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We wish to welcome you to Walk of Fame

November 21, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

They're little more than waist high to some people.

But on Tuesday no one was standing taller in Hollywood than the Munchkins.

The seven surviving Munchkins from the 1939 movie classic "The Wizard of Oz" received their star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame.

Hundreds of fans craned their necks to see Mickey Carroll, Ruth Duccini, Jerry Maren, Margaret Pellegrini, Meinhardt Raabe, Karl Slover and Clarence Swensen as they pulled up in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in a white carriage pulled by a purple-dyed horse and made their way down a carpet resembling a yellow brick road.

They are the last of the 124 diminutive inhabitants of fictional Munchkinland who appeared with Judy Garland in the movie. They were mostly midgets, with a few children thrown in -- although to movie buffs, only true little people count as Munchkins.

The ceremony was a family reunion for the Munchkins, who scattered after the filming -- some staying in Hollywood as actors, other eventually moving to different parts of the country.

Like any family reunion, there was a bit of bickering and some rivalries. But all agreed that "The Wizard of Oz" was a turning point in their lives -- giving some the self-confidence to follow their dreams, and in the case of some German actors, a chance to flee the Nazis.

"I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't been in 'The Wizard of Oz' " said Swensen, who played a Munchkin soldier and now lives in Texas. "It was a great teacher."

For decades after the movie premiere, the Munchkins had little contact as a group. It wasn't until the last 20 years that the survivors began gathering at special events honoring the movie. Most are well into their 80s.

"We didn't start getting together again until 1985. That's when they started having the events all over the country and inviting us," said Pellegrini, an 84-year-old Glendale, Ariz., resident. In the movie she played the sleepyhead girl and flower pot girl.

She shrugged off the rumors of hard partying by the Munchkins when they stayed three-in-a-bed at the Culver Hotel in Culver City, near what was then the MGM studio lot.

"I was only 15 when the movie was filmed. There were a few of them who liked to drink, but it wasn't what they said it was. A lot of those stories were false," said Pellegrini, whose show business career ended four years later in the early 1940s when she married and had children.

Maren, who lives in the Hollywood Hills and will be 88 in January, was part of the Lollipop Guild in the film. He went on to roles in about 100 films, he said.

"It's taken a long time," Maren said of Tuesday's ceremonies. "We have a lot of fans. I can understand that now."

Slover, 89, lives in Georgia. In the movie he was the main trumpeter. He remembers the filming, for which Munchkins earned $60 a week (compared to the $125 a week paid to Toto, Dorothy's dog, noted Hollywood Honorary Mayor Johnny Grant), as grueling.

"At the time I didn't enjoy it. I had four parts and each time I had to change clothes and do it so fast. But three years later when I saw the movie I really enjoyed it. I remember telling my roommate there are two things I don't hear or see in it: no swearing or filthy language and no bikinis or nudity," he said.

The mini-reunions the Munchkins have when they periodically meet with fans to sign autographs and pictures are "like a family get-together," he said. "We're really good friends and really enjoy one another."

Well, perhaps.

The Munchkins have clashed in the past over the use of an agent to arrange their guest appearances. And there are differences of opinion about their acting abilities.

Carroll, who is 88 and lives in St. Louis, was the town crier. "The Wizard of Oz" was the only film he appeared in, he said. "I'm not a movie star. I'm an entertainer. Some of the Munchkins did a lot of movies. I saw one of them in a Groucho Marx film. You know what they used him for? A baseball. They turned him upside down and threw him into a wall. There was nothing serious for us little people."

Carroll disputed the description of the Munchkins as a happy family. "They hate my guts," he said of the others. "You know why? They have no talent, and I've been on the stage since I was 15 years old.

"But in vaudeville, where I worked, you'd better have it. I had the audience in the palm of my hand. That shows you how big the audience was," he said with a grin, adding a "ba-dum-bum" rimshot sound for emphasis.

Carroll recalled that some of the Munchkins were German-born actors who had performed throughout Europe in a midget troupe booked by showman Leo Singer, who arranged to bring them to the United States for the filming. "The Wizard of Oz" allowed the actors to escape as the Nazis began to extend their reach across Europe in the late 1930s, he said.

But the occasional grumbling didn't dampen the festivities. Ever the showmen, several of the tiny actors wore replicas of their original costumes.

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