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.