HOLLYWOOD -- The Munchkins of the 1938 MGM classic 'The Wizard of Oz' were doll-like fantasy creatures on screen but a roistering band of assorted midgets and dwarfs off-camera.
Their hell-raising, amorous contretemps and bibulous exercises left the Culver City Hotel undone by the time 'The Wizard of Oz' was finished.
The astonishing adventures of the little people is the hilarious subject of a new Chevy Chase-Carrie Fisher comedy, 'Under The Rainbow,' due for release next month in movie theaters across the nation.
'Under The Rainbow' exaggerates the acrobatics of the more than 200 Munchkins, although a few little people gathered for the new film did repeat some of the high living of the originals during the 10 weeks they worked in the picture.
Billy Barty, probably the best-known little person in this country, stars as a particularly nasty Nazi spy. He also coordinated the casting of 150 little people to play Munchkins.
Only one of the little people in 'Under The Rainbow,' Jerry Maren, was in 'The Wizard of Oz,' playing, at age 16, a member of the Lollipop Guild.
'I wasn't in 'The Wizard of Oz' because I was too young,' Barty said. 'But Jerry remembers it well. He and I have been friends for years. We even did a vaudeville act in 1947, six months before vaudeville died.
'I won't say we killed vaudeville but we crippled it up a lot.
'I was hired to cast the little people before I got my role in the picture. As head of the Billy Barty Foundation for Little People, I knew most of the dwarfs and midgets personally.
'The foundation, which provides medical, social and vocational guidance for little people, works hand in hand with the Little People of America, which I founded in 1957. We have 5,000 members with nobody taller than 4-foot-10.
'So it was no problem finding enough little people. What we had to look for were little people who could act convincingly. Like any other group, little people come from all walks of life and hundreds of professions.'
Barty devoted two years to casting the picture, giving work to some of his little pals who play in his annual charity golf tournament.
The smallest Munchkin in the film is Pat Bilon. At 2-foot-8, he is a full foot and one-inch shorter than Barty.
'I feel like Wilt Chamberlain when I stand next to Pat,' Barty said.
'It's true the little people tore up the Culver City Hotel when they were working as Munchkins. They had a lot of parties and wild times.
'But you must remember, in those days there were no little people conventions. They had never been around a bunch of little people before. They were so happy at being in the majority for a change a lot of them went bananas.
'Also, most of them were foreigners who had been regimented in theatrical troupes run by big people in Europe. One was the Hermines which had its own band and show. The Singer Midgets were another regimented group. It was an American troupe but there were a lot of foreigners in it.
'Little people are more reserved now. We had 650 of them at last year's national convention here in Los Angeles. These conventions are exciting for little people because, again, we find ourselves a majority.
'It's nice to talk to a lot of people without having to break your neck looking up. It's like seeing yourself for the first time. Some of them are looking for romance. Some form brother or sister relationships.
'Almost all little people cry at the end of a convention because they hate to see all the camaraderie come to an end.'
Another attraction of the conventions are the special hotel accomodations made for little people -- ramps for buffet tables, bathroom platforms, steps for telephones, water fountains and elevator buttons and low poles in closets.
'During production the little people all stayed at the same hotel,' Barty said. 'They didn't wreck anything. But there were plenty of parties and good times.
'I don't know if it has anything to do with the little people being on their good behavior, but these Munchkins were almost all Americans with a few Latin Americans among them. They are more accustomed to being around other little people and the old militant regimentation doesn't exist anymore.
'For me, the picture was a big thrill. They didn't think I could do a German accent. But I spent six weeks in Germany and it was a cinch. This is the biggest part I've ever had, after doing about 200 movies over the years.
'I was just supposed to be a technical advisor but as Otto Kriegling, the spy, I get to fight a duel with swords and a lot of other interesting things.'
Barty, who has a little person daughter and a normal-sized son, continues to be the leading champion of little people in this country. Now he's organizing an international organization of little people.
'We're a minority,' he said. 'And anything we can do to help one little person, helps all the rest of us.'
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