HOLLYWOOD -- Recently three little Munchkins protested the canard they were a pack of roistering libertines during the filming of 'The Wizard of Oz' back in 1938. Their reputations were shamelessly sullied in the 1981 Chevy Chase comedy 'Under The Rainbow,' about the making of the MGM movie classic.
The 124 midgets playing Munchkins were depicted as drunken, lascivious little folk who partied all night every night, leaving them hung over and bleary eyed for work. It was the largest assemblage of little people at the time.
'Under The Rainbow' has them involved in massive orgies and wild promiscuity at the Culver Hotel.
Jerry Maren, one of the Lollipop Guild trio, met with Ruth Robinson Duccini, one of the 'sleepyheads' in a nest, and Margaret Pellegrini, who played a townswoman with a flower pot on her head, as part of the 'Yellow Brick Road Bus Tour' hyping sales of 'Oz' video cassettes 'for the last time this century.' Would-be buyers might be reminded the end of the century is little more than four years away, and cassettes could go on sale again in 2001.
Hype notwithstanding, Maren denied that 'Under the Rainbow' reflected true midget mischief. Maren was reminded that Judy Garland and producer Mervyn LeRoy were quoted in 'The Munchkins of Oz,' by author Stephen Cox, as accusing the midget cast of being boisterous revelers.
LeRoy said of the little folk: 'They had sex orgies in the hotel, and we had to have police on just about every floor.'
Talk show host Jack Paar interviewed Judy and asked whether the Munchkins were little kids. Judy replied, 'They were little drunks.'
'That's all b.s.,' Maren said. 'There were a couple of Irish midgets named Ike and Mike Kelly. They drank a bit during the eight weeks' shoot.
'A producer of 'Under The Rainbow' asked me if it really was wild and I said, 'Are you kidding? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.' Nobody swung from the chandeliers. 'There wasn't much hell-raising because we worked from six in the morning to eight at night. No time for joviality.'
The midget women demurely supported Maren's denials.
'We behaved as ordinary, normal-sized human beings,' Pellegrini said.
Only 14 of the original Munchkins survive. The tiniest Munchkin of them all, about 3-foot-4, was Olga Nardone, the brunette cutie of the Lullabye League, who now is a recluse at her home in New England.
Another Munchkin, Jack Glicken, who weighed 34 pounds, made headlines four years before 'The Wizard of Oz' by marrying Mildred Monte, 400 pounds, in New York.
'The Singer Midgets got all the lead roles,' Maren said. 'They were professional performers. Most of them came from Europe. The rest of us were from all around this country.'
Maren liked show biz and stuck around to play a variety of roles calling for diminutive actors, including an ape in 'Planet of the Apes.'
'It's kind of sad,' he said. 'But midgets are a vanishing tribe. Thanks to new growth hormones, when a child looks as if he's stopped growing, they give him these hormones and he shoots up.
'I've grown a foot since 'The Wizard of Oz.' 'But there will still be dwarfs, which are a genetic thing. They aren't as perfectly in proportion as midgets.' 'They couldn't make 'The Wizard of Oz' today because there wouldn't be enough midgets to go around,' Pellegrini said. '
Being small in a large world is a rough life.' 'I'm not so sure,' Duccini said. 'But I'm not saddened that there won't be more little people. The hardest part was being a teenager.' Maren said, 'I think 'The Wizard of Oz' was the biggest thing in our lives. It made people notice us. We've become part of a great classic movie that will be played for hundreds of years.'
'Working with more than a hundred other little people was fun,' Pellegrini said. 'We were a majority. It was like a normal life being among our own.'
'You can't imagine how nice it was talking to other people eye to eye,' Duccini put in. 'I was despondent in high school because I was so little.'
'I believe the scene where Dorothy lands in Munchkinland is one of the finest sequences in the history of motion pictures,' Maren said.
'We see 'The Wizard of Oz' a lot because wherever we go people want to show it to us,' Duccini said.
'They think they're doing us a favor,' Maren said, puffing a large cigar. 'The stuff they do with special effects can't compare with it.
'We celebrated our 50th anniversary in 1989 at the first Wizard of Oz festival in Grand Rapids, Judy Garland's home town. Only 15 little people showed up.' 'It was a great time for us,' Duccini said. 'But it will never happen again.'