Good morning, it’s Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. By 1939, it was standard Hollywood practice to prescreen high-budget motion pictures in small markets as well as big ones. The idea was to discern how Middle America would respond to films that were in any way unorthodox. And with its flying monkeys, melting witch, talking scarecrow, and other marvels, “The Wizard of Oz” certainly fit that description.
So on Aug. 11, 1939, MGM slated the picture for sneak previews in nearby San Bernardino but also in Kenosha, Wis., and at the Cape Cinema in the Cape Cod, Mass., town of Dennis. The following night -- 80 years ago today, in fact -- it premiered for a five-day showing at the Strand Theater in Oconomowoc. Yes, that means there were two preview towns in Wisconsin, a curiosity we’ll revisit in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:
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As early as 1902, two years after it was published, L. Frank Baum’s popular story had been made into a Broadway musical. Bringing "the wonderful wizard of Oz" to the big screen, in turn, cost MGM $2 million -- a fortune in 1939 -- and studio executives were understandably nervous about how the film would be received. The good people of Oconomowoc helped put their minds at ease. They loved the picture, as have other audiences ever since. But Oz-ologists have long puzzled over a basic question: Why Oconomowoc?
The apparent reason is not a Big Reveal. It seems that Herbert Stothart, the great songwriter and composer who would win an Oscar for his work on “The Wizard of Oz,” was a Milwaukee native who had a summer cottage near Oconomowoc. But that’s not the most interesting Wisconsin connection to the movie. As luck would have it, Oconomowoc is only a 20-mile drive up state Route 16 from Watertown, Wis., the hometown of Meinhardt Raabe.
In 1939, Raabe was a diminutive 23-year-old pitchman for Oscar Mayer. Although Raabe kept growing until he was in his 30s, he never surpassed 4-foot-7, and in 1939, he was something less than that. He always knew he was small, with no idea why. Growing up in Watertown, he wrote later, he never so much as heard the words “dwarf” or “midget” -- and assumed there was no one else in the world like him.
At 18, though, Raabe attended the Chicago World’s Fair where he encountered “Midget Village” -- and an entire tableau of little people of all ages. He took a job there as a barker the following summer, received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, got his pilot’s license, and embarked on a life characterized by determination to scale any barrier put in his way.
Two years after graduating from college, Raabe heard that Hollywood was casting a slew of little people in a new movie. He got a leave of absence from his duties as the hotdog company’s mascot, “Little Oscar,” and hopped on a train to Los Angeles, where he auditioned for a role in the picture. He got it, too, playing the part of the Munchkins’ coroner in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Meinhardt Raabe would live a long life and do many other things, including marry, serve as a wartime aviator in the Civil Air Patrol, and tour as Oscar Mayer’s “World’s Smallest Chef.”
But it was 13 seconds of uncredited airtime that made him a star, as he sang one memorable verse of “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead,” the Munchkins’ iconic number:
As coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her.
And she’s not only merely dead,
She’s really most sincerely dead.
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics