Now a Half Century Down the Yellow Brick Road, Six Munchkins Remember Oz
updated 06/26/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 06/26/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
But when the common memories tumble forth, they evoke a land of vibrant orange flowers and blue topaz skies—a place where happiness could be found at the end of a yellow brick road. The six retirees gathered at a Sarasota, Fla., restaurant should know: They are some of the last remaining Munchkins, the undersize actors who populated Dorothy's oversize dream in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz.
Back then, there were hundreds of little people converging on the MGM lot in Culver City, Calif. Their sojourn in Oz—a 10-minute scene that would become one of the most popular in cinema history—would take seven weeks to film. For that they were each paid about $50 a week; not much compared with Dorothy's dog, Toto, who raked in $125, but in those Depression years, a tidy sum. Most of the midgets were troupers, veterans of vaudeville, carnivals or state fairs. For some, The Wizard of Oz would be a stepping-stone; for others, the only glory in a vagabond career. But whatever their fates beyond Munchkinland, in the midget world they would forever be stars. "Munchkins seem to live in clumps," writes Stephen Cox, who tracked down 31 of the 124 actors and extras for his new book, Munchkins Remember the Wizard of Oz and Beyond. But for this Florida clump, it is their first time together since those seven weeks at the end of 1938.
With the carefully tended look of a retired CEO, 4'8" Meinhardt Raabe, a silver-haired 73, seems immediately in charge. Small change: When he was 23, resplendent in an orange beard and blue frock coat, he stood near the scrawny stockings of the Wicked Witch of the East and issued this pronouncement: "As coroner I must aver, I thoroughly examined her, and she's not only merely dead, she's really most sincerely dead."
"I probably got the part because I had some public speaking experience and spoke more emphatically than the others," he says modestly. Raabe, who had worked as a barker at Midget Village in the 1934 Chicago World's Fair, adds that he really didn't want to be in showbiz at all. "But in those days, there were no jobs open to midgets except in carnivals. People had a misconception of midgets then. They thought small body, small mind." So Raabe took a job for Oscar Mayer, touring as their hot dog mascot, Little Oscar. He was on the road in Wisconsin when he heard about MGM's call.
Tiny Doll, now 74, was in Florida working for Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She and her brother and two sisters, short people all, drove to L.A. together. Brother Harry was chosen for the Lollipop Guild; the girls were cast as villagers. Like many of the midgets who were showbiz professionals, 3'6" Tiny Doll distances herself from the little people whose "whoring, drinking and pimping," as Cox describes it, has long been the stuff of Hollywood legend (and the subject of Under (he Rainbow, the 1981 Chevy Chase movie). "We always had our own apartment," says Tiny. "We never stayed with the others."
With a sigh, Karl (Karchy) Slover, 70, remembers those others: "They loved their liquor too much." Slover, at 4'4" a full foot taller than his Oz height, was in Hawaii with the vaudeville troupe Leo Singer's Midgets when he heard about the film. Slover played the first of three trumpeters who lead the Mayor's procession, as well as one of the sleepyheads who rise out of the nest. Since retiring from showbiz in the '50s, he has lived in Tampa, where he trains poodles.
Gus Wayne, also 4'4", was working in vaudeville in Eggharbor, N.J., in 1938, when he got word. "The money sounded good," he says, "and I was off." From the part of a Munchkinland soldier, he would rise to a seven-year gig as one of the Little Johnnie bellhops who shouted "Call for Philip Morris" on radio.
Today, Wayne and his wife, Olive, a former actress, live in Lakeland, Fla. His last job before he retired was as a Piper Aircraft mechanic.
Then Jeane LaBarbera—2'6" Little Jeane, as she is still known—arrives from Tampa with her husband of 45 years. "My wife was a big star—not like the rest of those kids," boasts 6' Robert Drake. These days, Little Jeane, who played a villager in Oz, generally defers to Robert, who answers questions for her, cuts her food and takes her by the hand to the ladies' room. In the '40s, the two toured as a popular vaudeville team. They delight in reminiscing about their showbiz triumphs, such as the time Jeane wrote and starred opposite Bert Lahr in an act called Bench Babies. "She was the tiniest and most perfectly made of them all," says Drake, still in love.
At 83, Nita Krebs is one of the oldest living Munchkins. Her pink Sarasota stucco house was a gift from her old boss Leo Singer. And pink is an appropriate color, since Krebs played one of the three pink-clad ballerinas who danced for Dorothy. In fact, she made her living as a dancer until her retirement in the mid-'50s.
When she is coaxed into posing for a photograph, the gray-haired, bespectacled trouper tilts her head and turns on a showbiz smile. No need to coax a performance from Nita Krebs, who once danced for Dorothy in the main square of Munchkinland in the country of Oz. "It's in our blood," she says.
—Michael Neill, Bonnie Bell in Sarasota