In 2009 I did a video interview with the five surviving Munchkins from the The Wizard of Oz: Ruth Duccini, Meinhardt Raabe, Margaret Pellegrini, Karl Slover, and Jerry Maren. It was for the 70th anniversary of the beloved classic about the Yellow Brick Road, and even though all the actors were in their 80s or 90s, they still made a trip to New York. When they arrived at our old Newsweek offices—in full replicas of their old costumes, to the surprise of many of the staff—they reminisced about Judy Garland, Toto, and the casting announcement for “little people” that brought them to Hollywood in 1938. During our taping, Raabe fell asleep midquestion, and the video went viral after we posted it online. (See the whole thing below.)
Newsweek interviewed the surviving Munchkins on camera in 2009.
With Disney’s prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful opening in theaters this weekend, I thought I’d see how many of the Munchkins I could find. Two of them—Slover and Raabe—have sadly died. Pellegrini and Maren didn’t return my calls. But I was able to reach Duccini, who at 94 is the oldest Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz. (She was only 20 when she filmed her role as a member of Munchkin Village.) She now lives in a Las Vegas retirement home, and we had several phone conversations this week. What follows is an edited transcript of our calls, where she talks about the new film, Dorothy, Toto, “Over the Rainbow,” and meeting her husband in the Munchkin cafeteria.
Ruth, have you heard about the new movie Oz the Great and Powerful?
Well, that’s put out by Disney, I understand. What I’ve heard so far doesn’t sound so good. I haven’t seen the ads on TV. I don’t know why! Everybody else has seen them. I’m in a retirement hotel, and they pay for the television, and mostly we get commercials. But I haven’t seen any yet, so I don’t know. My son said he might take me to see it. It’s supposed to be a different time frame or something.
I’ve seen the movie already, and it’s not very good. The story takes place before Dorothy gets to Oz. The wizard is played by James Franco.
I don’t know who that is.
Michelle Williams is Glinda the Good Witch. Do you know her?
No. I don’t know any of the new actors.
What part did you play in the original The Wizard of Oz?
I was one of the Munchkin villagers. There were 124 small adults. And we were all Munchkin villagers. And Jerry [Maren], he was one of the lollipop kids. They handed the lollipop to Judy Garland, and you never saw it again.
Did you have to audition?
Not really. They just wanted small people. Right now, I’m 4-foot-3. I’ve shrunk a little bit.
How tall were you then?
“MGM had set up a little restaurant strictly for the little people. It was a buffet.”
Did you know other little people growing up?
No. I was born in a small town in Minnesota. I never knew there were other little people. My dad died the day I was 8 months old. I was raised by another couple. The people who were taking care of me took to the Chicago World’s Fair. They wanted to make me go to the midget village, and I was so stubborn, I wouldn’t go. This was 1934. I went back to Minnesota, and one of the fellows in town had a booth in the county fair. I joined that troupe. There were 10 of us together. We heard through one of the magazines that MGM was casting for The Wizard of Oz. We all went to California, and we all got a job.
Did you spend any time with Judy?
They had given her a dressing room, and we all went through, and she gave us an autographed picture. That was as much as I talked to her. Judy, being only 16, she was juggling school. She had a tutor right on set.
Did you meet Toto?
No, I didn’t meet him.
I don’t know. I suppose he was on the set. You got to remember, I was just fresh out of high school. I’m not pushy to do things like that. I’m sort of shy.
How long did you shoot?
We got there in the middle of November 1938. By Christmas, we were all through with the Munchkinland scene. That included all the rehearsals and all the wardrobe fittings. I didn’t live in the hotel where all the shenanigans were going on.
What was your costume like?
I’ve got pictures of it. My hat was green. The hat came to a point. The costumes were all designed for each of us.
Did you do your own singing?
We did the singing. But they had a lot of people on there that were from Europe. They didn’t want the European accent, so they dubbed the voices.
How much did you get paid?
I don’t remember exactly. But it doesn’t matter. At that time, a lot of us didn’t have work. We were glad for anything. It was so much fun. I know they said we were a bunch of rowdies, but we weren’t. I met my husband when I was working on The Wizard of Oz. He had worked at the Chicago Rose Fair on the midget orchestra. When we were in California, he knew a lot of people, so he came to the restaurant where we ate, and I met him. We didn’t get married until 1943.
Did all the Munchkins eat together?
MGM had set up a little restaurant strictly for the little people. We could go there and have our breakfast and dinner. It was a buffet.
Why do you think people still love the movie?
When The Wizard of Oz would come on TV, whole families would sit around and watch it together. They did that for years, whenever it would come on. It’ll soon be 75 years since we made The Wizard of Oz. I talk to people all the time, and it’s one of their favorite movies. Everybody seems to love it. And of course, Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow.” I can’t listen to that anymore. It makes me cry.
I don’t know. It just does. Judy was only 47 when she died. I met Joseph and Lorna [Luft], but I haven’t met Liza Minnelli yet.
How do you spend your time now?
I live my life one day at a time. I’m old and happy. I’ve had a good life. The one thing that I’m most proud of, during the Second World War, I worked on airplanes in a defense plant. I was a Rosie the Riveter. I’m really proud of that. They have a real nice library here. I get books. In July, I’ll be 95 years old.
Happy early birthday. I’ll send you a link to this article when it goes live.
I don’t have a computer. I don’t do any of that.
* * *
Note: There is a Munchkins scene in the new Oz the Great and Powerful, but the actors playing them are dwarfs—not midgets. “There are very few midgets left today; they are like dinosaurs,” said Steve Cox, the author of The Munchkins of Oz. “This movie employs mostly dwarfs ... Think Oompa Loompas. Not that I look down on them. MGM was very particular. They stereotyped back then. They only wanted proportioned little people.”
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