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Mickey Carroll, Munchkin in the Wizard of Oz (1939) in St. Louis - - 1995 | by Gary Mark Smith * Global Streetphoto Man
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Mickey Carroll, Munchkin in the Wizard of Oz (1939) in St. Louis - - 1995

*It was the darnedest thing…

 

In the fall of 1995 I was exiled from Kansas - - stuck at Purdue University suffering my master degree experience there and going bonkers in Indiana. An academic photography conference in St. Louis materialized as a legitimate excuse, so I called Janet up and told her to meet me at the Arch and I bugged out of teaching for a couple of days away from the madness of West Lafayette.

 

I’ll get you my pretty . . . and your little dog too!!

 

Janet blew in from Lawrence just in time, and so there was no way I was going to spend any of my breakaway indoors at a hotel listening to academic droids babble on about theory. As far as I was concerned, it was prime time for practice, and an idea I’d had about photographing the streets of common graveyards (inspired by the morbid dark-side funk I was living amongst at Purdue) popped into my head. I grabbed the phone book in the hotel nightstand to scout out the cemeteries of St. Louis and came across an advertisement for a place called OZ Cemetery Monuments that was down the street from one of St. Louis’ largest Cemeteries.

 

I called the place up and I wondered to the man who answered the phone how a cemetery monument outfit in Missouri (of all places) could end up being called OZ? He introduced himself as, one of the last surviving Munchkin actors from the Wizard of Oz movie, and he invited Janet and I to stop by his shop for a visit.

I’d successfully escaped from Indiana, Janet was with me again at my side for the first time in a month, and now via a street photography excuse, I’d stumbled into a once-in-a-lifetime Emerald City experience by accident. I hung up the telephone and the fog of the master degree flogging I’d been taking lifted like sleep in an enchanted spellbound poppy field - - replaced by an alarming childlike glee. I turned to a puzzled Janet and I said to her: Get dressed honey . . . I’m taking you out on the town to meet a Munchkin!

 

We still couldn’t believe that we weren’t in the middle of a dream when we pulled into the parking lot of Oz Cemetery Monuments and I was certain by then that I'd be taking no street photographs today. We walked into a cemetery monument warehouse showroom full of grave markers of many sizes and standard colors and of just about every type available on the 1995 market - - all set up in tidy rows for easy shopping. Three of the walls were occupied by windows or posted with technical information about available cemetery products. But the fourth wall was a shrine to the Wizard of Oz, dominated by a huge painted cardboard rainbow trimmed in blinking Christmas lights with posters of Dorothy and photographs of a Munchkin actor and Judy Garland in street cloths. - - - the extreme glee of that wall so outside the typical pall of such necessary places as cemetery monument factories…

 

A short man - - dressed buttoned down in a festive sweater vest with a smart Ivy newsboy cap on his head - - dismounted his desk chair in his windowed office and moved right toward us through the open door with an outstretched hand and a fiercely genuine smile. Hello, my name is Mickey Carroll, he said, and for the next hour the three of us sat around the shop and toured his monument-engraving facility next door. Of course we chatted about his role in the movie. He played the part of the Town Crier, and doubled as a Munchkin soldier and as the candy-striped Fiddler who escorted Dorothy to the beginning of her walk down the Yellow-Brick Road. But what was most interesting was to hear Mickey’s stories about growing up in the monument chiseling business, about how his father (an Italian immigrant) had made all the epitaphs by hand in the old days, with a hammer and a chisel, and about how he had carried on - - now too old and too mechanized to do much chiseling any more.

 

At the end of our conversation Mickey went into his office and came out with Mickey Carroll Wizard of Oz mugs and signed photographs to give Janet and I as gifts. Touched, we got Mickey to pose (with a hammer and chisel and grave-digging shovel of old) reclining on one of his Oz Cemetery Monument gravestones, the brightly painted cardboard Wizard of Oz rainbow arcing out above he and memorabilia from the movie on the wall, including a Yellow Brick Road street sign.

 

At last! A streetphoto opportunity! And a very memorable one at that…

 

A couple of days later Janet clicked her heels together and headed back to Kansas, me going in the other direction for another dark spell in Indiana at the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West.

 

Only months after our encounters, (I talked to him on the telephone a couple more times that year and mailed him a copy of the photograph I made of him that day,) he sold his cemetery monument business and retired to making appearances as one of the only surviving Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz. But one of the things I’ll always remember Mickey telling us on that memorable day was that he had his dignity, and although he made quite a decent extra living appearing at MGM Wizard of Oz promotions to sign photographs and sell mugs and such to the fans, he’d never agree to do it in a Munchkin costume. Saying that he’d only agree to make those appearances as the actor Mickey Carroll (formerly Michael Finocchiaro) of the Bel-Nor neighborhood of St. Louis - - and never as just a Munchkin.

 

The last time Janet and I ran into Mickey was a few years ago on Freemont Street in Las Vegas. He was there to make appearances and to sell Oz memorabilia and he remembered Janet and I immediately, that fierce and genuine smile lighting up his face even amongst all the glare of the Freemont Street Experience light extravaganza glittering all around and above us. And to the chagrin of his MGM handlers, the sweetest 85-year old man who’d ever once been a Munchkin in a movie - - one of the last surviving actors from the Wizard of Oz - - came out from behind the memorabilia kiosk, grabbed Janet and I by our hands, dragged us out into the middle of Freemont Street foot traffic, and did a half-minute jig with us - - - arms and legs flapping and flailing with childlike glee…

 

As of yesterday at the age of nearly 90, Mickey Carroll is off to see the Wizard...

 

May all his Yellow Brick Roads lead home …

 

 

The New York Times Mickey Carroll Obituary:

www.nytimes.com/2009/05/08/arts/08carroll.html

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Taken on May 8, 2009