Volume 17, Number 51 | May 13 - 19, 2005

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Meinhardt Raabe, a “Wizard of Oz” joked that he thought Toto may have made more than he did on the movie.

A Munchkin’s long life beyond the Yellow Brick Road

By Albert Amateau

There he was, big as life last week, signing copies of his “Memories of a Munchkin” in Books of Wonder.

Meinhardt Raabe, at 89, the oldest of nine surviving Munchkins from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” was wearing a replica of the tall hat with the rolled-up brim that he wore as the coroner of Munchkinland when he pronounced that the Wicked Witch of the East was “not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.”

Fielding questions from fans while autographing books at the store on W. 18th St. for two hours on May 3, Raabe, just under 4 feet tall, was tireless, unflappable and affable.

Nellie Corrigan, 3, came from the West Village with her nanny, Breana Pines. “Are you a real Munchkin?” asked Nellie with wonder as Raabe gently shook her hand. Another visitor identified himself as a native of Chittenango, N.Y., the Upstate hometown of L. Frank Baum, who wrote the Oz books in the first decades of the 1900s.

Joe Jordan, 52, a Battery Park City resident, also came for an autographed copy of “Memories of a Munchkin.” Jordan first saw “The Wizard of Oz” on television in 1958. He asked Raabe to sign and write “Happy Mother’s Day” in a second book that he bought for his mom. “She’s 85 and she saw the movie when it first came out,” Jordan said.

So what about Raabe’s life apart from “The Wizard of Oz?”

Raabe was born on a Wisconsin dairy farm started by his grandfather, an immigrant from Germany. “My grandfather took me through the German primer when I was 4 years old,” Raabe recalled.

He didn’t know the word “midget” until he took a trip with his family in 1934 to the Century of Progress fair in Chicago, where a prominent feature was Midget City, with a government, a newspaper and shops staffed by little people.

Along the yellow brick road of life, Raabe earned a degree from the University of Wisconsin, a master’s degree from Drexel in Philadelphia and worked in the summers as a barker on the midways of big expositions in Chicago, San Diego, Dallas and Cleveland to help pay for college. He was a salesman for Oscar Mayer — most of whose customers in the Midwest were butchers from German-American families.

In between times, he learned to fly at various airports in Wisconsin and Michigan and earned his pilot’s license. “I flew every single-engine plane there was — Taylorcraft, Piper, Aeronca — the works,” he said. “In those days, there were no pedals and you sat on your parachute and reached all the controls by hand,” he explained.

When he was a teenager, his father taught him to drive the family’s Model A Ford with pedal extensions so that he could reach them. “My parents spent a lot of money on placebos to make me grow — whenever anyone came along with a remedy, they would buy it. Of course, nothing worked,” Raabe said. “Now people can take hormones to make them grow,” he observed.

In 1938, Raabe had a good job with Oscar Mayer but at the age of 23 he was ready for adventure. “I heard through the grapevine that MGM was looking for little people to play Munchkins in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and I thought it would be a good experience, so I got on a train and went to California cold turkey,” he recalled.

MGM was indeed hiring all the little people who applied. There were 124 of them ranging in ages from 13 to 70 on the set in Culver City. “I had worked several fairs with other Munchkins and it was like a grand reunion for some of us,” he said.

Casting for coroner was quick.

“They lined up about eight of us with the lines of the song written down in front of us,” Raabe recalled. “Some of the others didn’t have any experience speaking in public and were shy, but when my turn came, I just let go full force: ‘As coroner I do aver. I’ve thoroughly examined her,’ and the director stopped me right there: ‘O.K., O.K., you’re the coroner.’ ”

Raabe recalled Judy Garland as a sweet young lady not much older than 16, a contract player with MGM. The Munchkins were hired just for the movie. “Toto [Dorothy’s little dog] was a contract player too. I think he got paid more than we did,” Raabe said.

“It was a great experience but I didn’t care to repeat it so I didn’t stay in California like some others of us did,” he said. Just before the U.S. entered World War II, Raabe received a draft notice. But because he was less than 4 feet tall, he was classified 4F and not accepted.

“That didn’t sit well with me, so I joined the Civil Air Patrol and got a job as a ground instructor teaching navigation and meteorology to draftees who wanted to gain an advantage to get into the Air Corps. I believe all my students were accepted into the Air Corps,” he said.

Raabe spent more than 30 years doing promotion for Oscar Mayer, as “Little Oscar, the chef,” riding around in a “wienermobile.”

In 1946, he married Marie Hartline, a little woman he had met five years earlier when she was in a vaudeville troupe. She was the love of his life and they spent 53 years together until she was killed in 1997 in an auto accident in which Raabe was injured so badly that he couldn’t leave the hospital to go to his wife’s funeral.

The profusely illustrated “Memories of a Munchkin” was co-written by Daniel Kinske, a U.S. Navy lieutenant who met Raabe through his mother, Patricia Kinske.

“My son booked me on a seven-day Munchkin cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., three years ago and I sat at Meinhardt’s table,” said Patricia Kinske, who is making the book promotion tour along with Meinhardt. “I told Daniel what a fascinating and charming guy Meinhardt was and introduced them. Daniel said he wanted to write a book with Meinhardt and they agreed to do it,” she said.

Peter Glassman, owner and founder of Books of Wonder, the children’s bookstore at 18 W. 18th St., was an appropriate host for a book about the Wizard of Oz. “I re-published all 14 of the Oz books with HarperCollins starting in 1985 and finishing in 2000,” Glassman said. “They’re all in print and they’re selling well. Not ‘Harry Potter’ well but still selling well,” he added.

“Memories of a Munchkin: An Illustrated Walk Down the Yellow Brick Road,” by Meinhardt Raabe with Lieutenant Daniel Kinske, U.S.N., with a forward by Mickey Rooney, 288 pages, 50 photos and illustrations, including caricatures by the late Al Hirschfeld, Back Stage Books, $39.95

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