02 August 2006

Smallest of the "Greatest Generation"

Greg Fishbone alerted me to a recent tempest in a teapot (well, actually in Kansas City) over whether Mickey Carroll is "the last living Munchkin" from the MGM movie or (as he and the Kansas City Royals accurately stated all along) "one of the last living Munchkins." The Deadspin blog provides a roundup of the affair and the last word.

In a week I'm off to the Munchkin Convention, so named because Munchkinland is the eastern part of Oz and this event has taken place in the eastern US for decades. Occasionally one or two MGM movie veterans speak there, which usually means Munchkins since all the principal performers have died. Several Munchkin performers who are still alive and healthy have created retirement careers for themselves making personal appearances in and out of costume.

Those surviving Munchkin performers tend to have been in their late teens in 1938, when they shot their scene. That means they were about twenty years old when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into World War 2. The young men therefore faced the question of how to serve their country. But because of their height, they were all classified as 4-F, ineligible for military service.

If there's a Q&A session at a convention, I ask the men about their experiences of the war, and the answers are usually quite interesting, as well as fresh to folks who've heard all the stories from the MGM set. Some of these young men stayed on their jobs, especially on farms, where the work was deemed vital to the nation. Others found ways to serve the war effort outside the military.

For example, Meinhardt Raabe, who played the Munchkin coroner, trained pilots as part of the Civil Air Patrol. He was, he says, the smallest licensed pilot of the time, and ended up flying more types of airplanes than he would have in military service. Raabe discusses that work, and other parts of his career, in Memories of a Munchkin, which turned out to be a better book than I expected. It sounds like a hodgepodge, but it really does hang together, and the production values are excellent. Raabe is also one of the most dedicated marketers I've ever met.

Another ex-Munchkin, Texan Clarence Swenson, worked on repairing the radar equipment in planes at airbases in the US. He found that his small size gave him an advantage in reaching inside the nosecones, letting his crew avoid the delay of having another team come out to remove those cowlings and thus to cut the planes' time out of service. [Swenson and his wife were at the 2006 Munchkin Convention, allowing me to update this paragraph.]

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