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FOREVER MUNCHKINS

Though it has been nearly 60 years since she was in "The Wizard of Oz," Margaret Pellegrini, 74, affectionately remembers her trek down that yellow brick road as a Munchkin. She recalls chatting with a sweet Judy Garland, also a teen-ager. She remembers the hard work and the fun of being with 123 other little people.

And she still wears her purple flowerpot hat, at least to Oz gatherings.

What she doesn't recall is filled in by fellow Munchkins Karl Stover and "The Lollipop Kid" Jerry Maren. And by her great-granddaughter Cheryl Pellegrini, 10, who is frequently her traveling companion to Oz events, which occur several times a year.

In this instance, they are in Buffalo to promote TNT's production of "The Wizard of Oz," which opens tonight at Villa Maria College.

Mrs. Pellegrini grew up in Sheffield, Ala., earning her the nickname of "Lil Alabam."

When moviemakers were trying to round up dozens of little people, she was spotted at the Tennessee State Fair, where she was passing out potato chips.

"In mid-November 1938, when I was 15, I took a train, alone, to Hollywood," said Mrs. Pellegrini. "I got to Munchkinland a week before Thanksgiving and stayed for eight weeks, right through the holidays."

The Munchkins were each paid $50 a week and received room and board and transportation, they said.

"Toto got $125 a week," Mrs. Pellegrini added. "But my father was only earning $5 a week, so it was a lot of money for the time."

Making the movie was a lot of work, they say.

"We were up by 6 each morning and then went through makeup, rehearsals, costuming, learning our lines and choreography, usually until 8 at night.

"I enjoyed it," said Mrs. Pellegrini, who recalls Norma Shearer bringing her two children onto the set so they could walk through Munchkinland, and seeing Eleanor Powell and Wallace Beery.

"Mickey Rooney was there all the time because he was sweet on Judy then," she said.

She stayed in show business for a time before marrying Willie Pellegrini, whom she met while she was working in a nightclub in Chicago. They married within six weeks and had a son and daughter. She was widowed after 38 years of marriage.

"My son always said he was the 'son of a Munchkin,' " Mrs. Pellegrini said.

Jerry Maren was already in show business when he was hired for "Oz."

"I had started dancing because my sister was taking lessons," recounts Maren, the youngest of 12 children. "My mother said, 'Go with her, learn something.' "

While he was with an act called "Three Steps and a Half," Maren was invited to be in the movie.

He recalls taking a bus that said something like "The Munchkins Go to Hollywood," which stopped to pick people up as it traveled from New York City to Hollywood. Once there, he never left. He and his wife, Elizabeth, who accompanied him on this trip to Buffalo, live in a house they had custom-built in the Hollywood Hills.

Maren became one of the best-known Munchkins. He played Buster Brown; was Professor Atom in the Marx Brothers' "At the Circus"; was in Our Gang comedies, and traveled as Little Oscar with the Weinermobile.

He still plays softball with the Hollywood
Shorties, mostly in charity appearances.

And he enjoys golf.

"It's my driving that hurts me, but I've got a good short game," said Maren, who has traded in his lollipop for a cigar, which he lighted in the Villa Maria lobby, oblivious to smoking bans.

Surprised to learn that Oz songwriter Harold Arlen was a Buffalo native, Maren praised his talent.

Arlen and lyricist E.Y. Harburg "must have had a lot of fun writing those songs," he said. "I wish they were still alive so I could ask them what they were thinking. They wrote about the Lollipop Guild. We didn't know what the hell a guild was, but that was around the time they were forming the (Screen) Actors Guild."

Slover, whose nickname was Karchy (Hungarian for Karl) to distinguish him from several other Karls, is 77, lives in Florida and is "still an eligible bachelor."

"I used to be with the largest midget show in the world," said Slover. "We sang, danced, rode animals."

One Christmas the group was booked in Buffalo for five shows.

"Man, that was a lot," he told Stephen Cox, who wrote the book "The Munchkins of Oz."

"The place was sold out and the owner of the theater asked if we couldn't put on another show because people were waitin' to get in."

For a time Slover trained poodles, "but I gave that up when people became less interested in dog acts," he said.

Of the original cast of 124 Munchkins, 14 are still alive and six or seven continue to make public appearances, Mrs. Pellegrini said.

They don't get any residuals from the movie, they say; that practice didn't start until 1962.

Mrs. Pellegrini said that for a long time she didn't even tell people that she had been a Munchkin, but for the past 10 years she has been enjoying the attention and opportunities it offers.

The Munchkins said it's annoying to get "stupid" questions, including the widely circulated rumor that a Munchkin committed suicide during the filming of the movie. "Do they think we wouldn't have seen that happening and stopped it?" Maren asked.

As the interview came to an end, Mrs. Pellegrini reached into her purse to read from a verse titled "Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Oz." It states that "faith, hope and charity are important, but having a pair of ruby slippers doesn't hurt" and that you can "follow the yellow brick road, but you must be ready for detours."

She ended with: "Stand up for yourself, but always be kind to the little guy."

The play, a production of TNT Productions, begins with a gala opening with the original Munchkins at 6:30 tonight, followed by a performance at 8. There are several performances this weekend and next. Tickets are $10 for adults, $6 for children. Call 896-0700.

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