by John Fricke
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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:
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]