Pretty much anyone from any era since the Silent Generation can recall watching The Wizard of Oz. They can probably sing at least a few lines of most of the songs from the classic fantasy flick, too. It takes as much at face value as a heartwarming children’s tale. It’s an allegory for an acid trip experience, a religious awakening, or coming out of the closet.
There are also tons of rumors swirling around the making of this candy-coated film. Some even say the Wizard of Oz is cursed due to all kinds of strange happenings on set. However, few tales are as tall as those told by the Wizard of Oz Munchkins. Remember those anime characters that Dorothy encounters after landing her house on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her?
In this video, we dig deep into cinematic history to uncover juicy tidbits and the sordid details surrounding the Wizard of Oz Munchkins. Away we go!
So Who Exactly Were the Munchkins?
Just as in the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by children’s author L. Frank Baum, the Munchkins inhabit a land aptly called Munchkin Land. One of the first places, they’re the first people Dorothy encounters on her epic journey through the Land of Oz. In the film, the Munchkins were depicted as short in stature. In fact, little people and some children were hired to act as the various Munchkin characters. Most were professional performers or actors already, including a group from Germany called The Singer Midgets. The filming allowed them to flee Germany right at the onset of World War II.
The Munchkins Were Rumored to Have Behaved Badly
In the film, the Munchkins adored Dorothy and did everything they could to help her get a good start on her journey down the Yellow Brick Road. Off-set, however, it was a different story altogether. The Munchkin actors all bunked together in the nearby Culver Hotel. According to numerous reports, they spent their downtime getting drunk and engaging in escapades of a sexual nature. Supposedly one actor was fired because he was so out of control. In his memoir, Judy Garland’s ex-husband Sid Luft wrote that the actors who played the Munchkins would also mercilessly harass Dorothy, going so far as to put their hands up her dress. Many Munchkin actors refuted the claims, saying they were salacious rumors bourne of discrimination against little people.
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A Munchkin Was Thought to Have Taken Their Life on Set
There was a dark rumor treading the hallowed halls of Hollywood that a Munchkin hanged himself during the production of the Wizard of Oz. There’s a scene in the movie where Dorothy and the Scarecrow try to pick some apples. It’s there that they run into the Tin Man. They all link arms and head off down the Yellow Brick Road together. According to numerous viewers, there’s a dark shadow off in the distance that supposedly resembles a little person hanging from a tree. So is there any truth to this rumor? Apparently not. As Snopes reveals, the “person” is nothing more than a bird.
Most of the Munchkins Were Paid Less Than Toto
Yes, you read that screen title right. Terry the Terrier was rewarded pretty handsomely for his work on the Wizard of Oz set, considering he’s a canine. Apparently, his trainer pocketed about $125 a week for Terry’s stellar performance as Dorothy’s cute sidekick, Toto. The Munchkins, on the other hand, were paid around $50 a week for all their singing, dancing, acting, and costume-wearing. The filming for the Munchkinland scenes took about eight weeks, and many of the actors stayed on in Hollywood after for a bit of sightseeing. One such actor, Margaret Pellegrini, said she felt like the money was great at the time. “My father worked in a hotel and earned about $5 a week. I got paid $50 a week,” she recalled.
At Least One Munchkin Ad-Libbed His Oz Performance
One of the most successful Munchkin actors, Jerry Maren, was renowned for ad-libbing on set. He played the part of the Lollipop Kid, a member of the utterly memorable Lollipop Guild. The trio that has sung and danced their way into the hearts of many a child (and, let’s be honest, adult) viewer for generations. Surely you remember that bit where a Lollipop Kid hands his giant lollipop to Dorothy? She gratefully accepts it with a laugh and a smile.
Well, apparently, that was a totally off-the-cuff action on the part of Maren. However, the director liked it so much that he told him to keep doing take after take. And hence, it’s become one of the most memorable parts of the movie! Years later, when Maren unveiled the 2006 exhibition of the movie’s memorabilia at Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, he ad-libbed the scene again, opening his speech with the line, “We wish to welcome you to Smithsonian Institute.”
Munchkin Actor Jerry Maren Took Issue With “Demeaning Legends” Title
After filming wrapped up, most of the Munchkins left show business behind. But actor Jerry Maren continued to work as a performer. He had parts in over sixty TV shows and films and even worked as a stunt double for famous child actors like Ron Howard and Jodie Foster. To put it mildly, Maren wasn’t a fan of the rumors that darkened the performances of the Wizard of Oz Munchkins.
For one, he hated the label “demeaning legends” that film critics and the press often used to refer to the Munchkins. Maren also said that many of the tales of Munchkin drunkenness and inappropriate behavior stemmed from Judy Garland. He noted in his memoir that Garland wasn’t exactly a reliable source of information, given that she was plied with drugs by MGM executives to keep her working. In an effort to set the record straight, Maren noted that two specific actors from Germany were simply a bit rowdy one night because they were young, in a new country, and excited to be on set.
Munchkinland Was Almost Lethal for Some Wizard of Oz Actors
Remember that dastardly Wicked Witch of the West? She was the sister of the Wicked Witch of the East, who faced her untimely demise when Dorothy’s house landed on her. What you probably remember the most about her was her vomit green skin, right? That stuff didn’t just look toxic. It turns out it was toxic! Margaret Hamilton, the actor that played the Wicked Witch of the West, suffered from severe second and third-degree chemical burns on her hand and face during her quick exit from Munchkinland, right near the beginning of the film. The makeup contained copper, which wasn’t understood to be poisonous at the time. Thankfully it was all removed right after the injury.
Judy Garland Was Given a Munchkin Award
The Wizard of Oz wasn’t Judy Garland’s first film, but it was the first blockbuster film in which she played the lead character. And, as it turns out, it was the performance of a lifetime. Garland was too young to bag any awards for her performance, so in 1940, the Academy Awards revived their Juvenile Award category, also known as the Juvenile Oscar. The award was created at the 7th Academy Awards to honor a 6-year-old Shirley Temple for her contributions to the film industry. Garland was only the fourth of just twelve child stars to receive this now-defunct award. Because the trophy was a miniature version of the actual Academy Award, she nicknamed it her Munchkin Award.
The Movie Led to the Creation of an Advocacy Group
There were more than one hundred little people on the set of Munchkinland, and many of them formed fast friends, remaining so well after the two months of filming ended. In fact, their camaraderie led to the formation of the first activist group for little people. Little People of America (formerly Midgets of America) was founded by actors Billy Barty and Jerry Maren (who acted in the Wizard of Oz) in 1957. The initial meeting of just 21 people has today morphed into an active advocacy association with more than 8,000 members worldwide. They have 13 districts and 70 chapters across America and provide social events, parent, peer, and medical support, and even scholarships and grants to their members.
The Munchkins Were Recognized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Pretty much everyone you talk to anywhere in the world could tell you who the Munchkins are. There are few actors with as widespread public recognition. I mean, they appeared in several crucial scenes in a film that IMDB ranks the third most-watched movie of all time! But it took decades for Hollywood to pay the Munchkins their dues. Thankfully, in 2007, seven Munchkin actors–including Mickey Carroll, Ruth Duccini, Jerry Maren, Margaret Pellegrini, Meinhardt Raabe, Karl Slover, and Clarence Swensen–were finally recognized with the 2,352nd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Do you believe any of the nasty rumors still circulating about the little people who played the Wizard of Oz Munchkins? Or do you think they were mistreated and discriminated against? Debate with fellow fans and movie critics in the comment section below. If you want to watch more videos like this one, head over to the Facts Verse channel and subscribe. Hit that notification bell while you’re there. Oh, and don’t forget to give this video a thumbs up and share it with your friends and family.