By John Fricke
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.
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.
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.
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. 😊
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.
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.
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]