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Sex-crazed? Drunks? The colourful - and disputed - history of the munchkins

As the last of the munchkins dies we look at the myths that have grown up around the iconic Wizard of Oz characters.

Source: SNAP

THIS WEEK BROUGHT the news that Jerry Maren had passed away at age 98. Maren is widely reported to be the last of more than 100 little people actors who played the role of munchkins in one of the most famous films of all time, The Wizard of Oz.

Allegations of outrageous behaviour by the munchkin actors during the production of the classic movie is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Wild tales of rampant drunkenness and raging orgies emerged almost as soon as the film hit the big screen in 1939.

The rumours appear to have begun with a comment from producer Mervyn LeRoy shortly after the film wrapped. “They had sex orgies in the hotel, and we had to have police on just about every floor,” he said.

Jerry Maren 1920-2018 Wizard of Oz Actor Jerry Maren Source: Dane Andrew

A biography of the actor who played the Cowardly Lion, Bert Lahr, added some ballast to the stories with the claim that many of the munchkins made their living by “panhandling, pimping and whoring”:

Assistants were ordered to watch the crew of midgets, who brandished knives and often conceived passions for other, larger Metro personnel.

The debauchery was portrayed in the Irvine Welsh play Babylon Heights and also in an, extremely poorly rated, 1981 comedy called Under the Rainbow.

‘They thought they could get away with anything’

Judy Garland, who, of course, played the role of Dorothy Gale, recounted her experience of working on The Wizard of Oz in a 1967 interview with Jack Paar.

“They were drunks,” Garland told the legendary talk show host.

One of them, who was about 40, a gentleman, asked me for dinner and I couldn’t say ‘I can’t, because you’re a midget’. I just said, ‘No, my mother wouldn’t like it’, [the man replied] ‘Ah come on, bring your ma too.’

Garland added that all the munchkins were housed in one hotel in Culver City. They spent every night getting “smashed” and had to be captured using butterfly nets.

Source: WBMoviesOnline/YouTube

A darker version of events was put forward by Garland’s ex-husband, Sid Luft, in his memoir, Judy and I: My Life with Judy Garland, which was published after his death in 2005.

“They would make Judy’s life miserable on set by putting their hands under her dress,” Luft wrote.

The men were 40 or more years old. They thought they could get away with anything because they were so small.

Paid less than the dog

However, the way the little people were treated while they worked on the film was contentious. The munchkins’ salary, and the conditions they endured, has been the cause of controversy.

None of the actors were listed in the films credits and Stephen Cox’s book, The Munchkins of Oz, revealed that they were paid less than Toto the dog.

The munchkins were paid $50 per week while the dog, or rather her trainer, earned $125. Despite this apparent injustice Margaret Pellegrini, who played a munchkin villager, insisted being involved in the film was a wonderful experience.

“My father worked in a hotel and earned about $5 a week. I got paid $50 a week,” she said. “It took eight weeks to make the Munchkinland scenes, after which I stayed in Hollywood for a month to sightsee.”

‘Demeaning legends’

After filming wrapped up most of the munchkins left the movie business, returning to the spotlight only occasionally at the behest of the studio.

Maren, who played the green lollipop guild member, however, carved out a career as a performer. He appeared in more than 60 films and television series and even worked as a stunt double for child actors such as Jodie Foster and Ron Howard.

Obit Jerry Maren The Wizard of Oz cast members including Margaret Pellegrini (left) and Jerry Maren (centre). Source: Mark J. Terrill

The actor, who founded the Little People of America advocacy group, took issue with the “demeaning legends” that became attached to the munchkins.

In his 2006 memoir, Short and Sweet: The Life and Times of the Lillipop Munchkin, he laid the blame at the feet of Judy Garland, saying much of the myths sprang up following her interview with Paar:

Judy was telling it according to her pills and booze that day. She left behind a legacy of untruths about us.

Maren said two specific actors were responsible for the inappropriate behaviour. “There were a couple of kids from Germany who liked to drink beer. They drank beer morning, noon and night, and got in a little trouble. They wanted to meet the girls, but they were the only ones.”

Whatever the truth of the tales the munchkins made an indelible mark on the legendary film, which IMDb rates as the third most watched movie of all time. Their contribution to cinema was eventually recognised in 2007 when they were given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Ceimin Burke

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