Last Munchkin Jerry Maren, the last of the Munchkins who brought dignity to little people dies at age 98
LOS ANGELES—Jerry Maren, who danced into pop culture in 1939 as the tartan-costumed, candy-toting Munchkin leader of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz, a role that overshadowed a lifetime of quiet off-screen work to bring dignity to little people, died May 24 in San Diego. He was 98.
His death, at a care facility in the La Jolla section, was first reported on Wednesday. A nephew, Lloyd Decker, said the cause was congestive heart failure.
Maren was the last survivor of the more than 100 dwarfs who performed as Munchkins in numbers like “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” according to Stephen Cox, the author of “The Munchkins of Oz.”
“In many ways, with his humble charm, he became the most beloved of all of them,” Cox said in a telephone interview.
Most of the Wizard of Oz dwarfs went on to lead non-Hollywood lives, returning to the spotlight only occasionally for studio-organized publicity stunts and fan events. But Maren spent his life as a performer, including doing stunt work for child actors like Jodie Foster and Ron Howard. He appeared in more than 60 films and television series, among them Bewitched, the satirical soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and The Gong Show, where his job was to merrily scatter confetti.
“It wasn’t much, but it was steady,” he wrote of that experience in his 2006 memoir, Short and Sweet: The Life and Times of the Lollipop Munchkin.
Like any character actor, Maren went where the work took him. He was an Oscar Meyer spokesman in the 1950s, travelling the country in a Weinermobile. (His duties included popping out of a hatch and tossing weeny-whistles to spectators.) In popular commercials for children’s shoes in the late 1940s, he played Buster Brown, wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy uniform and singing: “That’s my dog, Tige, he lives in a shoe. I’m Buster Brown. Look for me in there, too.”
He was also Mayor McCheese in McDonald’s commercials in the 1970s. “Big Mac built my house,” he wrote. (That house, in Los Angeles, was built to scale — his.)
With a friend and fellow actor, Billy Barty, Maren in 1957 founded Little People of America, a non-profit advocacy organization that has roughly 6,000 members.
“He took it as his responsibility to show, through a strong sense of self and speaking out and personal example, that little people are just people,” Cox said. “All of the other Munchkins had a great deal of respect for Jerry.” (About 10 young girls without dwarfism were hired to fill out the Munchkin ensemble; according to Cox, a handful survive.)
Maren, who liked to chomp cigars and wear porkpie hats, was “happily patient” at fan events, even when attendees asked derogatory questions about his stature, said John Fricke, a historian of all things Oz and co-author of 100 Years of Oz: A Century of Classic Images (1999).
Fiske said Maren had worked to debunk the “demeaning legends” that sprung up around the Munchkins, in particular that they were more interested in alcohol and wild sex than in making a movie.
In his book, Maren blamed a troubled Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, for erroneously painting her dwarf castmates as miscreants. Referencing a 1967 television interview in which she told Jack Paar that the Munchkins “all got smashed every night” and had to be “picked up in butterfly nets,” Maren wrote: “Judy was telling it according to her pills and booze that day. She left behind a legacy of untruths about us.”
He was born Gerard Marenghi on Jan. 24, 1920, in Roxbury, Mass., to Raphaela and Emilio Marenghi, Italian immigrants. The youngest of 12 children, he wanted to be a baseball player. But his pituitary dwarfism, diagnosed when he was a teenager, prompted him to consider show business, despite discouragement from his father, a shoe factory worker.
By the age of 18, when he stood 3 feet, 6 inches tall (he later grew about a foot with the help of hormone treatments), he had gained attention in New England by performing with a vaudeville act called Three Steps and a Half. He was the half.
A scout for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, looking for dwarfs to play Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, summoned him by telegram to New York, where he was cast on the spot. He adopted the stage name Maren and travelled by bus to Los Angeles. He got the part of the Lollipop Munchkin — the giant candy he held was made of painted balsa wood — because he could both sing and dance.
Like the other Munchkins, Cox wrote, Maren was paid $100 a week. Toto, Dorothy’s dog, earned $125.
Maren married Elizabeth Barrington Maren, also a dwarf, in 1975. (Elizabeth Maren, who died in 2011, became known at Wizard of Oz fan events for wearing a T-shirt that read, “I Partied With the Munchkins.”) No immediate family members survive.
A fan of horse racing, Maren also played softball in a league called the Hollywood Shorties until he was in his 80s. And he was an avid golfer. Asked by the Los Angeles Times in 1993 to name his golfing strength, he said, “My short game, of course.”