By Fred Muenz
I love THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). Over the past ten years, I’ve written numerous articles about the film. Just in the past few months, for this blog, I’ve written about the actress who played the Wicked Witch, the two actors cast as the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow and the actors who switched roles. The film would have been an empty shell, however, without a number of minor, yet memorable, characters who made the movie great. Here are several of them:
Clara Dickey, aka Clara Blandick, (Auntie Em) was born in Hong Kong harbor in June, 1880, aboard a ship on which her father was captain. While still a child, her family settled in Quincy, Massachusetts, but little is known of her early life. At some point, she decided to pursue a career in the theater and, in 1900, she moved to New York to follow her dream. Before long, she was performing on stage and receiving critical acclaim. She made a few film appearances as early as 1908, but didn’t become serious about movies until 1929, when she moved to Hollywood. She quickly established herself as a reliable supporting actress, appearing in 22 films between 1930 and 1931, although often going uncredited. During those early years, she wasn’t under contract, and worked at every studio in Hollywood. In 1939, she landed the most famous minor role of her career, that of Auntie Em in THE WIZARD OF OZ, after which she returned to playing minor roles and bit parts. Failing health and oncoming blindness forced her to slow down and finally retire in 1950. On April 15, 1962, she returned home from church, put on her favorite dress, arranged her favorite photos, laid out her press clippings, wrote a suicide note and swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills. Laying down on a couch, she covered herself with a blanket and tied a plastic bag over her head. Clara Blandick, a veteran of over 200 films, was 81.
Charley Ellsworth Grapewin, (Uncle Henry), was born in Xenia, Ohio in December, 1869. As a teenager he left home to join the circus as a trapeze artist, eventually traveling the world with the P.T. Barnum circus. After leaving the circus, he decided to try his hand at acting, traveling with several stock companies, and writing some of the stage plays they were performing. He began appearing in silent films at the turn of the century, becoming one of the first actors to receive screen credit. His first two films were “moving image shorts” made by movie pioneer Frederick S. Armitage and released in November, 1900. Thus, began a career in which Charley Grapewin appeared in over 100 films, many in a familiar role as an old codger. Included in his filmography are some of Hollywood’s greatest classics: THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936), THE GOOD EARTH (1937), CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1937), THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), TOBBACCO ROAD (1941) and, of course, THE WIZARD OF OZ. In the early 1940’s he played a recurring role as Inspector Queen, father of the crime solving author, in a series of Ellery Queen movies. Charley Grapewin finally retired from show business in 1944, and lived quietly until his death in February, 1956, at age 86. His ashes were interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, just a few yards away from those of Clara Blandick.
Patrick Walshe (Nikko, leader of the flying monkeys), was born in New York in July, 1900. As a child, he began performing in vaudeville and, in 1908, made his first Broadway appearance in a show called The Girl Behind The Counter, playing the same role until the show closed over two years later. In 1913, he appeared in Within The Law, with a cast consisting entirely of dwarf actors. The same year, he appeared in the Broadway production of A Good Little Devil, starring Mary Pickford. In the play, he had dual roles as a gnome and a squirrel. Walshe suffered from a form of restricted growth and, never grew beyond 3’10” tall. Many of his performances included playing animals, particularly monkeys and apes. As an adult, he became famous playing a monkey in vaudeville, and toured Europe with midget troupes and circuses. At one point, Walshe left show business to start his own business, but soon found it difficult for a little person to deal with average sized people, soon and returned to performing. In October, 1938, he was cast in the most prominent role of his career, as Nikko, leader of the flying monkeys in THE WIZARD OF OZ, his first feature film. While the other monkeys wore simple rubber masks, because of his scenes in close proximity to the Wicked Witch, he was required to wear complex multiple prosthetics glued to his face. After THE WIZARD OF OZ, he returned to performing in circuses and on stage until old age forced him to retire. Pat Walshe died of a heart attack in December, 1991. He was the last surviving credited cast member of THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Meinhardt Frank Raabe (the Munchkin Coroner), was born in Watertown, Wisconsin in September, 1915. Growing into young adulthood, he never heard the words “midget” or “dwarf”, until he attended the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago and saw a performance by a troupe of midgets. Until that time, he thought that he was the only person of his kind in the world. Back home, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in accounting, and years later went on to get an MBA. Turned down for an accounting job by one company after another, he was finally hired by Oscar Mayer as a salesman. Hearing that little people were being auditioned for roles in a Hollywood movie, he took a leave of absence and travelled to California. At three feet, six inches tall, Raabe was awarded the role of coroner. Although his screen time lasted only 13 seconds, he pronounced the Wicked Witch of the East dead with the immortal words: “As coroner, I must aver. I thoroughly examined her. And she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead”. Returning to Wisconsin and his job, he found that Carl Mayer, nephew of Oscar Mayer, had designed a promotional vehicle for the company called the Wienermobile. Because passenger space was limited, Mayer realized that spokesman would have to be small, and Raabe became the first “Little Oscar, the World’s Smallest Chef””, a role he played on and off over the next 30 years. During World War II, Raabe was turned down when he tried to enlist in the army but, as a licensed pilot, he was able to join the Civil Air Patrol and fly fire and lake patrol missions and serve as ground instructor. Although only 3’6” tall when he played the coroner, he continued to grow and eventually reached the height of 4’7”. One of the last surviving Munchkins, Meinhardt Raabe died in April, 2010, at the age of 94.
ANOTHER SIVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.