Many have made myriad mentionings of the Munchkins of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s movie musical magnum opus The Wizard of Oz, and it has become difficult to determine how much of it is true and how much is merely myth.
Told simply, the story is that one hundred and twenty-four Little People, billed as the Singer Midgets, came to work for MGM. In fact, the original troupe who bore that name had their ranks swelled by the dozens for purposes of the movie. Ironic, when in the book, Dorothy was met by only three of the natives of the Munchkin Country, renamed “Munchkinland” for the movie.
Leopold von Singer, born in Vienna, Austria in 1877, had seen midgets (distinct from dwarfs by the fact that they have regular human proportions in miniature) sing and dance in a revue which, combined with having read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, inspired him to create Liliputstadt, a small city built to accommodate the midget troupe he formed to entertain visitors to the place.
Singer and his troupe moved to the United States after the First World War, and soon began appearing on stage and screen, eventually coming to the attention of Mervyn LeRoy, who just happened to need a multitude of Munchkins for a film he was working on. A nationwide hunt for more little performers eventually filled the Munchkinland set to capacity.
While the original Singer Midgets were accomplished singers, dancers, and actors in their own right, the vocals for the Munchkins, both speaking and singing, were ironically performed by full-sized people whose voices were recorded at a slow speed, creating high-pitched Munchkin voices when played at regular speed. Also, many of the performers selected for featured roles, such as Charlie Becker, who played the Mayor, and Meinhardt Raabe, who played the Coroner, came from the talent hunt.
The costume designer for The Wizard of Oz was a man known professionally as Adrian, and he and his team created a distinctive look for each and every Munchkin. Makeup artist Jack Dawn also designed specific makeups, some of them reminiscent of John R. Neill’s illustrations of different Oz denizens, which would be applied by a huge team of artists so every day each Munchkin would look exactly as he or she did the day before.
Despite an unfortunately bad reputation given them over the years (by Judy Garland and Bert Lahr among others), the Singer Midgets were disciplined performers– given the tight ship director Victor Fleming tended to captain, nothing else would do. The offstage antics of some of them were perhaps less than exemplary, but scarcely applied to all of them. Jerry Maren, the Tough Kid in the middle of the three Lollipop Guildsmen, recalled in an interview one of his associates on the film who did indulge in the bottle a bit.
But so did Frank Morgan, who played the Wizard, and while this does not excuse what may or may not have gone on after filming, it rarely if ever affected the work seen on the screen.