By John Fricke
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.
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.
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”!
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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”?!!
God bless him!
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)]