Meinhardt Raabe - Original Munchkin, Madison's "Little Oscar"
The front page of The New York Times last month brought news of the most beloved performer ever to come out of Wisconsin: Meinhardt Raabe, the original Little Oscar, and also the anonymous Munchkin coroner who pronounces death upon the Wicked Witch of the East.
Raabe, one of the last surviving stars of "The Wizard of Oz," is and always has been a proud Wisconsinite. In fact, "The coroner wears a gold University of Wisconsin ring on his left hand -- Go, Badgers!" he told me a few years ago. "It's quite visible in all my scenes."
Once he sang, "She's not only merely dead, she's really quite sincerely dead." His story, as set forth in the autobiography, "Memories of a Munchkin: An Illustrated Walk Down the Yellow Brick Road," is every bit as colorful and dramatic as Dorothy and Toto's. "I'm still getting mail," Raabe told The New York Times, Feb. 18.
"My sister still lives in Watertown. I was up there twice this last year," he told me, in a phone interview from his home in Penney Farms, Fla. He's now 92, whip-smart and a fast talker. His autobiography is, above all, the story of Raabe's lifelong battle with discrimination.
Raabe (pronounced RA-bee) was born in 1915 near Watertown. His lack of growth puzzled his German farming family, along with the doctors they took him to. Information on what were then termed "midgets" was scarce. It was deemed inexplicable but merely odd that Raabe was less than four feet tall well into early adulthood. At home, at least, this presented no problem. In fact, it was a benefit on the farm.
"You are closer to the ground than I am, so you will have the fun job of pulling the weeds," Raabe's mom told him.
Discrimination began as Meinhardt began down his own, personal Yellow Brick Road. He concentrated on academics rather than sports, and didn't even try to date. A visit to the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition in 1933 finally gave the Raabe family a context. There, at the fair's "Midget Village" they discovered that their son's condition was not as unusual as they'd thought. For once, Meinhardt was surrounded by other little people.
He delayed his enrollment at Watertown's now-defunct Northwestern College to join the fair a year later. Working there and at subsequent national fairs, he met many of the little people who would later appear with him in "Oz." He also met with the general public's ignorance; one common question was, "What do you eat?"
But it trained him for all that was to follow, Raabe said. "That gave me the opportunity to get a lot of experience speaking to people of all nationalities and ages. It made me a people person. That's what I've been doing all my life."
Between stints at fairgrounds, Raabe continued his education and transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison his senior year. He worked as a uniformed page at the Lorraine Hotel. When he went through commencement in 1937, Wisconsin Gov. Phillip LaFollette suddenly hoisted him up before the audience.
"Folks, I want you to look at our smallest graduate ever!" roared the governor.
Meinhardt had his business degree -- but no work. He talked his way into an accounting position at Oscar Mayer and, after transferring to the Chicago plant, split his time between ledgers and public relations, traveling as the company's very first "Little Oscar: The World's Smallest Chef." Soon after, his Century of Progress friends told him about a new film that was in the works. Raabe got leave to travel over the rainbow, then situated at MGM studios near Hollywood.
Of all the magic in tinseltown, Raabe said, the greatest thrill was arriving to rejoin his peers. "Many of the midgets had never seen one other little person before -- much less more than a hundred in a single place!" he remembered.
Stories elsewhere about the Munchkins' ribald behavior, many of them told by an older, drug-addled Garland, are absolutely untrue. Out of 124 little people, Raabe said, there were just three or four troublemakers, most whose problems revolved around strained marriages. However, the second day of shooting, one Munchkin did bring to the studio his holsters and guns.
But there are other backstage secrets: Dorothy had not one, but four farmhouses for filming. The Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, was badly burned as she disappeared, literally in flames, from Munchkinland. Of all the cast, Raabe said, she was the sweetest. By contrast, the Good Witch, Billie Burke, was aloof. And the Wizard himself, Frank Morgan drank champagne on the set. Each Munchkin was paid, on average, $50 a week, for working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Many stars visited the soundstage, and Raabe was an autograph hound, gathering signatures by visiting dressing rooms all over the MGM lot. "I was most impressed with Hedy Lamarr," Raabe notes; he was able to speak with the Austrian immigrant in German. For Christmas, 16-year-old Garland gave him an autographed photo, inscribed, "For Meinhardt, a perfect Coroner, and person, too, love from Judy."
One "Oz" mystery that remains is whether or not the little people's voices were manipulated to sound deeper by MGM sound technicians, or if their lines were merely dubbed. Raabe for decades thought it was an example of electronic Oz wizardry, but today -- after listening to the soundtrack -- he's not so sure.
After filming, Raabe returned to Chicago and Oscar Mayer. The film opened soon after, in August, 1939. He married, and earned his pilot's license and served with the Civil Air Patrol during World War II. In the decades that followed he moved to Madison, Wausau and Philadelphia. He trained all the subsequent Little Oscars, and became a teacher.
And starting in the 1970s he became increasingly aware of the fan following for "The Wizard of Oz," and its festivals and conventions. "This past year I've been going from one Oz-related affair to another. I keep on going all the time," he said.
The hat he wore as coroner was auctioned on eBay in 2005 for $34,000.
Of his long life, Raabe merely said, "You have to accept what opportunities come along."