MY FIRST MUNCHKIN!
By John Fricke
Above: A famous – if here colorized – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer still, taken in December 1938 on the set of the “Munchkinland” production number for THE WIZARD OF OZ. Coroner Meinhardt Raabe (holding the Certificate of Death and standing to Judy Garland’s right) has just averred that the Wicked Witch of the East is “not only merely dead; she’s really, most sincerely dead.” His fellow Munchkins are celebratory; Dorothy Gale (Judy) remains a trifle nonplussed. As a curious coincidence, the date of death for the WWE is given on the scroll as May 6, 1938 – nineteen years to the day after OZ author L. Frank Baum passed away in Hollywood, CA.
If we’re personally acquainted, or if you’ve read past blogs or other writing I’ve been fortunate to do, you may remember that my personal lifelong fascination with all-things-Oz was launched when I was one of the billions who first saw THE WIZARD OF OZ movie on TV. The story, performers, songs, and magic quite quickly swept me into a 24/7 concentration on the Oz books, the histories of L. Frank Baum and the others who wrote or illustrated the series, their supplementary work, Judy Garland’s career, the film output of MGM, and the great popular songbook stemming from Broadway and Hollywood. Across the last six decades (plus!), none of that has changed; in fact, these passions long ago — and blessedly — became a career. 😊
My first real writing began when I was asked to submit brief Oz news summaries and Oz Convention reports to THE BAUM BUGLE, magazine of The International Wizard of Oz Club (ozclub.org). Then, as I wrote elsewhere a couple of months ago, it was Club Secretary Fred Meyer who suggested — circa 1965 — that I research and prepare a “making of the MGM OZ movie” feature for the film’s thirtieth anniversary. This gave me several teenage years to do what investigative and archival work I could manage from my Milwaukee, WI, home and nearby resources. After solid help from a number of people, the article finally appeared in the Autumn 1969 BUGLE. Surprisingly, this was the first time a back-story history about that already-legendary motion picture had ever been published.
There were many intriguing (whether major or minor) bits of information that turned up in the course of exploring the OZ saga. One of a local nature came when I looked at the Milwaukee newspapers for the original OZ movie ads from August 1939. The film played at a prestigious “downtown” theater on the main drag — Wisconsin Avenue — and the press noted that the venue’s accompanying “live” vaudeville show included an appearance by “Meinhardt Raabe, Munchkin Coroner, courtesy the Oscar Mayer Wiener Company.” I duly noted this fact in the BUGLE article, while privately wondering: Was this really one of the movie actors? What did hot dogs have to do with it? And how the heck do you pronounce that last name?
Fade out, autumn 1969. Fade in on a profile of local celebrity “Robbie” (THAT was the pronunciation) in the PHILADELPHIA EVENING BULLETIN in February 1973, which discussed Meinhardt’s multi-careers as pilot, horticulturist, teacher’s aide for handicapped students, a long tenure as “Little Oscar” (in the “wienermobile!) for Oscar Mayer, and the Coroner role in MGM’s OZ. Around that same time in the early 1970s, Raabe – as he preferred to be called – read a brief newspaper notice about a forthcoming “Munchkin Convention” in the Phillie vicinity; thinking this must be some sort of off-shoot of the Little People of America organization, he casually stopped by. He found instead the annual regional gathering of Oz Club members, who were termed “Munchkins” because they lived and/or were meeting in the Eastern section of the United States. (The Munchkin Country forms the eastern quadrant of the actual Land of Oz.) If there was initial astonishment on both sides, Meinhardt quickly became a most welcome semi-regular speaker and/or “drop-in” at subsequent Club events.
It was at one of those OzCons in the late 1970s or early 1980s that I was fortunate to meet him: My First Munchkin! By then, he knew of some of the OZ movie journalism I’d done, but what gave us an immediate and then strengthening bond was the fact that we were both from Wisconsin. In 1988, he sat for a long audio-tape interview about the film, many quotes from which were utilized in the text of the first book I wrote, THE WIZARD OF OZ: THE OFFICIAL 50th ANNIVERSARY PICTORIAL HISTORY (New York: Warner Books, 1989). Even prior to the nationwide celebrations that “golden” year, Raabe and his wife, Marie, were among the earliest little people to travel the Oz festival circuit, and the fiftieth birthday of the motion picture in 1989 saw us reunite in (among other locales) New York, Minnesota, Indiana, Kansas, Wisconsin, and the MGM/UA Home Video office building — across the street from the vintage MGM studios in Culver City, CA.
The massive New York City whoopla that August centered around Macy’s in Herald Square; does anyone else remember how that department store jubilantly turned itself into the Land of Oz for three weeks? As a respite from the hoo-hah, Meinhardt and Marie were among the Munchkin guests at a wine-and-cheese party that Christopher O’Brien and I gave here in our apartment for my parents, who’d come to town for the book launch, media, and all. Whatever you may have heard over the years about jaded New Yorkers, please just realize that the sight of several Ozzy little people in the lobby, elevators, and corridors of a Times Square-neighborhood apartment building was enough to stop residential traffic. Meinhardt had to offer his Coroner speech several times – which he was ever-delighted to do – to appease (and thrill) the throngs.
Thanks to the work I did on the 50th ANNIVERSARY BOOK and VHS OZ tape, I was able to meet and get to know nearly twenty of the surviving Munchkins in the space of just those next couple of years. Meinhardt, however (and as noted), was the first — by a long shot! — and in early 1990, he suggested me as a possible participant to those in charge of the annual Wizard of Oz Festival (now officially OZ-Stravaganza!) in Chittenango, NY. I had dreamed of going there, to Baum’s birthplace, since I was a preteen; it was Raabe’s recommendation that finally brought me to town, and I’ve been back for all but two of the last thirty jubilees. I am forever grateful to him for the trust and bond that made him feel I would be worthy.
Across the next nineteen years, there were countless other festivals, conventions, appearances, and interviews – most shared with Meinhardt and a raft of additional Munchkins, but several that he and I did one-on-one. His memories were clear, intact, honest, and appreciative; there’s no question he was proud of many aspects of his life and career, but he (like all those involved in MGM’s movie) came to realize that participation in THE WIZARD OF OZ was something unique and ever-more important in the history of popular culture.
An early highlight of our association came when Raabe and others of the little people attended (as always) the Chesterton, IN, festival in September 1993 — and all eight on hand agreed to participate on-camera with me in WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MUNCHKINS, a seventy-seven-minute home video documentary. Though the production itself wasn’t lavish, it providentially captured — for posterity! — Meinhardt, Lewis Croft, Jerry Maren, Nels Nelson, Margaret Pellegrini, Karl Slover, Clarence Swensen, and Betty Tanner in top form as they recounted their individual chronicles, Oz and otherwise. At one point in the final edit, Raabe discussed his “most treasured possession” (even some fifty-five years later), and the camera tracked up on the image of a personally autographed photo he was given on the OZ set: “To Meinhardt, a perfect Coroner and person, too, love from Judy.”
Above: The one-hundred-fiftieth birthday anniversary of “Royal Historian of Oz,” L. Frank Baum, led to several days of merriment and music at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, May 2006. Standing in the rear, left and right, are Robert and wife Clare Baum, here in costume (as Frank and wife Maud Baum) for their entertaining presentation about the origins of the author’s inspirations. Robert is the great-grandson of L. Frank Baum. Standing in front, from left: Margaret Pellegrini, Karl Slover, Jerry Maren, Ruth Duccini, Clarence Swensen, Mickey Carroll, and Meinhardt Raabe. Kneeling at left is Donna Stewart Hardway, whose claim to have been one of approximately ten little girls who “filled in” during the Munchkinland sequence of the MGM film has since been disputed.
The last few years of his life were challenging for Raabe. He lost his treasured, caring, and ever-patient Marie in a 1997 automobile accident (in which he, too, was injured) — this just short of their fifty-first wedding anniversary. Once physically and emotionally recovered, however, Meinhardt returned to the Oz circuit, and across the next eleven years, he took part in several extraordinary and one-of-a-kind Munchkin events:
- the 2005 publication of his lavish, gorgeously illustrated, hard-cover, “coffee-table” autobiography, MEMORIES OF A MUNCHKIN, assembled with and for him by Lieutenant Daniel Kinske, U.S.N. (New York: Back Stage Books);
- the May 2006 one-hundred-and-fiftieth-birthday anniversary celebration for L. Frank Baum at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse;
- the November 21, 2007, triumph when the OZ Munchkins received their “star” on The Hollywood Walk of Fame;
- and the September 2009 New York City festivities for THE WIZARD OF OZ film’s seventieth anniversary.
I was honored to emcee and otherwise participate in the second and fourth of these, and the latter covered three full days. There was boundless joy as people watched the surviving Munchkins arrive at Tavern on the Green, pose together in the basket of a huge hot air balloon in the parking lot, and then walk a “yellow brick carpet” into the restaurant itself for a by-invitation-only party. There was equal jubilation in the unconditional surrender of the varied, greater-New-York-area media (including National Public Radio) during a wearying day-long press event. The unexpected highlight, however, came during a Saturday morning screening of THE WIZARD OF OZ at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. The ever-diverse Oz and NYC community came out in force; their age range was the customary fetal-to-fatal cross-section of all ages; and famous Broadway, Hollywood, and television types dotted the audience. They’d come to see the film; they didn’t realize they’d also receive introductory comments from Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft. As a result, the emotional temperature in the auditorium kept rising. When I stepped out, and when the crowd realized I was introducing – onstage and in person – a surprise appearance by five surviving Munchkins, the applause, cheering, and hootin’ and hollerin’ were deafening.
Ah, blasé New York!
Believe it or not, and despite all of their appearances elsewhere in the country (and, for Margaret, Australia, too), the Munchkins had never before done a public event in Manhattan. So, they sat in chairs onstage at Avery Fisher, and I had each one recount a favorite anecdote or sing one of their bits from the film. Meinhardt’s recitation of the Coroner’s couplet was, of course, a show-stopper, and that 2009 mini-tour pretty much marked the end of his Oz journeys.
There’s a brief, surviving NEWSWEEK-produced video session with the Munchkins that was done at the very tail-end of the NYC press day in 2009. Meinhardt had just turned ninety-four, and he and the others managed the rigorous schedule with great elan until this very last taping. At that point, they were all ready to call it a day; the bright lights required for the taping bothered them, and they’d already been working for eight hours. (Meanwhile, Lorna and I were cheerleading them off-camera, as NEWSWEEK hadn’t provided anyone to ask questions of the five stars!) But the tape is fun to see for anyone who knew the Munchkins at their best – and well enough to know when they were determined to go home. 😊 At one point, Raabe – to everyone’s amusement, including his own when later told about it! — complacently fell asleep on-camera. Yet, each of them leapt into action with suitable quotes and responses when prompted, professionals to the very end. Here is that brief video:
Ruth, Margaret, Karl, and Jerry managed a few more rounds of appearances in succeeding years, but as noted above, that trip to New York was one of the very last “Oz HurrOz” for Meinhardt. He died the following April 9th in Florida and “returned” to his beloved Wisconsin for final services and his resting place.
Raabe’s remarkable personal and professional accomplishments and strengths are beautifully detailed in MEMORIES OF A MUNCHKIN, which may be heartily recommended to any Oz or movie fan. For me, the joy of his indefatigable spirit and his desire to “work the circuit” are prime memories; he’d frequently, invariably, take me aside at any gathering to ask if I knew of any upcoming events to which he might be invited or at which he could guest and sell his autographed photos. Some of us used to privately – but jokingly and affectionately – refer to him as “the mercenary Munchkin.” But we knew his heart was very much into meeting the people, especially children, and he never missed an opportunity to share his OZ recollections with those who wanted to hear them.
And when he died, Meinhardt Raabe left one million dollars to Bethesda Lutheran Ministries, an organization in his hometown of Watertown, WI, that supports developmentally disabled adults.
I grew to love many Munchkins across the years – but Meinhardt was my first. And his fellow Wisconsin native wanted to salute him here, so I thank you for reading!