Legacy of the Munchkins
As unusual as it might seem, Barty told The Wolf Files in 1999 that The Wizard of Oz served as inspiration for him to form LPA. When the film was made in the late 1930s, casting calls went out throughout the United States for little people to play Munchkins.
“I didn’t work on Oz,” Barty said. “But the people who did realized that it was a significant gathering.”
As Hollywood legend recalls it, the 124 little people who played the Munchkins had been fighting the perception that they ran amok during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, partaking in wild sex orgies and trashing their hotel.
Judy Garland didn’t help matters in the mid-1950s when talk show host Jack Paar asked whether the Munchkins were little kids and she explained, “They were little drunks … they all got smashed every night.”
Working for Sub-Canine Wages
For years, dwarfs fought those accounts. Munchkin Jerry Maren, who portrayed a member of The Lollypop Guild, said: “It’s all a bunch of B.S. People see dwarfs and midgets and they get carried away with their stories to make them funny.”
In The Munchkins of Oz, author Stephen Cox writes that Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy said of the Munchkins, “They had sex orgies in the hotel, and we had to have police on just about every floor.”
Such shenanigans as dwarfs swinging from chandeliers were featured in Chevy Chase’s 1981 flop Under the Rainbow, which was loosely based on events at the Culver City Hotel, where the Munchkins resided. Barty took some heat from other little people for appearing in the flick.
“We couldn’t do stuff like that,” says Maren. “They were working us dawn till dusk, and we really weren’t pulling in enough money for hard-core partying.”
Just to show you the Wizard of Oz pecking order, Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow, pulled down a cool $5,000 a week. Garland made $500 a week. The Munchkins each took home $50 a week. And Toto the dog made $125 a week.
“That’s a lot of dog biscuits. Toto must have had a good agent,” Maren jokes. “That mutt should have been working for scraps.”
Some Munchkins complained that Hollywood treated them no better than animal acts. Show business impresario Leo “Papa” Singer acted as agent for most of the Munchkins and took a whopping 50 percent commission.
But the gathering of little people was a social occasion. Margaret Pellegrini, a 4-foot, 3-inch retired actress who played a Sleepy Head, said, “Many marriages resulted in the film, and I made some lifetime friendships.”
Barty and others realized the value in forming an association. “Billy was well established in the film business and he started organizing picnics. That’s where my wife met him in 1952,” says Bankowski. “He had a vision and an easy way about him. He was a big star and treated us all as friends.”
Only 22 little people attended the first LPA meeting in 1957. Today there are more than 6,000 members.
Seinfeld’s Mickey Pays Tribute
Today, Hollywood actors of short stature treat Barty as a mentor. “I first saw him in Foul Play,” said actor Danny Woodburn, who played Kramer’s hot-tempered, 4-foot-tall buddy Mickey on Seinfeld.
“At that time, I wanted to be a vet … When I met him at LPA and at casting calls years later, he was always a nice guy, supportive, helpful.”
Woodburn has just finished shooting six episodes of Special Unit 2, a TV show for Paramount. He’ll be heading to Toronto to work on a Danny DeVito movie, Death to Smoochey, with Robin Williams and Edward Norton.
“Billy paved the way for others … He didn’t always get the roles he wanted. But he wasn’t confrontational,” Woodburn said.
“He worked within the system and he changed it. There was a time when the only roles for black women were as housekeepers and maids. People like Billy Barty changed things.”
Buck Wolf is a producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is a weekly feature. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.