Friday, September 25, 2009

The Munchkins Take Manhattan

During these past few days in New York City, I've felt like I'm a witness to history.

Last night, at Central Park's historic restaurant Tavern on the Green (itself on the endangered list as it is undoubtedly due for an overhaul on 1/1/10 when it will no longer be run by the LeRoy family, the descendants of the film's producer, Mervyn), Warner Brothers and its home video department gave a big bash to celebrate the 70th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz -- and a new blu-ray DVD box set coming out this coming Tuesday, 9/29.

In the restaurant's parking lot, a hot air balloon, much like the one belonging to the Great Oz, hovered, bearing the likenesses of the iconic film's stars. Later, inside, Oz star Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft performed a medley of songs from the film. As she explained in her intro to the medley, she had always resisted singing Oz songs, but had put together this arrangement just for last night's party. But as she elaborated this morning on "The Frank DeCaro Show" on OutQ (Sirius 109, XM 98), the songs she sang last night -- including "If I Only Had a Brain," "Optimistic Voices" and even the number cut from the film, "Jitterbug" -- were all deliberately chosen because they were songs Judy didn't sing in the film.

Following Lorna came Ashanti, who recently starred in The Wiz on Broadway. She deftly belted
out a loving rendition of "Over the Rainbow," and followed with another catchy song, from her new album.

But here's the part about being a witness to history: posing in front of the balloon, with stand-ins of Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and Lion, were five of the six surviving Munchkins. As John Fricke, who has authored three books about the film, explained in his intro, 124 little people worked on The Wizard of Oz. Today, six remain, the youngest, Margaret Pellegrini, at age 86.

They are the only people who remain from the cast of this iconic film. And as five of them gathered in one room, both last night and today on Frank's show on Sirius, I couldn't help but feel like I was witnessing the last of a great era. 70 years later, these performers, who came to Hollywood practically as kids, hearing of a rare big break for Little People, are still with us; and if the reaction of everyone gushing around them in these past few days is an indication, they're getting their due as living American treasures. I was happy to hear, for example, that back in November 2007, the then 8 surviving Munchkins got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Pictured below are at left, author John Fricke (holding the sign), and at right, Lorna Luft.

And in between, Meinhardt Raabe (in wheelchair), the Munchkin coroner. He is the last remaining cast member who had actual solo lines in the film. And at age 94, he performed them today on the air. We'll all always remember:

As coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her.
And she's not only merely dead
She's really most sincerely dead.

Next to Raabe, with the lollipop, is 89-year-old Jerry Maren, the center member of the Lollipop Guild. After Oz, Maren went on to do quite a bit of work in Hollywood, including the "Yada Yada" episode of Seinfeld, and has two films slated for release later in 2009-10. All together now:
We represent the Lollipop Guild
The Lollipop Guild, The Lollipop Guild
And in the name of the Lollipop Guild
We'd like to welcome you to Munchkinland.

Next to Maren is Ruth Duccini, 91. She met her husband on the set of the film, and was married for a little over 50 years. She has 2 children, 4 grandchildren, 7 great-grandchildren -- and got a laugh on Frank's show today when she said the family doesn't really care too much about her iconic status.

In the flowerpot hat, that's Margaret Pellegrini, 86. At only 15, she took a train, by herself, from Mississippi to Hollywood for a role in the film. Make that two roles. Not only will you see her in the film in that flower pot hat, but she's also one of the "Sleepy Heads."

And at right, in the tie, that's Karl Slover, who just turned 91 on September 21. Slover says he's the smallest cast member, at 4'4". "I couldn't reach the doorknobs," he says with a laugh. Slover had the talent, though, to be cast as 4 different Munchkins -- including one in drag. Catch him as the First Trumpeter, a Munchkin soldier, the sole Sleepy Head boy, and a singer urging Dorothy to Follow the Yellow Brick Road.

As author Fricke mentioned last night, some of these people had had some rough experiences in their lives before the film. But now, they're beloved by generations well into the future, well past their time, and undoubtedly mine. That's why I feel lucky I was able to express my gratitude (and perhaps drooling fandom) in person, to be able to thank them for their roles in creating a work of art that has inspired the imaginations of many millions.

(And P.S. -- if you missed the Munchkins and Luft on this morning's "Frank DeCaro Show," catch them again tonight on the rebroadcast. They're right at the top of the show, which means 10 PM Eastern / 7 PM Pacific.)

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