By John Fricke
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”