Karl’s ongoing association with Leo Singer also led to a featured role in the all-midget Western-musical movie, THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN (1938), vaudeville and circus bookings throughout the United States and a long stint in Hawaii, and – finally – to THE WIZARD OF OZ.

[Above:  Karl was the first of the three advancing trumpeters who musically celebrated the approach of the Mayor of the Munchkin City. This composite photo was prepared as something for him to autograph and sell at his Oz appearances. Its left and bottom borders were adapted from the original 1939 WIZARD OF OZ lobby cards; the insets show Karl (in black and white) at age twenty-two, and in a tiny, full-length glimpse of his OZ performance (in color). The central art itself is a film frame enlargement that shows his proud and Ozzy entrance.]

As could be confirmed by anyone who heard Karl interviewed across the last twenty-two years of his life, the Slover recollections about November/December 1938 at MGM were scythe-sharp, fond, and funny. He became again (and instantly) a taken-aback twenty-year-old when recalling Billie Burke’s preliminary, informal visit to the Munchkinland soundstage. With her all-black wardrobe and veiling, her thinning hair, and her dependence on a cane, his impression was that of “an old woman. I thought, ‘She must be one hundred years old – or close to it.’ But when I saw her all dressed up [and] made-up [as Glinda, the Witch of the North], she looked like she was about thirty-five! She looked beautiful – I mean BEAUTIFUL!” He would also proudly confess that his ability to enter on cue (when a fellow trumpeter couldn’t remember the prompt!) enabled him to be the first of the three musicians to march out on the elevated platform of Munchkin City Hall and instrumentally mime a furbelow to propel the Mayor into view. Finally, Karl was delighted to be one of the handful of OZ cast members selected to ride a preview float (the film wouldn’t open for another seven months) in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade in January 1939. He then returned to stage work under the aegis of “Mr. Singer,” whom he very much liked and appreciated.

[Above: A couple of days after completing their portion of OZ filming, several of the film Munchkins donned their costumes again and joined the stars’ doubles on a float for the annual Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade (January 2, 1939).  Karl wears his trumpeter outfit and is just left of (and above) center — at the foot of the floral stairway that leads to Charlie Becker as the Mayor.]

Karl’s intrinsic sweet patience led him to a latter-day livelihood as a trainer of dogs and small animals for the circus. His greatest recognition, however, didn’t burgeon until 1989 and the fiftieth anniversary of MGM’s OZ. Suddenly, surviving Munchkin actors from the film were thrust into an unexpected, ongoing limelight, and Slover’s excellent memory and unfailing good nature made him a treasured guest at countless events. Among many highlights: his glowing, articulate appearance in the 1994 documentary, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS, and his justifiably proud participation in the 2007 ceremony when the Munchkins received their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Please see the photograph at the top of this blog.)

[Karl was always on the go and supremely ready to – smilingly! — take the Yellow Brick Road to the next Ozzy location. Above, top: For years, a similarly bannered bus picked up “special cargo” at O’Hare Airport, trundling these cherished guests to the long-time, Jean Nelson-founded Chesterton, Indiana, Oz Festival. From left: Munchkins Karl, Margaret Pellegrini, Betty Tanner – followed by four Munchkins-By-Marriage (herein after MBM): Marcella Kranzler, Anna Cucksey Mitchell, Olive Wayne, and Marie Raabe. Then: Munchkins Meinhardt Raabe and Lewis Croft – the latter mostly obscured by MBM Myrna Swensen – followed by Munchkins Jerry Maren and (rear) Clarence Swensen, MBM Elizabeth Maren, and Munchkin Nels Nelson. This 2003 photo also marked the participation by some in the home video documentary, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS, wherein Karl, Margaret, Betty, Meinhardt, Lewis, Jerry, Clarence, and Nels shared on-camera tales of their Ozian involvements. Above, bottom: A special event in Syracuse in May 2006 celebrated the one-hundred-fiftieth birthday anniversary of Oz author L. Frank Baum. Standing here at the State Fair Grounds are Baum’s great-grandson, Robert and his wife, Clare (garbed as Frank Baum and HIS wife, Maud). In front of them are Munchkins Margaret, Karl, Jerry, Ruth Duccini (please see last month’s blog for a tribute to Ruth), Clarence, Mickey Carroll, and Meinhardt. The woman kneeling at far left is Donna Stewart Hardway. She claimed to have appeared as a little girl MunchKid in the MGM film and made many Oz-related appearances in the 1990s and early 2000s. None of the other Munchkins or MunchKids have been able to confirm her contention, however, which has since been further contested by researchers.]

 It was especially fitting that Karl made his final public appearances — on November 12and 13, 2011 — for Chicago cinema entrepreneur Ted Bulthaup. It was the latter’s relentless campaigning for the Munchkins that finally resulted in their Walk of Fame recognition four years earlier. After those autographing sessions in Illinois, Karl returned to his apartment in Georgia on Monday, November 14th. He finished Tuesday breakfast at that assisted living residence and told friends he was going back to his place to finish unpacking from the trip. When they went to pick him up for lunch a few hours later, he was sitting peacefully in a chair.

We should all be so lucky as to “shuffle off” in such style – at age ninety-three and after a weekend of active work, surrounded by delight, admiration, appreciation, friends, and love. Despite that sometimes horrific first nine years, Karl Slover’s subsequent life was crammed with adventure, flair, and pleasure, and he excitedly embraced, tackled, and sustained it all.

The blessed tens of thousands of people who knew him, long-term or briefly, hold special memories of how quick he was to chortle out loud in gladness over anything that gave him bliss. That “Slover Sound” was a singular, unique, pure gurgle – a child’s delight — and, as a result there are literally countless grateful adulators of all ages who are elated to have met (and laughed with) both Karl the Munchkin and Karl the Man.

And it’s for certain that none of ‘em are EVER going to forget:

“TRAH-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LAH!”

[Above: An event in 2009 split its activities between Cadiz, Ohio, and Wheeling, West Virginia, in simultaneous homage to the seventieth anniversaries of THE WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND. (Cadiz is the birthplace of Clark Gable, legendary star of the latter film. The dual celebration was – to be honest — assembled at my suggestion a year or so after I’d been asked to make a visit to Ohio to lecture about Gable’s association with Judy Garland. Her performance on film, radio, and record of the song, “Dear Mr. Gable: You Made Me Love You,” led to her initial stardom and their life-long friendship.) For 2009, the organizations that produced the OZ/GWTW weekend incorporated Karl, Margaret, and Jerry to represent the Munchkins, and (top left) Cammie King (“Bonnie Blue Butler”) and Ann Rutherford (“Scarlett O’Hara’s Little Sister Carreen”) to remember GWTW. (I’m in the middle as emcee and interviewer.) Ann really provided a triple-whammy: She was also Mickey Rooney’s girlfriend, “Polly Benedict,” in the ANDY HARDY movie series and thus had a working and social relationship with Judy Garland. Better still, Ms. Rutherford grew up in Hollywood just steps away from “Ozcot,” the home built there by Frank Baum and his wife Maud circa 1910. Although Frank had died in 1919, Ann often stopped and talked to Mrs. Baum about her flower garden (originally created by Frank), as well as about the Oz Books, which Ms. Rutherford adored.]

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Article by John Fricke

[This blog was expanded and edited from a briefer Fricke feature in THE BAUM BUGLE: A JOURNAL OF OZ (Winter 2011), a publication of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc.: ozclub.org]

“THE LITTLE PEOPLE WHO LIVE[D] IN THIS LAND” — PART 1

By John Fricke

[Above: This was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s version of the Munchkinland Plaza as it was created for their 1939 motion picture release, THE WIZARD OF OZ. Across two weeks of filming in the second half of December 1938, it provided a workplace for some 124 “little people” — a term they themselves preferred to “midget.” Their singing and dancing portrayals of the Munchkins of Oz were augmented by a dozen short-statured little girls, who ranged in age from seven to twelve. Those latter dancers have since been nicknamed the MunchKids.]

FOREWORD

In our immediately preceding blog — posted on August 26th on the various Chittenango [NY] All Things Oz and OZ-Stravaganza! Facebook pages (as well as on my own) — we celebrated this year’s extraordinary festival. The activities and joys that thrilled some 30,000 attendees were highlighted by the “She Is Everywhere!” participation of ninety-one-year old Betty Ann Bruno, one of the original MunchKids from MGM’s feature film. 2023 marked Betty Ann’s second annual visit to the birthplace village of L. Frank Baum – author of THE WIZARD OF OZ book — and we all anticipated that there would be many returns in the future.

[Above: Incomparable Betty Ann Bruno indefatigably signed photographs and copies of her autobiography, THE MUNCHKIN DIARY: MY PERSONAL YELLOW BRICK ROAD, at the Chittenango OZ-Stravaganza! festivals in both 2022 and 2023.]

As the blog also noted, however, Betty Ann unexpectedly passed away just a month after that forty-sixth festival. We now — in memory — honor, cherish, love, and hold her forevermore in joy. Yet our loss has since reminded me of the other MGMunchkins who were very much responsible for putting Chittenango’s annual Oz weekend on the map; who brought it world-wide attention; and whose presence led to its expansion from an initial Saturday morning and afternoon event to the full Friday-through-Sunday affair it’s long since become.

Although four of the MunchKids are still among us, five years have passed since we lost the last of the OZ “little people,” and it’s been more than a decade since any of them were able to appear in Chittenango. As I wasn’t doing a blog across that 1990-2012 era of my own appearances here, it occurred to me that it now might be nice to remember some of them via several of these monthly All-Things-Oz installments. In that manner, we can once again celebrate them as Betty was heralded here in 2022 and 2023.

So! This will be the first of several entries across the next few weeks, which we hope will recapture the actual ecstasy felt by tens of thousands of visitors. They came to Chittenango and actively MET some of the little people who followed Judy Garland down the Yellow Brick Road, and we’ll reintroduce a number of those miniature men and women to you, right here. As a result of THE WIZARD OF OZ, the MGMunchkins themselves have their own immortality, and it’s a special sort of bliss to recall both their individual histories and our times together – whether around the country or in the birthplace village of the man who first wrote about them.

—————–

MUNCHKIN RUTH DUCCINI:

THE QUIET CLASS ACT

Ruth Duccini was atypical of the dozen or so MGM movie Munchkins who blazed an Ozzy trail of “personal appearances” between the mid-1980s and 2013. Although her townswoman role in 1939’s hallowed musical, THE WIZARD OF OZ, was certainly a point of pride and a happy memory for her, it was not the pinnacle of her life story when she reminisced. (Please keep reading for “the reveal”!)

Born in Rush City, Minnesota, on July 23, 1918, Ruth Robinson joined the Grace & Harvey Williams Midget Troupe out of Minneapolis after she graduated high school. Their ensemble of twelve traveled by trailer to Culver City [CA] in autumn 1938, responding to MGM’s publicized need for diminutive actors to appear in OZ.

[Above: This is one of three pages of MGM correspondence and paperwork (dated November 16, 1938) that detailed travel arrangements for many of the “little people” as they trekked to California to work on OZ. Numbers fifty-one through sixty-two account for the members of the Grace and Harvey Williams “company” of entertainers, including Ruth, who were imported for the movie.]

While working on THE WIZARD OF OZ, Ruth met Fred Duccini. He wasn’t involved with the picture, but he was another little person, and he happily socialized with some of OZ Munchkins with whom he’d previously been acquainted. Ruth and Fred’s initial friendship across November and December 1938 led to marriage in 1943, and they had two children, Fred, Jr., and Margaret.

[Above: Ruth posed in her Munchkin townswoman garb for this 1938 MGM costume test reference photo. With her are (left) Olga Nardone – who also appeared in the film as one of the three Lullaby League ballerinas – and (center) Hildred Olson.]

Although basically retired while raising her family, Ruth also appeared in the 1981 film, UNDER THE RAINBOW. It starred Chevy Chase, Carrie Fisher, and Eve Arden and harked back to 1938 in a wildly imaginary account of the making of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Per the “plot,” the fictional Munchkin actors of that era — temporary residents of the Culver Hotel – supposedly became embroiled with their fellow guests: Austrian royalty, a Nazi secret agent, and his Japanese henchman. The equally false legends of Munchkin misbehavior at the hotel were majorly integrated into the slapstick saga, and Ruth’s later counsel (“Don’t believe ANYTHING you see in that movie!”) has since been validated by the internet site, ROTTEN TOMATOES. It’s noted there that ZERO percent of professional movie critics have given UNDER THE RAINBOW a favorable rating. 😊

[Above: Nearly half the troupe of Ozzy little people are gathered here with three gentlemen integral to the production. (Top center, from left: director Victor Fleming, impresario Leo Singer, and first assistant director Al Shenberg. Singer held the contract with MGM to hire most of the Munchkin actors for the film; his own vaudeville unit served as the core group of pint-size players.) Beaming delightedly, Ruth Duccini is fifth from the left in the first row.]

Fred Duccini died in 1994, shortly after he and Ruth celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. She passed away two decades later, on January 16, 2014, at Solari Hospice Care Center in Las Vegas [NV], and she is survived by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

[Above: Wrapping up another weekend — somewhere on the circuit! These 1990s participants in random Ozmania were captured at an airport when departing town after a festival. Front row, from left: Margaret Pellegrini, Jerry Maren, Munchkins-By-Marriage Elizabeth Maren and Myrna Swensen, Clarence Swensen, Karl Slover, and Ruth Duccini. Back row: Margaret’s great-granddaughter Cheryl is boosted by John Fricke — a then-much-younger Oz historian and author! My apologies, though: the gentleman at the right is unidentified.]

Over the last twenty-five years of her life, Ruth traveled to Oz festivals and events whenever she liked – AND when she felt she could trust the event planners’ promises that they would not exploit the Munchkins with overlong workdays. Her attendance was ever welcome, and her singular, dulcet sparkle, low-key sense of humor, and ever-aware, no-nonsense demeanor were a delight.

She made her final public appearance on September 15, 2013, as the guest of honor at the launch of THE WIZARD OF OZ seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations. On that occasion, I was asked by Warner Brothers to serve as master of ceremonies at the debut screening of the film in 3D IMAX at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre. (This is the former Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where OZ was first publicly premiered in Los Angeles on August 15, 1939.) Ruth traversed the ruby-red carpet in front of the venue, posed for innumerable photographs with costumed OZ characters, and conferred, conversed, and otherwise hobnobbed with her fellow celebrities: Drew Carey, William Shatner, Mario Lopez, Joey King (of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL), Rico Rodriguez, Kevin Sorbo, Molly Ringwald, Christianna Rickard (niece of “Scarecrow” Ray Bolger), Robert Baum (great-grandson of L. Frank Baum) with his wife Clare and daughter Christine, and two of the other MGM MunchKids: Priscilla Montgomery Clark and Elaine Merk Binder.

Unquestionably and undeniably, however, Ruth was the star of stars that afternoon. Inside the theater and prior to the film screening, I acknowledged from the stage some of the OZ-related people in the crowd. Yet all the attendant anticipation and applause was nothing compared to the audience’s adoration of (and welcome to) the diminutive lady from Minnesota. Ruth came down to join me and received a triumphal standing ovation; we then sat comfortably, side-by-side, for some brief, shared thoughts about MGM’s film-making process. Whatever she said, however, the by-invitation-only spectators reacted as did all Oz onlookers everywhere — at the mere idea of having an actual Munchkin, live, in person, in front of them. They were acutely (forgive me, please. . .) Ozified by Ruth’s every observation.

[Above: Duccini & Fricke were selected by Warner Bros. to introduce THE WIZARD OF OZ in its first 3D IMAX showing at Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre in 2013.]

Delightedly, she offered (to everyone’s surprise, I think) that OZ was secondary to another professional accomplishment of which she remained MOST proud: serving as a World War II riveter on the inner wings of C-54 transports being manufactured at Santa Monica’s Douglas Aircraft. Her ultra-petite stature made it possible for Ruth to get into spaces impossible to navigate by those of normal size. As a result, she had treasured for decades the fact that any number of pilots told her – in so many words – that they felt safer flying the planes on which she’d worked. (There’s a personal Ruth/John anecdote that she enjoyed that fits in here. We appeared together many times over the years, and I’d request her Douglas Aircraft anecdote on each occasion. It was a foregone conclusion that audiences would be entranced and touched and uplifted by it, so Ruth would always comply. She’d then laughingly endorse my follow-up observation that – although men like Roosevelt, Churchill, and assorted generals and scientists got credit for the victory – the tide of WWII was really turned by four women: the three Andrews Sisters and Ruth Duccini. 😊 )

The final comments Ruth made at the Chinese Theatre had also become a standard section of her professional speaking engagements over the years; they were greeted with cheers and an ovation as well. After receiving a beautiful piece of jewelry from the Warner Bros. hierarchy, Ruth addressed the fact that almost all of the surviving “little person” Munchkin delegation of 1938-39 had passed on by 2013. She was ever-declarative, however, in both stressing the fact that she was grateful to be honored, but that any gifts, recognition, and OZ-related acknowledgement wasn’t just about her or “those of us who are left – it’s for ALL of us.”

It’s worth noting that she’d emphasized the same point six years earlier when the Munchkins were given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:

After much campaigning by OZ fans, the general public, and a number of top level Hollywood industry “names,” the Munchkins finally received their commemoration on November 20, 2007. Shown above are (from left): Mickey Carroll, Clarence Swensen, Jerry Maren, Karl Slover, Johnny Grant (certainly a non-Munchkin but then definitely the honorary mayor of Hollywood), Ruth Duccini, Margaret Pellegrini, and Meinhardt Raabe. Preceded by the Hollywood High School Marching Band, the little people arrived for the ceremony in a carriage drawn by “a horse of a different color,” and for those aficionados and children of all ages who would now seek it out, the Munchkin “star” is located at 6915 Hollywood Boulevard. Per Ruth, it was, indeed – and is – intended to honor ALL 124 little people and the dozen MunchKids of THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Ruth’s words may also be extrapolated to add that it was a privilege for “ALL of us” among the OZ community who met, knew, or worked with her. We are thankful for her observations, memories, and kindness.

And for her unforgettable, imperishable pluck!

[This blog was expanded and edited from a briefer Fricke feature in THE BAUM BUGLE: A JOURNAL OF OZ (Spring 2014), publication of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc.: ozclub.org]

2023: TENS OF THOUSANDS JOY-OZ-LY TRAVEL

CHITTENANGO’S YELLOW BRICK ROAD . . .TAKING BETTY ANN BRUNO VERY MUCH TO HEART!

By John Fricke

[Above: Costume designer/creator/fashionista extraordinaire Shawn Ryan and make-up and hair honcho/actor wrangler/overseer Jeffrey Lane Sadecky pose with their creations – who were perhaps the most extraordinary gang we’ve ever seen at a festival. As attendees can attest, these OZ-Stravaganza! Ozians never broke character in public, recreated their personalities and voices as “children of all ages” hoped and expected they might, and served as a shining sensation from June 2nd-4th, wherever any of ’em hove into view!]

[A BRIEF, PRELIMINARY NOTE FROM JOHN: The rough draft and art selection attendant to this “All Things OZ” Blog were basically wrapped up nearly two months ago. Then I was hit with sciatica, and everything went on hold here, as I figuratively “tread water,” did weeks of physical therapy, and recovered. (Blessedly, I’m just fine now, and I sincerely apologize for the delay in this posting.) In the midst of that, however, all of us very unexpectedly and even more sorrowfully heard the news of the passing of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer “MunchKid” Betty Ann Bruno.

She was so very much more than a seven-year-old child dancer, of course. Her work in MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ motion picture in 1938 took scarcely two months in a life that spanned almost ninety-two years. Across those decades, Betty Ann was evermore and immeasurably active, productive, professional, and extremely accomplished.

Naturally, there’s scattered commentary about her throughout this OZ-Stravaganza! 2023 blog; she was — to be sure AND for the second consecutive year! — Our Headliner. 😊  Further new material has now (the third week in August) also been added at the conclusion of this entry, but I’m leaving the original text, prior to that afterword, exactly as it was in late June. This seems to be a fitting way to celebrate yet another Bruno triumph, as every recollection of the time she shared is both happy and glorious. These are the events as they blithely and joyously happened in Chittenango in June 2023.]

How to describe OZ-Stravaganza! 2023 . . . .

Remember Jack Webb on the 1951-1970 TV series, DRAGNET? Per Wikipedia, it remains “the most famous and influential police procedural crime drama in American media history,” and every week, detective Joe Friday would invariably ask witnesses for the “facts . . . just the facts.” Well, the 2023 OZ-Strav! facts can be summarized as three days of gorgeous weather and nonstop Ozzy activities; press, TV and radio promotion, presence and coverage; a thrilling parade; and the gleefully permeating presence and ebullience of special guest Betty Ann Bruno.

This brought us a final attendance tally ranging up to 30,000 people!

Or — if you prefer — the festival might also be best measured on a popular/populace level and summarized as the very best kind of family reunion. Everyone was out, about, mingling, talking, eating, performing, exulting, and unifying in honor of Chittenango native L. Frank Baum: his history, creations, illustrators, and official Oz coauthors and coproducers.

Need it be added that every moment was relished by his fans and adherents of absolutely all ages?

[Above: This sign, on the edge of the annually rechristened OZ PARK, honors a superlative native son, whose imagination and creativity in writing has circled the globe billions of times since publication of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ in 1900. The text shown here is topped by a silhouette of New York State and reads: “L. Frank Baum/Author of The/Wizard of Oz/Born Near Here/May 5, 1856/ Chittenango Foundation Inc.”]

Or I can herald this summer’s jubilee in a personal manner, although I’ll state up-front that I’m not in any sense unbiased. Chittenango’s annual commemoration dates back to 1978, and I was first invited to attend and speak in 1990. Including that year – and through 2023 — I’ve been privileged to serve “in person” thirty-one times: participating, emceeing, lecturing, and presenting. (The pandemic forced us all to skip 2020, and we went virtual in 2021; conflicting work commitments kept me on the West Coast for two years in the mid-1990s.)

I think it’s best, though, to forego the usual two thousand (plus!) Fricke words here and instead tell this year’s saga in a handful of great images. For starters and just below, you’ll see one of two Chittenango locales that serves as “Oz Central” across the dates of OZ-Strav! weekend. (Throughout the rest of the year, it’s “Oz Central” all on its own!)

This is the frontage of the All Things OZ Museum and Gift Shop, 219 Genesee Street, (315) 687-7772. There’s always a cheery stock of Oz-related souvenirs for purchase, but the building is best described as a remarkable gallery of thousands of rare, collectible, colorful objects that trace the history of Baum and the diversity of the Oz franchise: books, movies, stage shows, toys, games, ad infinitum. Recently refurbished, the gallery boasts glistening glass and shining wood presentation cases — each of them surrounded by lively patrons throughout OZ-Strav! Nearly six hundred people wandered through, wide-eyed, as they viewed the treasures and listened to entertaining anecdotes and factoids provided by the well-informed and comfortably personable Museum docents.

As a sampling of the All Things OZ holdings, here are three new Museum images from this year.  The first shows items just donated to Chittenango’s archive: an autographed photo and personal postcard and letter written by MGM’s “Wicked Witch of the West” to uber-Oz fan Paul Miles Schneider of New York, Los Angeles, and Kansas. Maggie – as she preferred to be called — sent them to him decades back when he was given a second grade school assignment to find a pen-pal out-of-state. Paul has since become the successful author of modern-day Oz books of his own (SILVER SHOES, THE POWDER OF LIFE, and THE MAGIC BELT, all of which are perfect for today’s young readers); as a frequent special guest in Chittenango, he gifted his valuable Hamilton pieces to All Things OZ earlier this year:

Next: For some time now, the Museum has very graciously honored me with the case shown just below, commemorating our ongoing work together, as well as some of the Oz and Judy Garland-related projects with which I’ve been professionally involved across the past thirty-eight years. 2023-24 marks the twentieth anniversary of the PBS-TV “American Masters” program, JUDY GARLAND: BY MYSELF, for which I served as coproducer and received a second Emmy Award. All Things OZ asked if I would loan it to them for the occasion, and they placed it in an assemblage including four of the eight Fricke books, the medallion I received as a Grammy Award nominee for the CD booklet, JUDY GARLAND: 25th ANNIVERSARY RETROSPECTIVE (the CD itself is shown just to the left of the pendant), and two photographs from the Museum’s own collection of what we gently term my “first communion” pictures:

Finally, we’ve saved the very best and most exciting of the Museum’s latest acquisitions for last: one of the “Madame Morrible” costumes from the extraordinary musical stage success, WICKED (which also celebrates its twentieth anniversary on Broadway this year). This glamorous gown was worn by Academy Award-winning actress Patty Duke, who portrayed Morrible in one of the national companies of the production; the ensemble was donated to All Things OZ for their permanent collection by the WICKED company. (Such generosity is a remarkable tribute to the esteem won for the Museum by Chittenango’s volunteers and participants in the ILFB&ATOHF — or International L. Frank Baum & All Things Oz Historical Foundation!) With design complexity, beauty, and workmanship like this now available for close scrutiny, it’s easy to see why designer Susan Hilferty won the Tony Award for her work for WICKED:

Moving on! The annual costume contest and Oz Parade seemed to be standout, special successes this year. There were many entrants in the former, and in the case of the latter, literally thousands lined up, whether side-by-side or (in the most popular viewing spots) “stacked” up in standing room behind those sitting on curbs, cushions, or chairs.

In terms of competitive costumes, there are literally hundreds of book, stage, and screen Ozians who might suggest winning (award and otherwise) garb to OZ-Strav! visitors. Here are three views of some of Saturday’s jovial morning partakers: an MGM-styled Lullaby Leaguer (with what appears to be a little Dorothy in the left background); three gleefully committed-to-the-“c’oz” adults: a Munchkin, a representative of the Poppy Field, and the unique title character from Frank Baum’s seventh Oz book, THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ; and an empty box that was one of the hits of OZ Park. It had a cleverly stenciled label on its side that suggested several winged monkeys had been shipped to Chittenango in it — and escaped. Three surrogates here happily took their place:

Regarding the parade, we’ll take just a quick glimpse, below, of a supremely unrequested moment. I’m now — as referenced above and by the grace of God and the members of the ILFB&ATOHF – at the onset of my fourth decade of association with Chittenango. They’ve been very kindly asking me to serve as Grand Marshal of the OZ-Strav! parade for nearly thirty years of that time; I’ve always said, “Thank you; no, thank you.” (There have always been many more worthy and most definitely better-known and famous people for that colossal accolade.) I demurred in the same fashion when I received their gracious invitation in early 2023, but for this go-round, the Foundation pretty much corralled me. The photo below offers the “result” – and thank goodness for Rhonda Rueger Fibiger and her John Fricke Memorial Rainbow Umbrella (it’s sheltered me during any number of parades) and for Michael Keville and his classy car: glossy transportation, indeed! The latter at least made me LOOK important, although I still had to deal with totally mystified glances from thousands along the route of the cavalcade. (I just kept calling out, “Betty Ann Bruno is coming along right behind me!”)

A very important P.S. to this photo.  One of the first people I met in Chittenango in May 1990 was Terry Shaler, and we happily (laughingly, teasingly, kiddingly, fondly) reunited year after year. When the dodgy May weather eventually caused organizers to switch the annual festival from the weekend nearest Baum’s birthday (May 15th, as mentioned above), it then always fell on the June weekend of – or nearest – Terry’s birthday. This was coincidence, of course, but it eventually became my treat to lead the singing on many occasions, up through 2022. Terry was frail but THERE last year, and (true to her tradition) ever ready to beam back at “her” chorale. God bless that girl; we lost her in September, but in a lovely happenstance of somebody-up-there-definitely-likes-her, the fates saw to it that her car was sold to Mike Keville. Thus, as was written in the preceding paragraph, I got the benefit of being Grand Marshall in “the Terry Mobile!” (Or to put it more completely, “with” her along for the ride. 😊 )

Per tradition, there were two different and very Ozzy programs on both Friday and Saturday nights, where we were once again welcomed by the First Presbyterian Church to use their chancel. Audiences filled the pews each evening, and the first presentation got off to a magically endorsed beginning when a greeting was read from Robert Baum, great-grandson of the “Royal Historian of Oz.” The advocacy and approval of Bob and his wife have always resonated in Chittenango, and such backing did once again – this year from afar: “I wish Clare and I were going to be there. Hope all goes well and say hello to all for us; we are there in spirit! Have an OZ-some time! The Baums.”

Beyond that, of course, the highlights of the special programming were the entertainments offered by Betty Ann Bruno and Gabriel (AGES OF OZ, THE ART OF OZ) Gale. Betty Ann, though making only her second OZ-Strav! appearance, was preeminent in her appeal, personality, and bond with one and all. Her Oz, professional, and personal sagas garnered everything from uproarious laughter to entranced silence; the Bruno level of charisma is suitably beyond Richter Scale measurement. (It’s definitely an understatement to say so, but it must be noted – for the historical record — that no one wanted the woman to leave the stage!) During his own turn, longtime favorite Gabriel Gale created and illustrated (on the spot and via audience suggestions) a new Oz creature. He was then interviewed, so as to bring the fans up to date on his own Oz project developments and his trip to London earlier this spring. There he sat in on the ongoing production of the film of Broadway’s WICKED: visiting soundstages, touring the outdoor location sets-in-progress for Munchkinland and the Emerald City, and enjoying a recording session. (Below: Betty Ann is ever tolerant of the customary Fricke inquisition; Gabe reveals his “instant” Ozian creation!)

[The other offerings during the evening sessions: 1) A bountifully illustrated recounting of the assemblage of the first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book. This highlighted the masterwork imaginations of Baum and illustrator W. W. Denslow; the latter’s incomparable, innovative design and color pictorials did much to make the original volume a sensation. And 2) A Gabe-Interviews-John discussion about the omnipresent, ridiculous, and running rampant rumors about Oz, Baum, the MGM film, and etc. Social media has a LOT for which to answer, and the audience had many questions to pose regarding these topics, as well.]

Among other constant activities (all weekend!), Sunday morning paid specific homage to the winners of the OZ-Strav! coloring and writing contests. The outstanding highlight of the early afternoon, however, came when Betty Ann again took stage to demonstrate and dance the hula, to sing the original song she’d written about Chittenango and the festival, and to dragoon her cherished friends, Gail & Becky, into teaching the basic steps and gestures with her. (The two women made the trek from California to “experience” OZ 2023 after Betty’s raves about the time she’d relished here last year.) Dozens of viewers then leapt up to join the trio as they moved through some of the traditional Hawaiian choreography; Betty is shown here at the opening of her act:

The informal “Grand Finale” traditionally wraps up OZ-Strav! around 3:30 or 4 p.m. on Sunday. This year, there were the customary gratitudes, good-byes, and Ozzy exaltations, but there was also a genuine surprise that brought elation, ecstasy, and euphoria to the finish of the festival. Thanks to Gabe, the assembled farewell-ers enjoyed a live, virtual video appearance from London by Stephen Schwartz, whose songs have provided infinite magic to the scores of many stage and film productions; WICKED is currently both! Several years ago, Stephen performed as a majorly special guest at OZ-Strav!, both on his own and teaming with Michael McCorry Rose and Tiffany Haas, past cast members of WICKED (who had respectively appeared as Fiyero and Glinda on Broadway). Given this earlier association with Chittenango and his friendship with Gabe, Stephen was willing to spend time answering – via laptop — several questions from the assembled OZ-Strav! throng. (An outdoors-in-broad-daylight photo capture of his onscreen visage wasn’t possible, but his gracious participation must be included and jubilantly acknowledged. So here’s Stephen! 🙂

It doesn’t get any more magical OR Ozzy than that! 😊

There was so much more activity — there were so many more activities – that made possible and comprised OZ-Stravaganza! 2023. This report is barely a taste or a touch. It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s true: You just have to be there when everybody makes it happen.

And you know . . . NEXT year might be a great time to make the trek! It’ll be the eighty-fifth anniversary of the MGM film. The 120th anniversary of the second Oz book, THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ (introducing Jack Pumpkinhead, the Sawhorse, the Woggle-Bug, Mombi the Witch, and Princess Ozma). The 110th anniversary of Baum’s own Oz Film Manufacturing Company. The ninetieth anniversary of the NBC network radio WIZARD OF OZ series (sponsored by Jell-O!). The sixtieth anniversary of the Rankin-Bass NBC color TV special, RETURN TO OZ (with Socrates Strawman, Rusty Tin Man, Dandy Lion, and the return of the Wicked With of the West, debuting her flying alligators – or was it crocodiles?). The fiftieth anniversary of the JOURNEY BACK TO OZ feature-length cartoon (with the voices of Liza Minnelli, Ethel Merman, Paul Lynde, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Milton Berle, and Rise Stevens).

And etc.

Once again and as always: Where Oz is concerned, there’s a LOT to celebrate!

[Above: ONLY in Chittenango, folks . . . ! Thank Heaven for Frank Baum – and for the amazing village that so regularly and profoundly prizes him!]

In conclusion, I want to offer my thanks to those whose photographs made possible this Blog: Lindsay, Leah, Eilis, Ron, Cara Marie . . . and any whom I’ve inadvertently missed in the scramble through the postings of those who generously share on social media. As someone who has NEVER been able to “work” a camera (and whose cellphone is ONLY a phone, not a camera, a video-maker, a texter, a breakfast-cooker, et al), I’m much indebted to all of you for making it possible for me to “tell” some of this year’s story.

Warmly, affectionately, and gratefully!

John F.

——————–

An Afterword . . .

It goes without saying that this Blog is dedicated (as we all are) to Betty Ann Bruno.

I woke to the news of what had happened on Saturday, July 30th very early the following morning. As I wrote then and have experienced ever since, the sadness just keeps coming in recurrent waves, and I think it must be like that for everyone who’s ever known her.

Yet that’s all I’ll emphasize about the sorrow and loss felt by her husband Craig, Betty’s three sons, and the countless rest of her family, friends, admirers, and fans . . . because I just can’t imagine that any of us have ever known — or ever will know – anyone else who’d ultimately and more want to be remembered in joy, laughter, appreciation, and grateful love than would Betty Ann.

Moreover, it would all be reciprocal. We’d receive every bit of heart and soul and humor and emotion in return. And her hips and arms and hands and feet and head would be simultaneously swaying besides!

She was a continual blessing for these many decades, and such memories are ever there to be summoned. The inimitable radiance of her presence, wisdom, and delight – while once more on the road to Oz, of all places, in 2022 and 2023 — is a benediction none can forget. Whether in the parade, during her autograph sessions and interviews, or as she went into (and always shared) her literal and figurative dance of life — the tens of thousands of people who saw her in Chittenango certainly possess new and indelible gifts. And as was the case at MGM in 1938, those of Betty Ann’s OZ-Stravaganza! encounters encompass but a handful of days of the outreach she offered ceaselessly across her lifetime.

Typically, she just recently told a reporter from the Sonoma, CA, INDEX-TRIBUNE, “I am still processing the fact that all these accolades, all the fan mail, all the fuss, really have nothing to do with me personally. They aren’t about the life I have had, or the things I have accomplished. I just happen to be the icon, if you will, of the most beloved picture on the planet.”

Icon, yes. But that woman was “most beloved” on her own — far, far beyond any single “credential.”

So . . . GOD bless, keep, and go with Craig, her family, and all of you who knew her best and loved her most.

HIS care for Betty, meanwhile, has long since been guaranteed.

And we love her, always.