“MISS MARGARET”

By John Fricke

Above: Always in greeting, never in farewell. The tops of her facsimile-costume sleeves were stuffed with plastic bags, “so” – in her own words – “they look puffy.” The recreation of her hat, as she wore it for hours at a time, sometimes brought on a headache. But Margaret Pellegrini abidingly dolled up, went forth, and made innumerable memories for countless Oz fans across nearly thirty years of post-MGM public appearances.

About six months ago, the monthly blog here was devoted to Meinhardt Raabe: “My First Munchkin.” The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer “Coroner” initially came into my Oz life sometime around 1980 and was the third cast member of THE WIZARD OF OZ movie I encountered in person. (I’d met Judy Garland in 1967 and Margaret Hamilton in 1979, coming to know the latter reasonably well across the next four years.) Next “up,” however, was Margaret Pellegrini — the dancing Munchkin in the blue flowerpot hat, as well as one of the Sleepyhead Munchkins up in the nest – and that marked the onset of a twenty-four-year friendship that remains ever close to my heart.

In June 1989 and at the behest of MGM/UA Home Video, I traveled to Grand Rapids, Minnesota (birthplace of Judy Garland), to launch promotional activities for the forthcoming, fiftieth anniversary VHS tape release of the OZ movie. As I recall, Meinhardt was there, too, but Margaret and fellow Munchkin dancer Fern Formica were the real highlights among several special guests. Fern left the festival circuit – and, as L. Frank Baum referenced it, the Great Outside World, too – just few years later. But from 1989 through 2012, it was a rare season that didn’t bring Margaret back into my life, whether at a festival, convention, benefit, film screening, or any sort of Ozzy demonstration.

Above: Even before the OZ film’s fiftieth birthday blew the top off world-wide passion, Margaret was in demand for meet-and-greet Oz-related occasions. She’s shown here as the 1986 Grand Marshall of the (then-annual) South Hadley, Massachusetts, Oz parade; three local youngsters shine as stand-ins for the Lollipop Guild. This was a few years before Margaret realized the wisdom and appeal of acquiring copies of her original Munchkin garb in which she could mingle with – and please – any and all OZ aficionados.

When Margaret died in August 2013, I was asked to assemble memories from eight of her friends for an article in THE BAUM BUGLE, magazine of The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. (ozclub.org). The finished piece was laced with their specific and always fervently fond recollections of (as we blatantly, honestly, and privately termed Margaret) “The Favorite.” My own remembrances book-ended that feature, but there really wasn’t room for everything — nor will there be here. I’m summoning up what I can, though, to happily celebrate “Miss Margaret,” the nickname by which she was always saluted by Colleen Zimmer and Barbara Evans in Chittenango.

When Margaret and I met in Minnesota in 1989, we were – as noted – pretty much at the chronological onset of events heralding the golden anniversary of THE WIZARD OF OZ movie. We didn’t know how much the Ozian furor and fever was about to grow, but it most certainly did; as a result, more and more Munchkins and I were tossed together in numerous cities and towns over the next six months. (Among those that immediately come to mind: New York, NY; Culver City, CA; Kansas City, MO; Chesterton, IN; Liberal. KS; and Racine, WI.) If any of you took part in Oz festivities that year, you may recall that the scope and appeal of such activities just exploded, and an appreciably-sized snowball became — then and in subsequent years — an avalanche of presentations for many of us, especially the Munchkins.

Above: In replicas of their film costumes, Meinhardt Raabe and Margaret Pellegrini work side-by-side, selling (and personally autographing) the OZ movie stills in which they were pictured. He sits; she was always too exhilarated by the fans and fun to do anything but stand.

Each of the surviving little people made his or her own unique contributions to such gatherings. Margaret, however, possessed the most outgoing charm, charisma, and camaraderie; the greatest ability to recognize those she’d met before; and the most timeless dedication to the work at hand. She – like all the other “small ones” – was always provided with her own table space and an adjacent chair on which she could sit while signing autographs and posing for pictures. Yet, Margaret’s modus operandi was to stand – indefatigably – for hours on end. Then, at the conclusion of these long days and evenings, she would scamper back to the local hotel, slip into slacks and a dressy top, and head for the nearest casino. (Between rounds of gambling, she’d graciously sign autographs there, as well!)

Such responsibility to her fans was an outgrowth of a life of caring for others.  She was just 15 and brand new to show business when she made THE WIZARD OF OZ. Yet she then continued on as a performer until she married a normal-sized man and had a son and daughter. Margaret lost all three of them in later years, as well as a great-great grandchild, but she went on to raise grandchildren and (especially) two great grandchildren, Cheryl and Barbara, who often traveled with her and also became Oz circuit favorites.

A few of my most magical recollections:

  • As you can see in the accompanying photographs, Margaret had two different styles of her OZ costume recreated for her appearances. As the demands for her presence increased over the years (up to and including a jaunt to Australia!), she went through several copies of both. She knew that, were she suitably “decked out,” it would be a plus for those who’d see her – and, to be sure, the overwhelmingly visible rapture from all ages at this diminutive lady in a Munchkin costume was a nonstop delight to behold.
  • In 1993, Margaret and seven other MGM Munchkins responded to my request to be interviewed on-camera for the home-video documentary, WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS. Her unfailingly retentive memory, her humor, and the potent Pellegrini stories provided many high spots in that seventy-seven-minute production, but my choicest MM (Margaret Moment) came in a brief glimpse of Chesterton, IN, festival footage captured by videographer Paul Combel. Margaret was filmed standing (no surprise there!) in the rear of a convertible, parked on a side street, and waiting for the onset of the parade. Children costumed as Oz characters – a cowardly lion, a tin woodman, a lullaby league ballerina, et al – were clustered around and enthusiastically talking with her, and one little girl unhesitatingly and colloquially piped up, “Are you the REALLY Munchkin?” And Margaret instantly responded, “Yes, I’m REALLY a Munchkin!”
  • In 2009, we asked her to contribute an introduction to the MGM OZ seventieth anniversary book, THE WIZARD OF OZ: AN ILLUSTRATED COMPANION TO THE TIMELESS MOVIE CLASSIC. Her delight in seeing her words in print was surpassed only by our pride in showcasing her and capturing for posterity a handful of her sharpest recollections and comments.
  • Some Chittenango festival audiences remember to this day the times when, onstage at the Friday evening “Munchkin” panel, I’d ask Margaret a question and hand her the mic – after which she’d stroll the stage and refuse to return it to me. The fact that we were comfortable enough with each other to joke in such a fashion – and that we both trusted and adored each other – always made for a presentational highlight, not because of me but because of her.
Above: A couple of times over the years, the June Chittenango festival evening events had to be switched from the high school – thanks to a thunderstorm-connected power outage – to the further distant (and apparently on a different grid) middle school. So, we’d hurriedly set up the highly-anticipated and heavily-attended Meet-the-Munchkins discussion on the gymnasium floor. From left: emcee John Fricke; Munchkin-by-Marriage Elizabeth Maren, Jerry (“Lollipop Guild”) Maren, Coroner Meinhardt Raabe, Karl (1st Trumpeter & Soldier), Margaret, and Clarence (Soldier) Swensen. Margaret has her own mic, but I’m holding mine way out of reach anyway!

My family benefitted from Margaret’s warmth and joy, as well – perhaps most notably during a small Oz fete in suburban Milwaukee twenty or so years ago. She and Munchkin soldier Clarence Swensen (and his wife, Myrna) were riding in the parade on the back of low-slung, flatbed sort of trailer. Coincidentally, it came to a brief pause just opposite the bleachers where my mom, sister-in-law, and two preteen nieces were happily watching. Given the fact that that the two Munchkins (and one Munchkin-by-Marriage) were then within easy hailing distance, my mom impulsively called to her friends, “Hi, Margaret! Hi, Clarence! Hi, Myrna!” The three of them turned in the direction of the greeting and (as if rehearsed) simultaneously caroled out “DOTTY!” in recognition. And – led by Margaret – they all clambered down from the truck and dashed over to the curb to say hello. 😊

Margaret Pellegrini was one of a kind; a major force in the success of the decades of Oz festivals; and a definite reason for the size they became. There was immense pleasure as one watched her interact with the public – and (as referenced above) the manner in which one face after another would light up to a wondrous degree when they saw her. But as I wrote a few years ago, my warmest and most glowing remembrance is that of her late-night kibbitzing with festival “regulars” as she wandered hotel hallways and lobbies in a muumuu. Or of the manner in which she’d privately, wisely, and wickedly vent about those she felt had somehow “betrayed” Oz. Or of her sliding into a chair at the early morning breakfasts (just prior to a full day’s schedule), when she – after who-knows-how-few-hours-of-sleep – would softly and gleefully tell about her late-night casino winnings of the previous evening!

Above: Among the many applicable adjectives: “Unforgettable.” Here’s a quintessential snapshot in which Margaret was caught on the run. As ever, she carries her (comparatively) enormous purse and her omnipresent white sweater – and willingly summons up a gay greeting and ready smile, even on her way home after a long day of commitments and subsequent socializing.

Her limitless list of adulators could add reams of additional copy here. For now, though, let me just say that — as you saw above — I titled this month’s blog, “Miss Margaret.”

It could just as easily have carried the heading, “You Made Me Love You.”

“OZCOT” – AT HOLLYWOOD IN CALIFORNIA

By: John Fricke


Above: This is the home that L. Frank and Maud Gage Baum had built for themselves in a sleepy, sparsely-settled Los Angeles suburb, and where Baum would spend most of the last nine years of his life. Across that time, the opening “author’s note” in his new Oz books would be signed – quite simply – from “‘OZCOT’ – At HOLLYWOOD in CALIFORNIA,” and it was here that children would send their letters and even come to visit him, beginning in 1910.

If you’ve ever heard anything about L. Frank Baum’s childhood, you’re aware that – as a boy — he lived on a beautiful estate called Rose Lawn, near Syracuse, NY. Its gardens, flowers, lawns, paths, and mansion-like home made for a happy environment; here Frank wrote and printed his own small newspaper, or read or daydreamed for hours on end.

As an adult, his living quarters weren’t continually that plush. His imagination and varying professions led him to (mostly) rented houses, deluxe (or not) hotels or apartments, or fashionable or rustic summer dwellings. He and his family lived everywhere from the Syracuse area to Aberdeen in Dakota Territory, to Chicago, Macatawa, MI, and Coronado, CA. Finally, in 1910, he arrived at the home shown in the photographs just above and below; he christened it “Ozcot.”

It was an apt designation. By then, Baum was the renowned “Royal Historian of Oz,” primarily famous for the first six books in the Oz series and the outrageously successful THE WIZARD OF OZ stage musical (very loosely adapted from the story of that title). Never a savvy money-manager, he had lost a small fortune on another theatrical venture, the multi-media FAIRY-LOGUE AND RADIO PLAYS (1908); by 1911, he was forced to declare bankruptcy.

The saving grace in this is that he had already transferred all of his property, including book rights, to his wondrous wife, Maud Gage. Thus, when she came into an inheritance from her mother, Maud and Frank borrowed additional funds from a wealthy friend and bought a lot in quiet Hollywood, CA. There, they built Ozcot, and – possibly for the first time since his youth – Baum once again had a long-term home of his own: a large, two-story bungalow with an immense back yard. There he could garden, keep an aviary, and breed and raise what turned out to be prize-winning chrysanthemums and dahlias.

Above: Another view of the cheery Ozcot terrain

Given the Southern California climate, Baum could comfortably write outdoors much of the time, and his years at Ozcot witnessed a remarkable professional output. Baumian enterprises between 1911-1919 included the two “Tiny Trot and Cap’n Bill” fantasy books, THE SEA FAIRIES and SKY ISLAND; the LITTLE WIZARD STORIES OF OZ (six short tales about favorite characters from the marvelous land); his final eight full-length Oz novels; continuations of his “series books” for teenagers; the production of the reasonably successful stage musical, THE TIK-TOK MAN OF OZ; the launch of the short-lived Oz Film Manufacturing Company; and a score of other book and theatrical endeavors that were developed but never completed or mounted. (This latter statement excepts the four complete shows he wrote for The Uplifters, a by-invitation-membership club for businessmen, originally based at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.)


Above: This promotional still was taken to publicize HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ — the third full-length silent film produced by Baum’s Oz Film Manufacturing Company (1914). Here, The Tin Woodman (Pierre Couderc) threatens Mombi the Witch (Mae Wells), while Button Bright (Mildred Harris), the Scarecrow (Frank Moore), and Dorothy (Violet MacMillan) look on

Obviously, Baum’s life at this time was as vividly, participatorily active as possible; apart from his work, there were golf games, flower show excursions, family outings, and the like. But Ozcot was there, at the end of the day – or at the finish of a business trip or road-show tour — to provide a peaceful foundation and retreat. Sixty years later, veteran Hollywood journalist/scenarist Adela Rogers St. Johns remembered Baum’s “extraordinary twinkle of joie de vivre” when she chanced to “meet him taking a little soul-and-back-stretching stroll down

Bronson Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard.” At such moments, one writer appraised the other, and she felt that Baum’s jaunts were spiritually “companioned no doubt with the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, and of course, Dorothy.”

It was a beautiful, peaceful neighborhood, as borne out by a recent social media posting that described the area and, specifically, the Baum home: “Hollywood . . . at the time was mostly citrus groves. In 1910, the street was known as Magnolia but was renamed Cherokee two years later. On the second floor, [Baum] had a long, enclosed porch with a view of the distant mountains; downstairs, at one end, [was] a large sunroom where he grew flowers. In his garden, he planted roses, dahlias and chrysanthemums, [and] before long, he was recognized as a champion amateur horticulturist in Southern California. He built a large bird cage, big enough for a zoo, and there kept hundreds of rare and exotic song birds.”


Above: The Royal Historian of Oz was photographed – at what he probably considered his leisure – in the vast backyard of Ozcot in March 1911. Everything was still “in process,” but he would shortly make a showplace of the entire lot

Across the last two years of his life, Baum faced multiple health complications: angina attacks, gall bladder removal, an inflamed appendix. His weakened condition kept him bedridden for months – but he continued to write his books, answer letters from children, and rest securely (if not always comfortably) in the home he and Maud established for themselves.
He died there at Ozcot on May 6, 1919, just days before his sixty-third birthday. Maud remained in residence — keeping up Frank’s gardens and their homestead as she was able – until her own death in 1953, after which Ozcot was razed. But joyous memories about the place continue to surface. A few years ago, local resident and film actress Ann Rutherford recalled her own frequent walks past Ozcot in the late 1930s and into the 1940s. The flowers remained eye-catching and stunning, and if Maud was in the yard, the two women would often visit. Rutherford was then a well-known Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer actress, most familiar to moviegoers as “Polly Benedict,” Mickey Rooney’s girlfriend in the ANDY HARDY series. It was thus a given that she would attend the premiere of MGM’s THE WIZARD OF OZ; a few months ago, this blog featured a photograph of Maud and Ann at that event. Just below, you’ll find another in which they’re present, if not preeminent!


Above:  Chico Marx of The Marx Brothers is happily welcomed to the Los Angeles premiere of THE WIZARD OF OZ at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, August 15, 1939. Doing the honors is one of the film’s performers, “Lollipop Guild” member Jerry Maren; for this occasion, he was costumed as the Munchkinland Mayor. Please look to the top left of the photo, however, to glimpse “Cowardly Lion” Bert Lahr, actress Ann Rutherford, and Maud Gage (Mrs. L. Frank) Baum

I mentioned above that “joyous memories about” Ozcot “continue to surface.” One of these, just this past week on Facebook, actually prompted this month’s blog topic, and I quote it here: “My grandmother, who lived nearby [Ozcot], and her little friends used to go to [Mr. Baum’s] house, and he would come out and tell the children stories about Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, while they sat on his porch and had lemonade and cookies. He would tell the children to hang Log Cabin Syrup cans in the trees — and that the Munchkins would come and live in them. When my grandmother went to Hollywood High (where she graduated in 1919), she said there were still some of those cans hanging in the trees in Hollywood!”

What could be more typically Frank Baum than a directive – and outcome — like that? (The question’s rhetorical, but in case you know of any homeless Munchkins, here’s a 1914 container of the type he was describing! 😊 )

So, here’s to L. Frank Baum, and to his final “there’s no place like home” in this life. As someone who wasn’t born for more than thirty years after Baum’s passing, I grew up loving Oz in the 1950s, 1960s, and ever after. The more I’ve learned about Ozcot across all this time, the more I’ve wished I could have been one of the children who visited him there – or wrote to him there.

AND got an answer!