Anyone who knows me knows how obsessed I’ve always been with “The Wizard of Oz.” Before I could even talk, my mother used to put me to bed by placing the needle at the beginning of our long-playing soundtrack for the 1939 film (which included a lot of the dialogue) and I would drift off to sleep somewhere between the Wicked Witch of the West’s threats to kill Dorothy and her little dog and the Cowardly Lion fantasizing about being King of the Forest. It might not have been the healthiest sleep method but it worked for me and by the time I was six I knew every word of Yip Harburg’s wonderful songs. By the time I was 10 I could literally recite the entire film by heart, from Dorothy’s oepning lines: “She isn’t coming yet, Toto. Did she hurt you? She tried to, didn’t she?” to her final “Oh Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!” I would entertain my friends by seeing how fast I could spit out all the whole film, words, songs, and even special effects. If I talked ridiculously fast, I think my personal best was just under 20 minutes. I’ve written about how the annual telecast of “The Wizard of Oz” was a huge event in my family, on par with the Jewish holidays we celebrated (and with some confusing similarities).
My daughter grew up watching the movie and we’ve managed to see many anniversary screenings in movie theatres. We attended a sing-along “Wizard of Oz” at the Hollywood Bowl with 18,000 other fans of the film. At the age of eight, Leah appeared on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl dressed as author L. Frank Baum. I certainly plan on introducing Charlie to the film when he’s ready, and I’ve been singing various songs from the film to him since his earliest days in the NICU.
I’ve got Oz on the brain this weekend because Meinhardt Raabe died yesterday at the age of 94. Raabe was one of the few remaining munchkins still alive. We met him and the others in this group several times at various events around town. Leah has an autographed photo she treasures of Margaret Pelligrini, the munchkin who wore the flower pot hat. Pelligrini survives today and has six great-grandchildren. She was only 15 in the film, got $50 a week, and loved every second of it. “Judy Garland was a sweet girl,” Margaret recalled, “a typical teenager and she loved the munchkins. During film breaks, Judy would sit and chat with us on the Yellow Brick Road. We were all so amazed to be working with a star—but she was equally amazed to be working with all of us. She gave me an 8 x 10 photo of herself and wrote on it ‘To Margaret from your pal Judy.’”
As the Coroner of Munchkinland, it was Meinhardt Raabe who pronounced the Wicked Witch of the East legally dead. At the age of 21 and less than four feet tall, it was Raabe who uttered what has become one of the most famous lines from the film:
As Coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her…
And she’s not only merely dead
She’s really most sincerely dead!
For the rest of his life, people would come up to Raabe and ask him what “I aver” means (legal jargon for “I swear”). It was one of the words I learned from the movies but never used, like “ken” that Liesl “Things Beyond My Ken” Von Trapp taught me in “The Sound of Music.”
Did you ever get a good look at the death certificate Raabe holds up in the film? It says the Wicked Witch died on May 6, 1938. Funny to think of that date on the certificate when the movie itself is so timeless. As Raabe said himself during one of his last interviews, “There is nothing in the picture that dates it. There are no vintage cars or old streetcars…it’s a fantasy picture that will be fantasy for generations to come.”
Outside of Munchkinland, May 6, 1938 also marked the day that mass deportations of Austria’s Jews were announced. One Austrian named Leo Singer had emigrated years earlier to this country with a troupe of midgets that became wildly successful in vaudeville. Singer’s Midgets took the U.S. by storm appearing in the best theatres in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. When vaudeville died, Singer tried to get his “little people” into the movies but it was hard going. They made a few shorts for Paramount but the act was languishing when he finally got the call from MGM about “The Wizard of Oz.” Singer was hired to gather all of the midgets he could find for the film. He used the remaining members of his own troupe and looked for any and all performing midgets around the country. In the end, there were 124 midgets plus about half a dozen full-size children making up the munchkin ranks.
During the filming, most of the munchkins stayed in a nearby Culver City hotel. The crazy stories of their drunken debauchery were mostly fiction, although a handful of the midgets had drinking problems and there were a few episodes. But most of the wildly exaggerated tales were spread by Judy Garland as she made the talk show rounds in the 1960s. It made for a good story and was even the basis for a weird 1980s film starring Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher called "Under the Rainbow."
Considering the fact that “The Wizard of Oz” was made over 70 years ago, it’s amazing that anyone from the production survives. When I was growing up, most of the cast was still alive they often appeared to introduce the film during its annual TV showing. Only Frank Morgan, the charlatan wizard, died before I was born, in 1950. Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion was the next to go, in 1967, followed by Dorothy herself, when Judy Garland died at age 47 in 1969. Glinda the Good Witch’s Billlie Burke died the following year. In 1979, the Tin Man’s Jack Haley went to that great junk heap in the sky (after his son married Dorothy’s daughter, Liza). Following a successful resurgence of her career in Maxwell House coffee commercials, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West finally went “where the goblins go, below, below, below” in 1985, followed two years later by the Scarecrow’s Ray Bolger. Now, with Meinhardt Raabe’s death, only a very few munchkins are left. How sad it will be when the last person associated with this film leaves the planet. But, like Raabe said, the movie will live on for many generations to come.
I recently heard that no fewer than three Oz projects are in pre-production. Say it ain’t so! I’m game for a movie version of the musical “Wicked” but can’t stand the thought of Hollywood remaking the original film. I’m sure the new munchkins will be CGI monstrosities and I shudder at the thought of some insipid modern teen taking on the role of Dorothy.
Meinhardt Raabe spent the rest of his life in his blue coroner’s costume regaling generation after generation of new Oz lovers. He wore it two years ago when the remaining munchkins were on hand for the unveiling of their star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.
You’re out of the woods
You’re out of the dark
You’re out of the night.
Step into the sun
Step into the light.
Keep straight ahead for the most glorious place
On the face of the earth or the sky…