More on the Munchkins

So I learned more about the Munchkins today. I got out a book called The Munchkins of Oz, by Stephen Cox (Nashville: Cumberland House, 1996). It’s a fascinating story, and refreshing in its tone of respect for the little people involved in the production – Cox talks about actors, performers, people, not freaks. But, surprisingly enough, he still uses the m-word – you know, midget. Now, I only just learned that’s an offensive term in referring to little people, and given the tone of Cox’s book, I was somewhat bewildered at his using it. Then I kept reading, and things got a little clearer.

Part of the nomenclature is in history. The Munchkins of Oz were a troupe of little people performers under the direction of (big person) Leo Singer, and the name of the group was “The Singer Midgets”.

But more importantly, the performers in question were a particular kind of little person. “Clinically speaking,” Cox says, “any individual with an undersized, tiny stature is medically classified as a dwarf” (7). But for the Munchkins of Oz, there was a difference: “98 percent of these little people had a rare genetic makeup. They were midgets, … proportionally correct little people”, as opposed to dwarfs who “differ from midgets because of their disproportionate body makeup.” Apparently for midgets, the short stature is caused by a pituitary gland malfunction which inhibits growth. Cox has an extensive interview with “the Last of the Singer Midgets”, Karl Slover, who was “a typical child until age four, when he simply stopped growing” (68). A picture of Slover from 1945, when he was twenty-seven years old, shows him looking like a child of maybe six. “For more than one hundred midgets to assemble in one place – for almost two months – marks history in and of itself,” says Cox. “It is highly unlikely that a grouping of this nature could, or will, ever occur again. […] Because of advances in hormonal treatment, proportionally correct midgets are now very rare, and they may cease to exist in the future.” (8).

When I was watching the movie a few weeks back, I looked at the Munchkins, and I was convinced that many of them were child actors. Apparently there were a few (average-sized) children among the lot, but nowhere in the front of the scene – they were just used to bulk out the little people crowd in the far back, hardly visible. All of the actors playing Munchkins are adults, or young adults. But, as Cox points out, “midgets” of this kind don’t exist today. Little people actors now, such as the very talented Warwick Davis (Willow, Harry Potter) and Peter Dinklage (Prince Caspian, Game of Thrones) do not have the child-like stature the Munchkins of Oz had.

The Wizard of Oz movie is a document of its time, and the group of Munchkins, midget actors, is one of the historic images in it.

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2 thoughts on “More on the Munchkins

  1. This makes me think of my mini goats……I have 2 breeds; the Pygmy and the Nigerian Dwarf. The Pygmy, I believe, is not proportionate in its smallness, while the Nigerian is – there are special terms for this. I can’t really tell one from the other yet by looking at a herd……..but true goat people can. To me, they are all absolutely adorable!

    My favourite story ever about a little person was the character Trudy in Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi. What an incredible story and character! I think maybe it’s sad to lose some of our genetic diversity and lose the “midgets”. I don’t know…….maybe that is wrong to say and feel, but I can’t help but think that the little people are a truly valuable part of our human expression.

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    • If you were to read about some of the realities of the lives of the “midgets” then, I think you’d change your mind. It’s quite horrifying. The Singer Midgets were actually quite well off, even though they were taken on tour as a novelty entertainment troupe, but at least Singer treated them with respect and kept them from being exhibited in Freak Shows, which is what the fate of many little people was in those days. There is enormous amounts of suffering that’s being averted by today’s growth hormone treatments.
      Actually, the pituitary gland malfunction which leads to proportionate dwarfism is, again according to Cox, not genetic; so it’s not really “genetic diversity” that is disappearing today. The other kind of dwarfism (the Warwick Davis/Peter Dinklage kind) is genetic, though, which is why it’s still around and not likely to go away.

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