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Remembering Life Over the Rainbow : Former Munchkin Returns to Oz

June 09, 1985|KATHEE YAMAMOTO | Community Correspondent

HAWTHORNE — Hazel Resmondo has lived in Hawthorne for 48 of her 79 years, but she spent part of her life in the Land of Oz. And in a way, she is back there this weekend for a brief visit.

The 4-foot-4 Resmondo was one of the 130 Munchkins in the 1939 film classic "The Wizard of Oz." The city of Liberal, Kan., invited her to take part in this weekend's rededication of a tourist attraction there that recreates the fictional Kansas farmhouse in the L. Frank Baum story.

Although the fiery red hair Resmondo sported as a 34-year-old Munchkin has become a blend of silver and gray, Resmondo is still a slender 80 pounds--only four pounds heavier than she was in 1939--and she displays a youthful excitement that intensifies as she shows visitors her "Wizard of Oz" memorabilia.

'Hazel's Museum'

"I call this Hazel's Museum," she said, pointing to dozens of framed photographs, including autographed pictures of Judy Garland as Dorothy; Margaret Hamilton, the recently deceased actress who portrayed the Wicked Witch, and Ray Bolger, the film's Scarecrow.

Opening one of many bulging scrapbooks, she showed news clippings from the 1981 opening of "Dorothy's House" in Liberal, which she also attended, and snapshots of her name inscribed on Liberal's Highway 54, renamed "The Yellow Brick Road" by city officials.

"That means more to me than anything in Hollywood," she said.

Resmondo's father took her to and from their Hawthorne home to the MGM Studios in Culver City where she sang and danced on the Land of Oz set.

Over the Rainbow

"It was all so beautiful, I started to cry," she said, recalling her first glimpse of Hollywood's version of life over the rainbow.

Rainbows still have a special significance for her that is reflected in the rainbow sheets on her bed, the rainbow wind chimes in her living room and the rainbow T-shirt she often wears.

Resmondo, who was born Hazel Derthick, is originally from the Oklahoma Panhandle a few miles from Kansas, where the fictional Dorothy and her dog Toto were transported by cyclone to the Land of Oz.

"Oh, I've seen several real twisters . . . there was one that was equal to the cyclone in the 'Wizard of Oz,' " she said. "My dad, my mother and I had been uptown to eat at the cafe and we saw it coming down the long street of our town. We ran home and we held the door shut, just in time! That cyclone practically lifted our house right off the ground!"

Big Time, Low Pay

By the time Resmondo and her family moved to Hawthorne, she had tested her dance and voice training by appearing in tent shows around her hometown.

"But I never thought I'd be big time," she said, until a chance encounter with a group of midget performers in Hollywood led to her being selected to play one of the Munchkins, the small inhabitants of Oz.

She's still unhappy, though, about the low studio salary she earned. "I got peanuts," she said ruefully. "Only $5 a day. But that was my first job, and I didn't know any better."

Later, during World War II, Resmondo taught dance and drama to children in Hawthorne schools under a government-sponsored work program. She laughed when she remembered how some of the youngsters were nonplused by her size.

"They'd ask me, 'Are you a little mama . . . or a little girl?' "

Buster Brown

In 1942, she married Buster Resmondo at the Lawndale Christian Church, where she is still an active member. "It was a big wedding . . . with lots of little people," she recalled. Buster, who died in 1971, also stood 4 feet 4 and appeared as the original Buster Brown in the shoe firm's advertising and commercials, Hazel said. She and Buster--whose real name was Augustin--had no children.

Until her husband's death, Resmondo continued to work in films and television as a stand-in for child actors. "They used little people, because the kids had to be in school," she explained.

She was the stand-in for Jerry Mathers in the television series "Leave It to Beaver" for 4 1/2 years.

As a stand-in, she portrayed Mathers during rehearsals so the director could figure out camera angles and other aspects of the production while Mathers was in school. That way, all Mathers had to do was say his lines when the actual filming was done.

"They stuffed my shoes, rather than fire me, when Jerry got older and taller," she said.

Can Still Dance

Although she'll be 80 next January, Resmondo said she hasn't slowed down. "I'm very hard of hearing now, but I exercise every day and I can still do a dance step," she said, making a small kick to prove the point.

Resmondo shrugged off a question about problems of being small. "I've always just accepted it," she said.

But she enjoys any recognition of her Munchkin role, even when it's inadvertent.

"Once, I was getting on the escalator in the May Co., and a lady said, 'Well, you look like a Munchkin!' . . . and I told her, 'Well, I am!' "

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