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With the death of 98-year-old Jerry Maren, the last of the little people who portrayed Munchkins in MGM’s 1939 Technicolor masterpiece The Wizard of Oz, an era truly did vanish. The Boston-born Maren was the longest living of the 124 proportionately correct little people (commonly called and credited as “midgets” back then) to dance along the Yellow Brick Road.
But it’s some kind of magic the way Maren, probably the most famous of all the little ones in the film fantasy, ended up the sole survivor — not a background player or soldier or nondescript Munchkin with a crazy bonnet.
He played center with the Lollipop Guild, the cocky little guy who handed Judy Garland the spiraled sweet on a stick. Seventy-five years later, amid anniversary celebrations prepping in Hollywood, Jerry and little Ruth Duccini, age 95, were meeting privately one last time, away from the crowds at a care facility where Maren resided. This was their last visit, they knew, and it was for themselves, and maybe posterity. They were the surviving little people from Oz. And when their visit was ending, Jerry hugged his teary-eyed fellow alum and said, “Ruth, I don’t want to be last. You do it.” Duccini died a few months later, and Maren took his place in history.
If for nothing else, Leopold Von Singer — a self-appointed Baron and Austrian vaudeville impresario who procured little people around the country for the production — should be credited for assembling the landmark summit of little ones in 1938. It was likely never to happen again, at least it was so predicted in generous MGM publicity of the day. And the studio called it right: Due to advances in hormonal treatments, pituitary dwarfism is being successfully treated and growth can be induced.
When the group of little people (all adults) gathered in Culver City, they mingled. Romances were sparked on the set, and marriages were produced by the great and powerful Oz. There were shenanigans during the production, some eye-opening stories being revealed by the Munchkins themselves before their demise. But outlandish rumors of drunken orgies and destructive hotel parties haunted each one of them for life; they cringed during interviews when Larry King, Maury Povich or Howard Stern recycled the dirty laundry.
Secretly, some of them cursed Garland for spreading fictitious tales in a 1967 Jack Paar interview during which Garland herself was in obvious altered states. The singer, who died of an overdose two years later, branded them all “drunks” and a few of the Munchkin actors said they were not inclined to forgive.
None of that nonsense deterred the surviving Munchkin actors, however, from soaking in the Oz anniversaries and handling celebrity chores at festivals and film events for nearly three decades in the U.S. and abroad. They were finally celebrated by thousands each year, where crowds cheered them in parades and waited in long lines for their actual Munchkin meet-and-greet. There were seven surviving little people attending a November 2007 ceremony honoring them collectively with a star on the Walk of Fame. Standing on hallowed ground — just blocks from where the inventor of Oz, author L. Frank Baum, had lived and died — most were content just to experience the abundance of love from Oz fans remaining young in heart.
Stephen Cox researched and discovered the surviving Munchkin actors in the late 1980s for his book The Munchkins of Oz.
A version of this story also appears in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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