Friday, November 8, 2013

The Over-the-Rainbow Connection

What relative peeks over Harry Doll's shoulder?
This blog post could fall into the My Famous Relatives series as well as the Cousins in Common series. How does that work, you might ask. Read on.

Margaret Williams Pellegrini died three months ago on August 7, 2013. Margaret was one of the last surviving little people to play a Munchkin in the 1939 MGM motion picture version of The Wizard of Oz—you know, the famous one starring Judy Garland. I learned of Margaret’s death that day when my cousin Vikki Colgrove Young posted the news to my Facebook page. Along with her post Vikki, who’s also interested in family genealogy, commented about us being related to a Munchkin. I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t.

Vikki didn’t mean we were related to Margaret Pellegrini. That would have been amazing. I knew Margaret a little bit from Oz conventions we’d both attended. In the early 1990s I’d sat next to her at dinner at a Winkie Con in Pacific Grove, California, and told her about turning The Wizard of Oz movie into a drinking game. (There’s only one rule: every time the word “wizard” is said or appears, you take a drink.) Margaret wasn’t particularly charmed. But she didn’t hold it against me. The last time I saw her was at the International Wizard of Oz Club’s Holland, Michigan, convention in August 2012. But I’m not related to Margaret—as far as I know.

Margaret Williams Pellegrini works the crowd at Oz-stravaganza! 2011 in L. Frank Baum's birthplace of Chittenango, New York. I'm in the background, cracking up with everyone else. Notice the "Deadly Poppy Field" lurking behind us. Photo courtesy Marc R. Baum. Used with permission.

The Munchkin actor that Vikki meant was Carolyn E. Granger (1915-1973). I had never heard anything about being related to a Munchkin actor before Vikki mentioned it, but once I found out it was true, I wanted to know more. It turns out that my family connection to Carolyn Granger is not by blood. It's pretty tenuous. The connection is on my mother’s side. Here’s how it goes:

My great-great-aunt Selma Marie Hietanen Filppi (1892-1978) married Victor Michael Filppi (1893-1966). Victor Filppi’s first cousin Arvo William “Chill” Filppi (1915-1987) married Maxine Julia “Mickey” Granger Filppi (1914-2005). Mickey Granger Filppi’s sister was Carolyn Granger. To recast that more concisely, Carolyn Granger’s sister married my great-great-uncle’s cousin.

The matter gets more interesting. You might recall that in a blog post a few months ago I explained how Vikki Colgrove Young and her sister Becki Colgrove Siler are cousins both to my partner David Maxine and to me. Vikki and Becki's great-grandfather was the Victor Filppi I mentioned above. So that means David also has a family connection to Carolyn Granger. What are the odds of both of us being connected to the same Munchkin actor? Here's David's line of connection:

David’s great-great-grandfather was David F. Sellers (1845-1927). David Sellers’s great-great-great-grandaughter is Vikki Colgrove Young. Vikki’s great-grandfather was Victor Michael Filppi. Victor Filppi’s first cousin Arvo William “Chill” Filppi married Maxine Julia “Mickey” Granger Filppi. Mickey Granger Filppi’s sister was Carolyn Granger.

Even more interesting, I found a second family connection to Carolyn. Yes, that’s right, a completely different connection, this time on my father’s side of the family. It goes like this:

Carolyn Granger’s eight times great-grandfather was John Howland (abt. 1591-1672/3), a passenger on the Mayflower. I have no idea whether Carolyn Granger was aware she was a direct descendant of a Mayflower passenger. Other descendants of John Howland include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Brigham Young, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Humphrey Bogart, and Sarah Palin. The list goes on. Anyway, John Howland’s great-granddaughter was Patience Howland (1749-1791). Patience Howland married Benjamin Rider (1733-1804). Benjamin Rider’s great-grandfather was Samuel Rider (1601-1679). Samuel Rider was my nine times great-grandfather. I know that’s a very long chain of connection. If you want the details, you can click this link to The Maxine Family website or the link on the upper right and trace the generations for yourself.

The Wizard of Oz is a classic motion picture based on a classic book by L. Frank Baum. It’s a movie loved by millions. But really, you might ask, despite the movie’s celebrated status, why are David's and my tenuous relationships to a minor actor in it such a big deal? The big deal is that both David and I have been major Oz fans since we were kids. I’ve been reading, watching, drawing, writing, listening to, and playing Oz since I was six years old. Half my career has had something to do with Oz. I’ve won three Eisner Awards and made the New York Times graphic novel best seller list because of Oz. Many of my closest and longest-lasting friendships were formed because of Oz. I met David because of Oz.

So finding I have even a tenuous family connection to Wizard of Oz actor Carolyn E. Granger was exciting.

Carolyn was born exactly ninety-eight years ago today on November 8, 1915, in Chardon, Geauga County, Ohio. Her parents were John Horace Granger (1881-1972) and Niona F. Halsey Granger (1886-1974). Carolyn had ten siblings, six of whom lived to adulthood.

When Carolyn wasn’t performing elsewhere, Chardon, Ohio, remained her home all her life. That was another startling revelation. For all my life I’ve had relatives in Chardon. I can’t count the number of times I’ve visited there. By the time Carolyn Granger died in 1973 I’d been a diehard Oz fan for three years. If I’d been able to meet a Munchkin actor during a family visit to Chardon back in the early 1970s, it would have meant a great deal to me. This lost potential—this ships passing in the night situation—was frustrating to realize.

In the early 1930s Carolyn Granger joined the Harvey Williams midget troupe. This was a group of little people who traveled around the country and performed vaudeville revues in venues such as county fairs. In 1938 all the members of the Harvey Williams troupe were hired to play Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

The Harvey Williams midget troupe, circa late 1930s. All these people played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Carolyn E. Granger (1915-1973) is second from the right, as her name at the bottom says. Ruth Robinson Duccini, one of the two little person Munchkin actors alive today, stands in the center of the group. The leader of the troupe, Harvey B. Williams, stands third from left. His wife Grace Gould Williams, stands second from left. Harvey and Grace were married at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair while the troupe was performing there.

Another member of the troupe was Ruth Robinson Duccini. Ruth is one of two little people still alive who played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. I recently spoke with Ruth on the phone. Back in 1933-34, the Harvey Williams midget troupe performed at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Ruth had a chance to see them perform at another venue in Chicago, so she went. They asked her to join the troupe and she eventually did in 1937 after graduating from high school. Carolyn was already a member.

Ruth sang and danced with the Harvey Williams troupe, although she says she didn’t do either very well. Singing and dancing are what Carolyn did, too, although Ruth doesn’t remember specifics about Carolyn’s performances. Ruth says that Carolyn was nice, but that she sometimes didn’t feel too well. When I told Ruth that Carolyn died at age fifty-eight, Ruth wasn’t surprised. I guess Carolyn’s health was delicate. Maybe it was a family trait—four of her siblings died before they were out of their teens.

In 1938 MGM studios hired Leo Singer to supply 124 little people to play Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Singer managed the largest troupe of little people performers in the USA at the time, about thirty. He scrambled to find more little people to fulfill his commitment, and still he fell short of the quota. Singer contracted with the members of the Harvey Williams troupe, and they all traveled to Hollywood. Many of the little people working on the film stayed at the Culver Hotel in Culver City, California, but the Harvey Williams troupe stayed in a private home in Culver City. The men slept in back of the house and the women, including Ruth and Carolyn, slept in the front. That house is gone now, turned into a commercial property.

Members of the Harvey Williams troupe and others stand in front of the Culver City, California, house they stayed in during work on The Wizard of Oz in late 1938. Carolyn Granger stands left of center, indicated by the red arrow. Ruth Robinson Duccini stands on the far right. Photo courtesy Ruth Robinson Duccini. Used with permission.

I’m not going to give yet another history of the filming of The Wizard of Oz and the Munchkin actors’ participation. That’s been recorded elsewhere. If you’re interested, Steve Cox’s book The Munchkins of Oz is a good general account of the little people’s experiences on the movie and afterward. (Thanks, Steve, for all your help researching Carolyn Granger.)

Some of the Munchkin actors have also written books detailing their Wizard of Oz experiences, including Memories of a Munchkin by Meinhardt Raabe, who played the Munchkin coroner—several times Meinhardt mentioned to me at Oz conventions that the name Shanower was of German origin and I wish I could tell him now that I’ve discovered the name goes back beyond Germany to Switzerland—and Short and Sweet by Jerry Maren, the other of the two little people still alive who played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Jerry played the Lollipop Guild member that hands a lollipop to Dorothy.

Carolyn Granger stands on the left in the front row in what appears to be a color test of the Munchkins in costume on The Wizard of Oz Munchkinland set. Jerry Maren stands center, to the right of Carolyn. The original of this picture is in the Technicolor Collection of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Leo Singer wasn’t always on the legal up-and-up with the little people he contracted with for The Wizard of Oz. In mid-November of 1938 MGM asked for a revised contract with many of the little people. Carolyn’s signature is the first one on the revised contract.

The revised contract between many of the Munchkin actors and MGM (Loew's Inc.). Carolyn's signature appears first. Ruth Robinson Duccini's signature is the second one on the right. Most, if not all, of the signatures on this first page of the revised contract appear to be from members of the Harvey Williams troupe.

I don’t know how long Carolyn Granger stayed with the Harvey Williams midget troupe after her work on The Wizard of Oz was finished in late 1938. She and Ruth Robinson Duccini both continued performing with the troupe for a time, since a newspaper article in the Mason City, Iowa, Globe Gazette mentions them both singing, tap-dancing, and cavorting across the stage in May 1941. One particular performance in the Ozarks stands out for Ruth. The people in the audience were so surprised to see little people that they stared at the performers as if they’d appeared “from under a rock.” During the early days of World War II the troupe performed in army camps in the south. Ruth left the troupe when she got a job with Douglas Aircraft during the war and then married in 1943.

Carolyn Granger is listed in the 1940 US Federal Census with her family at 106 Huntington Street in Chardon, Ohio. The Granger family appears in the census immediately after the family of Roy Robert Grant (1897-1988), my second cousin twice removed. (You can see a young Roy in the Grant photo I discussed in the blog post here.) The Grants lived about a block away from the Grangers on Town Line Road, which I believe is now Grant Street. Surely the Grants would have been aware of their neighbors the Grangers, and especially of Carolyn, then in her mid-twenties. As a little person she would have been noticeable.

The 1940 US Federal Census for Chardon, Geauga County, Ohio, lists the Granger family immediately following the Grant family. Remember, you can click on any picture on the Several Times Removed blog to see it larger.

I wanted to notice Carolyn in The Wizard of Oz after I learned of my family connection to her. I’ve seen the movie many times and can recognize Munchkin actors that I’ve met. But which of those many Munchkins dancing and singing to Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road was Carolyn Granger? I located a couple photos of Carolyn in books about The Wizard of Oz movie and tried to impress her features into my brain. Last September the movie was re-released to theaters in a newly developed 3-D version for IMAX. David and I drove up to Hollywood to see it at Grauman’s Theater, where it premiered back in 1939. The movie looked beautiful. The new 3-D was tastefully done. But I didn’t spot Carolyn.

David and I saw the movie again a week or so later in San Diego at the Mission Valley Center AMC theater. It was sloppily framed and didn’t look as bright and shiny as the Hollywood screening. But it was still The Wizard of Oz. As usual, just after the Lollipop Guild finished welcoming Dorothy to Munchkinland, the Munchkins surged forward, singing “tra la la la la.” Suddenly there was Carolyn, just to the left of Judy Garland, jumping up and down with a big smile on her face. I’d recognized her.

Carolyn E. Granger plays a Munchkin in the 1939 MGM motion picture version of The Wizard of Oz. There she is just right of center, standing in the front row of the Munchkin crowd. The red arrow points to her. In the picture at the top of this blog post Carolyn Granger is peeking directly over the shoulder of one of the Lollipop Guild members, played by Harry Doll. Her face is just to the right of his.

At home afterward David and I watched the Munchkinland sequence again on dvd in order to make sure I’d been correct and so that we could pick out Carolyn in the rest of the scene. She stands in the front line of the crowd of Munchkins all during the Lullaby League and the Lollipop Guild songs, although she’s often obscured as the singers move back and forth. She’s fleetingly visible a few more times. But the moments where I’d first recognized her just before the Wicked Witch of the West arrives are the moments she’s most visible. Despite her death forty years ago, our distant cousin-by-marriage still looks so happy in those moments. She’ll look that happy as long as the 1939 motion picture version of The Wizard of Oz lasts. That ought to be a very long time.

If you’re an Oz fan, the journey over the rainbow never has to end. Oz has so many aspects, so many branches, there’s always something more, something new, something fascinating to discover and learn about. For me Carolyn Granger has been yet another fascinating aspect of the Oz phenomenon, but one that’s very personal because of my family connections to her.

Many of the Munchkin actors autographed this copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Carolyn's signature appears about halfway down the right hand column. Margaret Williams Pellegrini signed two names below Carolyn.

16 comments:

  1. Great read, Eric! Really interesting! Thank you for sharing.

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  2. My great(x13)-grandfather was John Howland, which I guess makes me a cousin of Carolyn Granger and you guys. Of course, finding cousins in America through John Howland is kind of like linking through "JFK" in the Kevin Bacon game—too easy.

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  3. Now that is simply too amazing. What a great story. Judy Bieber

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  4. I am the niece of Carolyn Granger! Good article.

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  5. Thank you enjoyed the photos and I am sorry to learn of Ruth's passing.

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  6. I remember Carolyn Granger growing up on 113 Huntington, she was my baby-sitter for my mom, Beverly J. Carver, There were 4 other sibling at 113 Huntington St, My name was Charles Phelps, and the others were Cheryl, Lisa, Chris, and Paul Carver. She baby sit us while our mother was working. She baby sit us the longest. She was quite the lady.

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  7. Carolyn was our family babysitter growing up. We loved her!!! Thanks for posting the article and the photos. Very enjoyable to read and look at pix.

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  8. where did the page signed from the Munchkins come from? that is a unique collection of signatures.. who is the holder of that...

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  9. I don't know who owns the autographed page of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I'd love to hear from anyone who knew Carolyn Granger and has memories of her.

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    1. Carolyn Granger was my aunt and I have very fond memories of her. She died of meningitis in 1973, she babysat for my then newborn son and 16 month old daughter the week before she was diagnosed. She passed away about 2 weeks later, I got the call that she had died.

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    2. Thanks for your additions to Carolyn's story, Anonymous. She died much too young.

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  10. I was born on Huntington and south hambden street in 1950 and grew up across the street at 125 Huntington street. I grew up with Carolyn and the nieces and nephews being neighbors. I actually moved into their house after They moved out when I got out of the Air Force . All the kids on Huntington and neighboring streets were great fun. Many great memories from the 50's and 60's in the old neighborhood.
    You have a great story here.

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  11. Hi, Dean, thanks for your comment. I was just in Chardon a couple months ago and whenever I'm in town I always take a look at the Granger house when I drive past. Did you know any McNaughtons growing up?

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  12. Carolyn was my great-great aunt! I was too young to have the pleasure of meeting her, but it's always been a fun family tradition to watch The Wizard of Oz and point her out. Thanks for hunting down and sharing a few more details about Carolyn's experience!

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  13. Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. It's fun to spot Carolyn in her immortal film role.

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