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Jerry Maren, 'Lollipop Munchkin,' Remembers His Time in Oz

The 91-year old actor looks back on his life and the making of one of the world's most famous movies.

More than 60 years ago, Jerry Maren acted in his first movie. It happened to be one of the most famous films of all time—The Wizard of Oz. He went on to a spectacular career acting in radio, movies, TV and commercials. He appeared onscreen with the Marx Brothers and on TV in . But after all these years, it's his time in Oz that makes Maren forever cherished among his legion of fans.

He was a Munchkin in Oz. And not just any Munchkin—he was the middle member of the Lollipop Guild. He emerged from the crowd in the middle of the diminutive trio, did a little dance, sang the song "We represent the Lollipop Guild/And we welcome you to Munchkinland," and then presented his big lollipop directly into the hands of Dorothy, played by Judy Garland. It's a moment preserved forever in still photos of the film, and in the memories of all of us who have seen and loved this dream of a movie for decades.

The Wizard of Oz was filmed on the  MGM lot in 1938. Though all the Munchkins cast were little people, none were children so as to avoid the regulations applying to kids' working hours. Maren, who was born in 1920 in Boston, was only 18, and the youngest of them all. To this day, he's unable to fathom why this movie, out of so many movies, remains so significant in our lives and our dreams. "I've done so many things in show business," he says, "but people say, 'You were in The Wizard of Oz?' It takes people's breath away. But then I realized, geez, it must have been a hell of a picture, because everyone remembers it everywhere I go."

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These days Maren is residing in a senior retirement community in North Hollywood, after living high on a hill in Hollywood for decades with his wife Elizabeth, who died recently. Maren was some 20 years her senior and everyone—Maren included—presumed he'd be the first to go. Adjusting to life without her hasn't been easy, he says. For years she was there to finish his sentences, or to add her punchlines to his stories.

When I first interviewed Maren in 1999 for my book Elizabeth was bouncing around their home and laughing. When he told his story about playing Edgar Bergen's ventriloquist dummy partner Charlie McCarthy in the movies, he explained, "When you saw Charlie in the distance walking, that would be me. And then for the close-up they would bring in the real dummy." To which Elizabeth exclaimed, with the impeccable timing of a seasoned comic, "And how would they know the difference, dear?" You can see Jerry and Elizabeth together at the end of the 1997 "Yada Yada" episode of Seinfeld.

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But, of course, it's Oz that most people want to talk to Maren about. He was 18 and performing in a show at the Bond Hotel in Connecticut in 1938 when an MGM scout came backstage to meet him, seeking talented little people around the country. Maren's singing and dancing ability made him an ideal candidate. "We're gonna make a movie called The Wizard of Oz in Hollywood," the man told him, "and we need quite a few little people like you who can sing and dance. I've seen your act and we would love to have you in our picture."

Although Maren had never heard of L. Frank Baum or The Wizard of Oz, he had heard of Hollywood and the movies, and he was thrilled to accept. Two weeks later he was given a room to share at the Culver City Hotel. There were three little people to a bed, but "there was a lot of room, y'know, they were all my size!" he said.

Without any explanation about their roles or the movie, they were told to show up first thing in the morning to do makeup. "It took two weeks of makeup preparation," he remembered. "It was a pain in the a-s-s. I'm tellin' you. They'd have these barber chairs down below street level on one of the stages, and we'd go from chair to chair—wigs, fake cheeks, noses, chins. It was not fun."

Then there were rigorous rehearsals to learn all the songs and matching choreography before shooting began. And the filming of the one scene— the Munchkinland sequence—took two full weeks. "I remember when I first saw the sets and all of us. I thought, 'Geez, look at that. Boy, they went to a lot of pain to get all these little people from all over the world. This must be important.' The set was monstrous and it was beautiful, with a pond and the Yellow Brick Road and all the flowers."

The Munchkins were told only a little bit about the scene, just enough to fuel their emotions. "They told us that when Dorothy lands in Munchkinland, she surprises us. All we know is the Good Witch and the Bad Witch. When she landed, she landed on the Bad Witch. If you remember, her feet were sticking out from under the house."

It was when singing the famous Lollipop Guild song that Maren first met Garland, both in the film and in real life. "She was a lovely gal," he recalled. "She always waved at us and said, 'Hi kids, hi gang!' She was a typical teenager. She loved us as much as we loved her. We fell in love with her."

In the scene, Maren improvised, clasping his hands over his head triumphantly after handing over the lollipop to Dorothy. "They liked that and told me to keep it in. That was important. It needed a finish."

Asked if the infamous stories of all-night Munchkin revelry were true, he said, "No. There were no wild parties every night. Maybe just one or two, but that was expected, because some of the Munchkins were Irish. That's what they do, it's in their blood."

Years later Maren appeared in the movie Under the Rainbowwhich was based on the wild Munchkin party myth. "The directors asked me if it was true, but I told them it was a lot of BS. I guess Judy Garland mentioned the parties on the Jack Paar show. But it wasn't true at all."

Making the movie wasn't easy work. Starting with the rigorous makeup routine each morning, the actors worked 14-hour days, from six in the morning to eight at night, six days a week. "Even if we wanted to go drinking, we didn't have any time. And after work we had to go home to rest because in the morning we needed to get up early and start over."

"We got $50 a week," he recalled, "which was good money. We didn't know better. My dad was making $25 a week, and I was making twice that, which I thought was doing pretty good."

The fear expressed by the Munchkins at the appearances of the Bad Witch, played by Margaret Hamilton, was not faked. "She would make her entrance on her broomstick," he said, "and scream and she scared the hell out of us little people. We ducked down to hide. But she got hurt once. When she disappears, she hits a certain mark, which is the elevator, and she goes down. She did many takes of that, and during one take she got burned. Because special effects had to be fire, smoke and the elevator, everything had to be perfect. The broom caught on fire and burnt part of her face and hand, and they had to rush her to the hospital. Fortunately, it wasn't serious."

It was a bit of a revelation for Maren, and his fellow Munchkins, to realize that Hamilton wasn't actually wicked, but just a very effective actress. "We used to fear her more than anything," he recalled. "But we found out she's really a lovely gal. We met her afterwards at festivals and special events, and she was so nice."

Come back for Part II, which will focus on the premiere of The Wizard of Oz and Maren's prolific post-Oz entertainment career.

If you have messages for Jerry, he'd love to hear them and we'd be happy to send them on. Also, we'd welcome any response you have to this story. 

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