'Over the Rainbow'

Movie munchkins reminisce about making classic

Posted: Thursday, September 02, 2004

An interactive version of the "Wizard of Oz" that's screening in Juneau this weekend comes highly recommended by munchkins.

Surviving actors from the 1939 MGM film have sung along themselves at other locations and say it's a joyous celebration of a film that brings out the kid in everyone.

Margaret Pellegrini, who played a munchkin villager and Sleepyhead in the "Wizard of Oz," has visited the Land of Oz and every state - except the Great Land.

Pellegrini, 80, tours the country for Oz events but can't make the Alaska engagement. The film, in which characters Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion search for a better life, was made for all ages because "it has such meaning," Pellegrini said.

"We can all have a brain if we use it," she said in an interview Monday from her home in Arizona. "We can all have courage if we do it. We can all have a heart if we use it."

Pellegrini and Clarence Swenson, who played one of the 25 munchkin soldiers in the film, went to audience-interactive "Sing-A-Long Wizard of Oz" events near Chicago and in Kansas City, Kan., in 2002. Swenson, who also has never been to Alaska, will attend a sing-a-long later this year in his home state of Texas, he said.

"It's a lot of fun to get out and meet the public," Swenson, 86, said in an interview from his home Tuesday. "We get excited because they get so excited."

"Sing-A-Long Wizard of Oz" is a subtitled 35-millimeter restored original of the film that encourages audiences to sing with the characters.

Juneau shows will run at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday at Gross Alaska Theatre downtown. Sunday will also feature a 6:30 p.m. showing. Tickets are $12 for general admission, and $8 for students and senior citizens. Tickets are available at Observatory Bookstore, Rainy Day Books and Hearthside Books.

The Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, with help from Gross Alaska, is presenting the film.

The council contracted with Broadway in Chicago to get the film and fun packs designed for an interactive audience, said Ben Brown, a JAHC board member who brought the event to Juneau.

Brown said last winter's Juneau-Douglas High School production of the story primed the community for the event.

"That should invigorate an already solid base of Wizard of Oz lovers," Brown said.

The packs come with a plastic kazoo, bubbles, noisemaker and magic wand. Two emcees per show will help direct the audience on when to use the toys throughout the movie.

The audience is encouraged to dress up. The top three costumes will win prizes. They will be judged on applause.

Brown, who will be an emcee, said his costume is a surprise. JAHC board member Amy Dressel, also an emcee, is coming as Dorothy, the lead character played by Judy Garland.

"I know this is one of the most beloved children's musicals," Dressel said. "I know kids everywhere love it and every little girl loves Dorothy and wants to dress up as Dorothy."

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the film, but many will see it for the first time on the big screen at a sing-a-long, said Alyssa Dyksterhouse, a spokeswoman at Broadway in Chicago.

"You look around the venue and see Dorothys, Glindas, Scarecrows and flying monkeys of all ages and you realize there is something about this show that brings out the child in everyone."

Juneau is the first city in Alaska to get "Sing-A-Long Wizard of Oz," she said. It will be in Anchorage in the spring.

Brown and Dressel feel the event will be just as good or better than last year's "Sing-A-Long Sound of Music," also presented by JAHC. Brown added a fourth performance this year, and hopes to get 1,000 people to attend, he said.

Meanwhile, Pellegrini and Swenson will continue touring and hope to some day come to Alaska, they said.

They met at the 50th anniversary of the movie in Liberal, Kan., in 1989. All of the actors in the movie are dead except for 10 munchkins, of whom only six travel, they said. The two did not meet during the filming of the movie, which included 124 munchkins who welcomed Dorothy after her house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East in the imaginary Land of Oz. MGM wanted 300 munchkins but could not get them, the actors said.

Pellegrini, then 15, and Swenson, 21, headed to Hollywood in 1938 after fellow "little people" with California connections gave their names to movie executives, they said. They were paid $50 per week, less than Dorothy's dog Toto, who made $125 a week, Pellegrini said.

Neither actor had a speaking part in the film, but they talked to Garland quite a bit on Stage 27 of the studio lot, they said.

"Judy Garland was a typical teenager and as sweet as she could be," Pellegrini said. "It's a shame she's not here to see how much people love that movie. No one will ever sing 'Over the Rainbow' like her."

Hundreds will try in Juneau this weekend.

• Tara Sidor can be reached at tara.sidor@juneauempire.com

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