The long and short of it? “The Wizard of Oz,” easily among the most popular films of all time, is now 65 years old. And one of its few surviving players is only 4-foot-3.
It’s a testament to brevity that not only is Meinhardt Raabe still among us at the ripe old age of nearly 90, but so are eight of the other little people who populated Munchkinland, the place where every midget in Hollywood (and, in Raabe’s case, Wisconsin) was given his or her shot at the big time.
Raabe, who took a two-month leave from his job as the Oscar Meyer Co.’s “Little Oscar,” attained screen immortality by playing the Coroner: He declared the Wicked Witch of the East deceased (“She’s not only merely dead/She’s really quite sincerely dead…”). It was a role that gave Raabe 13 seconds of dialogue and a lifetime of reminiscences.
And they’re all in “Memories of a Munchkin,” a must-have for Oz freaks, but also a book that is strategically constructed to make the most of everything Raabe and co-author Daniel Kinski had at their disposal, and more.
Written in a manner that befits a very elderly gentleman — Raabe (pronounced like “hobby”) refers to many of his deceased male collaborators as “Mr.”; Judy Garland is a goddess — Raabe’s story itself wouldn’t be quite enough to carry a volume this size.
Wisely, then, “Memories” is essentially three books in one: Raabe’s memoir; a second section devoted to beautifully rendered poster art from the film’s original 1939 release; and a third block featuring 50 specially commissioned illustrations, inspired by the movie, by such disparate artists as Al Hirschfeld; Al Feldstein (EC Comics); R. Crumb’s daughter, Sophie; and several veterans of MAD magazine.
Books related to “Oz” range from John Lahr’s bio of his father, Bert (“Notes on a Cowardly Lion”), to “I Toto” by Willard Carroll. Such is the mania surrounding the movie. “Memories of a Munchkin” won’t replace Aljean Harmetz’s “The Making of ‘The Wizard of Oz'” as a repository of Oz ephemera, but it does provide some choice tidbits, especially as provided from Raabe’s particular perspective.
Garland was on a box, for instance, when she stood among the Munchkins, to make her seem even taller. The Yellow Brick Road was made of Masonite (compressed wood and plastic). Although he was never told so officially, Raabe now believes his voice, and those of the other Munchkins, were dubbed in post-production.
Why do the hands on the watch held by the Munchkin City Mayor move back and forth with no discernible logic? Munchkin pranks. Speaking of which: Raabe, with as much vehemence as his Old World manner will allow, disputes most of the tales of debauchery spread about the Munchkin players, by Garland herself in one case, or by John Lahr’s book in another. Raabe admits he didn’t know everything his co-players did between shoots, but he insists that while he enjoyed “Under the Rainbow,” the movie that purports to tell about the making of “Oz” was based on some very entertaining falsehoods.
Raabe’s personal story, pre-“Oz,” is both provincial and poignant. He’s refreshingly frank about his diminutive size, saying neither common people nor medical science knew much about folk like him. Qualities of kindness and cruelty seem timeless, though, and while Raabe is good-natured about some outrageous things — his youthful “participation” in “midget-tossing,” for instance — other things seem to rankle him less than they might. Were he to endure now the kinds of institutionalized biases he encountered as a young man, he’d no doubt have a team of lawyers and some very tall settlements.