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Margaret Pellegrini dies at 89; actress played Munchkin in 'Oz'

As a teen from Alabama, she cherished her two months on the movie set and later in life was honored at 'Wizard of Oz' festivals across the U.S.

August 07, 2013|By Steve Chawkins
  • Margaret Pellegrini points to the Munchkins' star on the Walk of Fame in 2007. Pellegrini, one of 124 actors who portrayed Munchkins in the 1939 movie "Wizard of Oz" has died at age 89.
Margaret Pellegrini points to the Munchkins' star on the Walk of Fame… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Margaret Pellegrini, one of the last of the 124 little people who played Munchkins in the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz," died Wednesday at her Glendale, Ariz., home. She was 89.

The 4-foot-tall Pellegrini, a frequent guest of honor at "Oz" festivals around the U.S., had been in declining health since a stroke in March, said Colleen Zimmer, an organizer of the annual Oz-Stravaganza festival in Chittenango, N.Y., birthplace of "Oz" author L. Frank Baum.

Illness kept Pellegrini from serving as grand marshal at this year's event. Instead, six Girl Scouts marched in her place — three dressed as "flowerpot" Munchkins and three as "sleepyhead" Munchkins. Pellegrini played both roles in the classic film.

Only two other actors who portrayed Munchkins survive, Zimmer said.

Born Sept. 23, 1923, in Alabama, Margaret Williams Pellegrini grew up in the small town of Tuscumbia. At 13, she met members of Henry Kramer's Midgets at the Tennessee State Fair, where she was handing out free potato chip samples.

The entertainers asked if she was interested in show business and took her name and address. Two years later, an agent contacted her about an upcoming MGM film. Within weeks, the 15-year-old was on a train, alone, bound for Hollywood.

Pellegrini cherished her two months on the "Oz" set. "Judy Garland was a typical teenager," she told the Times in 2001. "She was just as sweet as she could be."

When stories later circulated about drunken orgies among the Munchkins, Pellegrini and her fellow actors dismissed them as fabrications. Especially hurtful to Pellegrini was Garland's 1967 remark to TV talk show host Jack Paar that the Munchkin actors "got smashed every night and they picked them up with butterfly nets."

Not so, Pellegrini said many times. Only "a couple of kids from Germany" even drank beer, she said in a 2009 interview.

For her work on "Oz," Pellegrini made $50 a week — 10 times more than her father did working at a hotel but, as she liked to point out, $75 less than Toto, Dorothy's terrier.

Married to prizefighter Willie Pellegrini in 1943, she had a son and a daughter. None of her family members were "little people." She is survived by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

For years, Pellegrini worked as a Santa's helper at a Chicago department store, said Rick Ewiglebin, who is working on a book about her. She also ran a hot dog stand in Chicago and had been a secretary. But it was her career as a Munchkin-in-retirement, complete with dirndl dress and blue flowerpot-hat, that she enjoyed most.

In 2007, she and six other actors who portrayed Munchkins accepted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, arriving at the former Grauman's Chinese Theatre in a white carriage pulled by a purple-dyed horse. They alighted onto a carpet that resembled — naturally — a yellow brick road.

It was quite a turnabout. For years, Pellegrini hadn't said much about her role in "Oz" and it was only by accident that an Arizona neighbor found out.

"They got all excited," she said in 2009. "Ever since then, when they have company they always bring them over here to meet me.… Even today, I have to pinch myself."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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