Saturday 17 August 2019

Obituary: Jerry Maren

Diminutive actor who played villains, monsters and a memorable Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz

SONG AND DANCE MAN: Jerry Maren, left, with fellow Munchkin Harry Earles in ‘The Wizard of Oz’
SONG AND DANCE MAN: Jerry Maren, left, with fellow Munchkin Harry Earles in ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Jerry Maren, who has died aged 98, was the last surviving Munchkin, and possibly the last surviving cast member, of the film The Wizard of Oz (1939); he played the leader of the Lollipop Guild, a diminutive figure - Maren was just 3ft 4in high - in a green tartan shirt and green shorts who presents Dorothy (Judy Garland) with an oversized wooden lollipop while singing the Lollipop Guild song. His closing jig was Maren's own improvisation: "They liked that and told me to keep it in. That was important. It needed a finish."

Maren was already a skilled dancer, aged 18, performing in a vaudeville revue called Three Steps and a Half when an MGM scout approached him for The Wizard of Oz.

Two weeks later he was sharing a room with two other would-be Munchkins at the Culver City Hotel, with instructions to appear on set first thing in the morning for make-up. It was Maren's first experience of meeting anyone else with his condition.

In casting the Munchkins, MGM specified that they be proportionately correct little people, or midgets (in the terminology of the time). The troupe of 122 Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz ranged in height from 2ft 3in to 4ft 8in.

Many of the midgets in the film were provided by an impresario named Leopold Van Singer, who had previously managed troupes of midgets - some of whom had been cast out by their parents, others of whom he was obliged to purchase - in Europe and South America, before relocating to Hollywood.

The remaining Munchkins came from all over America, most of them veterans of the midget troupes and orchestras - Rose's Midgets, Hymie's Midgets, the Henry Kramer Midgets - that plied their trade in vaudeville, carnival sideshows and county fairs.

But it was Singer whom MGM paid to manage (or, in the words of his contract, "handle") the little people. Singer charged MGM $100 a week for each Munchkin. The Munchkins, who worked 14-hour days six days a week, were paid $50 a week - less than half the fee, Maren claimed, paid to the dog playing Toto. "I always said he had a better agent."

The Munchkins would prove a lively and diverting presence both on and off set. "We had a hell of a time with those little guys," the producer Mervyn LeRoy remembered. "They got into sex orgies at the hotel. We had to have police on every floor."

The critic John Lahr, who wrote a biography of his father Bert (who played the Cowardly Lion), recorded that the Munchkins brandished knives and supplemented their wages by "pimping and whoring".

After a particularly inebriated night with the Hungarian twins Ike and Mike, who were widely recognised as "problem drinkers", one Munchkin had to be rescued after falling into a lavatory bowl.

"One of them who was about 40 asked me to dinner," Judy Garland - who was 17 at the time - would later recall. "And I couldn't say, I don't want to go with you because you're a midget. I just said, my mother wouldn't want me to. He said bring your ma too. They all got smashed every night and they picked them up in butterfly nets. I imagine they got residuals."

In fact, they did not. But the film's enduring success fixed Maren in the public memory and provided him with some much-needed security.

"It was during the Depression, and it was six weeks guaranteed - food, transportation, hotel, the works," he said. "It was like a dream come true."

Born Gerard Marenghi in Roxbury, Massachusetts, on January 24, 1920, he was the youngest of 12 children, the rest of whom were of average height. "When people said, 'What happened to you?' I'd say, 'My old man ran out of gas'," he recalled. Both his parents were originally from Naples. His father, Emilio Marenghi, worked in a shoe factory.

Gerard attended the Lucille Crocker Primary School in Boston. When, at the age of 11, his short stature became a matter for concern, his mother took him to a specialist, who diagnosed pituitary dwarfism. A home remedy of Scott's Emulsion cod liver oil, followed by twice-weekly injections, had little effect.

From the age of 15 he enrolled at dancing school, joining his teachers in a tour of New England after two years. It was here that he had his big break, while playing the Hotel Bond in Hartford, Connecticut.

At The Wizard of Oz premiere on August 15, 1939, Maren was chosen to stand at the front of house, dressed in Munchkin garb. As he was preparing to return home, he got a call from MGM, who were looking for a lead actor on their new Our Gang film, Tiny Troubles.

Considered the best and most expressive dancer in the troupe, Maren got the part. His character was Light-Fingered Lester, stealing fob watches from passers-by and making his escape in a baby carriage.

When filming wrapped after two weeks, the company put him in touch with the Marx Brothers. At the Circus (1939) had a villain called Little Professor Atom, who lived in a miniature train decked out like the interior of a doll's house.

Maren often cited it as his favourite part, though he did not endear himself to the director, who would "tell me to stop laughing, this is serious. I was sorry, but with Groucho Marx there making jokes, it's impossible not to laugh".

Between roles Maren would perform with a number of variety acts, including a wrestling show for the United Services Organisations, which provided live entertainment to American troops.

In 1949 a restaurant owner in Los Angeles hired him to dress as a baby for James Stewart's stag party. He and his fellow performer Billy Barty emerged from beneath a serving dish and sprayed Stewart with syringes of warm water, concealed in their nappies.

Throughout the 1950s, Maren had a long stint in commercials, as Little Oscar for the Oscar Meyer meat company, and as Buster Brown for the Brown Shoe Company. Buster was the official mascot for Andy's Gang, sponsored by the Brown Shoe Company, which ran on national television for five years.

Maren frequently toured the West Coast as Little Oscar in his elongated Wienermobile - a temperamental car shaped like a hot dog on a bun, which would visit schools, orphanages and children's hospitals, and participate in festivals. He went on to play the "McBurglar" and "Mayor McCheese" in advertisements for McDonald's.

Maren was a Mole Man for Superman's first feature-length outing, Superman and the Mole Men (1951), and he continued to play "monster" roles into the next three decades, including appearances - under heavy make-up - in Planet of the Apes (1968), the low-budget Bigfoot (1970), as "Little Critter" in the horror film House (1986), and on television in series such as The Twilight Zone (1986).

In 1957 Maren joined Billy Barty to organise Little People of America, promoting the cause of people with dwarfism across America. LPA now has more than 6,000 members.

Jerry Maren's autobiography, Short and Sweet: The Life and Times of the Lollipop Munchkin, was published in 2007. He married, in 1975, Elizabeth Barrington, whom he had met through the Little People of America's newspaper. Together they would appear at Oz festivals across America commemorating the film, and performed in the Oz-related film Under the Rainbow (1981) and in a television biography of L Frank Baum, The Dreamer of Oz (1990). His wife predeceased him in 2011.

In 2013, in one of his last public appearances, Maren was invited to take part in the time-honoured ritual of placing his hands and feet in wet cement on the pavement of Hollywood Boulevard.

He regaled the crowd with a chorus of the song that had made him famous: "We represent the Lollipop Guild, The Lollipop Guild, The Lollipop Guild, And in the name of the Lollipop Guild, We wish to welcome you to Munchkinland."

Jerry Maren died on May 24.

© Telegraph

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