About fifteen years ago I attended, in Chicago, a meeting of the International Wizard of Oz Club. Similar to Star Trek gatherings, these conferences attract devotees of both the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz and the series of books about the utopian fairyland written by L. Frank Baum.
In the increasingly distant pre-video era, The Wizard of Oz was aired once a year; its broadcast a publicized and much-anticipated event, almost akin to the presidential inauguration. No one I knew would have dreamed of watching anything else that evening; in school, my art teacher gave assignments to “Draw your favorite scene from The Wizard of Oz.” Families debated whether their little kids could contend with the terrifying wicked witch and her manic minions, the winged monkeys. (My five-year-old brother ran and hid the first time he saw the witch cackle balefully into the hourglass.) When color television came in, I watched the film at the home of the only kid on our block with whose family had one of the new sets. For the first time, I saw the drama of mundane black-and- white Kansas transform into the variegated beauty of Oz.
At the Oz convention, I mingled with adults and kids dressed in Ozzy costumes–lots of pig-tailed, Judy Garland Dorothy’s and wicked witches with tall hats. Then the stunner: at dinner, I found myself next to none other than movie Munchkin Meinhardt Raabe–the coroner who sings that the Wicked Witch is “not only merely dead / She’s really most sincerely dead.”
I’m sitting next to the coroner of Oz, I kept repeating to myself. Surreal wasn’t the half of it.
Dressed in his shiny blue coroner costume, complete to brimmed hat, the 4 feet 7 Raabe was very easy to talk to. He told me Judy Garland had been friendly to “the little people.” Years after the film was shot, he recalled, he worked as a substitute teacher in an elementary school. Kids who started to tease him because of his size became respectful when he told them he played the Coroner in The Wizard of Oz. The next day, excited parents called the school, asking if it was true that a Munchkin was teaching their kids.
I asked him how the movie changed his life. He said quietly that he’d felt “a little cheated” about being born different. The fame that followed him after the movie, he said, helped “make up” for the stigma and employment problems he’d experienced as a little person. After dinner, he stood up and sang the song that had won him immortality. “As coroner, I must aver / I thoroughly examined her . . .” The thrilled audience, kids and adults, broke into applause.
So I was sorry to learn last week that Raabe, 94, was himself “most sincerely dead.” I cherish the poster he’d signed for me, depicting himself as coroner (though at first, I was a little spooked that he’d written my name in the Wicked Witch’s “death certificate”). I’m grateful for the magic he and the others–Garland, Bolger, Lahr, all long gone–provided to kids in a bygone era. And I’m glad he felt a little of that magic himself.