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Munchkins

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Somehow we missed them on our first stroll around the tables, even though they were wearing large cloth flowerpots on their heads. They're just so darned short: after all, they are Munchkins.

Actually we heard them before we saw them: "The photos are for sale. Buy a photo and we'll sign it. Only five dollars. We're both in 'em." A line of adults sifting through black-and-white movie stills stood in front of their long table, blocking our view.

I steered my kids around the Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster (a woman on the verge of dismemberment), passed the table of Marilyn Monroe postcards, and finally found space in the crowd standing next to a pile of Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion windup toys.

Eventually the Munchkins came into view, their puffy little dresses brightly colored, their cheeks smeared with makeup the color of red clay.

Of the 124 Munchkins who appeared in The Wizard of Oz, only 23 survive. These two--Fern Formica and Margaret Pellegrini--were the highlights of the Chicagoland Hollywoodfest held recently at the Holiday Inn in Evanston. Now both in their mid-60s, they traveled here from afar--Formica from California and Pellegrini from Arizona--to be stared at and photographed and to sell their wares.

At the age of six, my son Michael has seen The Wizard of Oz more than 100 times--at one point in his short life he insisted on viewing it every day. Now at eye level with the characters he loves, he wouldn't look at them. "They're not Munchkins," he whispered to me. "They're too old!" He drifted over to the Popeye cartoon being shown nearby and refused to come back.

I picked up two photos of the Munchkins with Judy Garland and handed them to Formica. "What's the matter with him?" she asked. "Doesn't he know who we are?" I shrugged my shoulders. She scribbled her name and passed them on to Pellegrini, who was busy with other customers.

What does one say to a Munchkin? I glanced down to see Aljean Harmetz's book, The Making of the Wizard of Oz. Before I could say anything, Formica pointed toward it: "I don't like that book. Too many facts, not enough fantasy."

The man next to me retrieved his autographed photos and asked for a plastic Oz bag hanging behind the two celebrities. "They're collector's items," Pellegrini snapped at him. "We don't just give them away." He walked off, bagless.

Pellegrini, one of the Sleepy Heads of Oz, turned her attention to my four-year-old, David. "How's it feel to see a real Munchkin?" she asked him. David lowered his eyes. "Munchkins aren't real," he shot back. "They're only on TV." Then he rushed over to the table across from us, filled with comic books of Mission: Impossible and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He was interested in a plastic 007 pistol for sale.

"My boys must be overwhelmed with all of this," I lied, picking up the photos the two had signed "Munchkin Love."

Formica wrinkled up her nose. "It'll mean a lot to them when they're ready for college. They can sell those photos and make a lot of money."

Sure, if they go to the University of Emerald City. But before I could respond, the Munchkins were already with their next customer: "They're all five dollars. We're both in 'em . . . "

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