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.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

My Gay Relatives: Sally Balcomb and Betty Rodgers

Decaying sign for Bal-rone's Ashland Airport, 1967.
Time for some females in this series of posts on My Gay Relatives. In previous entries here and here I mentioned how the past doesn’t always reveal its secrets and that determining whether a past relative is gay is often difficult in a culture that historically tends to erase the fact of people being gay. But sometimes secrets are hidden in plain sight. Sometimes the people surrounding those secrets just don’t want to see them.

That seems to have been the case with my first cousin twice removed Sally Balcomb (1927-2007) and her longtime companion Betty Jean Rodgers (b. 1929). Sally was my paternal grandmother’s first cousin. My father recalls his family speaking casually and matter-of-factly about Sally and Betty—their two names together formed a unit. But it wasn’t until I was an adult that Dad finally put two and two together and realized that Sally and Betty were lesbians.

I can’t imagine that my father’s parents, Stanley Raymond Shanower (1917-1987) and Verna Lucille Evans Shanower, Sally’s cousin, didn’t recognize the situation. I believe they just chose not to think about it. My grandfather Stanley Shanower discussed homosexuality with me when I was twelve years old. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but I remember what he said about it. His understanding was that sometimes mothers dressed their sons in female clothing when the sons were young and those sons grew up to be homosexual. Even at twelve I thought this sounded a bit ridiculous, but I wasn’t about to argue with Grandpa on what I found to be an uncomfortable subject. Notice that he didn’t even begin to address female homosexuality. I bet it didn’t cross his mind at the time.

My grandmother Lucille knows that I’m gay. She’s met my partner David plenty of times and always mentions him in letters and when I speak to her on the phone. But I’ve never brought up the subject of my being gay with her in conversation. What I think is this—that Grandma can handle it if she’s not confronted with it.

And that’s what I think the family attitude was toward Sally and Betty.

Sally Balcomb was born in Elyria, Lorain County, Ohio, the daughter of my great-great-aunt Inez Irene Grandy Balcomb Kolinski (1892-1996) and Nelson Henry Balcomb (1888-1932). When Sally was five years old her father died. One afternoon Nelson Balcomb left in his car for a hunting trip. That evening his car was found burning, his body charred, the two shells in his shotgun discharged. His death was labeled a homicide. I have no idea whether Nelson Balcomb’s killer was ever caught, but it’s likely Nelson was a victim of the gang violence of Prohibition because of his job as a court stenographer. He’d been the stenographer during a highly-publicized libel suit two and a half years previous, in which William Peer sued Lorain Journal publisher David Gibson for labeling Peer a bootlegger. It was the longest trial of any kind in the history of Lorain County, Ohio, to that point. That case, or cases like it, brought Nelson Balcomb into contact with men who killed in ways similar to Nelson’s death. The police at the time acknowledged the similarity.

In any case, the 1932 death of Nelson Balcomb left five-year-old Sally fatherless. Sally and her mother Inez spent a lot of time visiting their friends, Mr. and Mrs. H. H. Gregg. Inez married again, in 1939, to Gust Kolinski (1879-1952), insurance salesman and real estate agent. Gust died of a heart attack in 1952.

Sally’s greatest enthusiasm seems to have been for aircraft. They became a major focus of her life. She learned to fly at the Ortner Airport in Birmingham, Ohio, and in Kansas City.

In 1954 Sally formed a partnership with Daniel Terlaak to purchase airplanes. They bought and sold airplanes and airplane parts. Eventually the partnership developed legal troubles. Workers sued them and Sally sued Daniel. After several years, the partnership dissolved. Sally went on to bigger things.

Bal-rone incorporates, 1959. Sally's signature is barely legible.
On February 13, 1959, Sally formed another partnership with Gary Mucciarone and Norman Cougill, both of Cleveland, Ohio. They called the company Bal-rone, Inc., a name formed from the first syllable of Balcomb and the final syllable of Mucciarone. Sally, as company agent, planned to lease the private Ashland Airport, in Ashland, Ashland County, Ohio, just off US Highway 250. Lawyer Kenneth R. Kolinski (1902-1975), Sally’s stepbrother from her stepfather’s first marriage, represented Bal-rone’s interests. In 1961 Sally purchased the thirty-year-old Ashland Airport, which had seen a lot of aviation history.

At first things went well for Bal-rone Inc. and its small airport. Sally continued to buy and sell aircraft and aircraft parts. She formed a local chapter of the Experimental Aviation Association and in 1963 the association gave her an award.

On September 2, 1965, tragedy occurred. A pilot crashed a Bal-rone airplane in Perrysville, Ohio, and died. A confidential report noted severe mental depression of the pilot and other indications of suicide.

This accident may or may not have been a contributing factor to Sally’s next step, distancing herself from Ashland Airport. More likely she was influenced by the growing desire of Ashland County to build its own county airport. On April 1, 1966, Sally leased Ashland Airport to the American Tower Company, Inc., of Shelby, Ohio. But when the one-year lease was up on March 31, 1967, American Tower declined to renew it, citing lost revenue. Ashland County, meanwhile, proceeded with its plans for a county airport. There were delays to those plans—including a lawsuit to stop the county from going ahead. There was also talk of turning Ashland Airport into the new county airport. But eventually the Ashland County Airport was built elsewhere.

Ashland Airport's final days, 1967.
At the end of 1971, Bal-rone Inc. filed dissolution papers with the state of Ohio.

I don’t know where or when Sally met Betty. Unlike airports, gay couples didn’t start to make the news until comparatively recently. But Sally and Betty were together for decades.

I met Sally Balcomb and Betty Rodgers only once that I know of—at the Methodist Church memorial service for my grandfather Stanley Shanower in Mentor, Lake County, Ohio, in May 1987. After the service there was a reception in the church hall. Two older women approached me and introduced themselves—Sally Balcomb and Betty Rogers. I’d never met them before, but as soon as they spoke to me I vaguely suspected that they were the two relatives that Dad had realized were lesbians.

I’m sure Sally and Betty suspected strongly that I was gay, but they didn’t talk to me openly about it. They were cleverer than that. They communicated indirectly. They knew I was a cartoonist, so they brought up Howard Cruse, the most famous gay cartoonist in the USA. I hadn’t met Howard then, but I was well aware of his career and said so. I was also very uncomfortable. It would still be a little over six months before I finally faced head-on the fact that I was gay. So I didn’t really talk with Sally and Betty about anything of substance. Now I wish I had. I may be projecting in retrospect, but the sense I got from them was that they were secure and content with who they were.

I mentioned Sally and Betty to my grandmother when I saw her last year. As far as Grandma knew they were still alive. I’ve subsequently found that Sally died in 2007. In Sally’s obituary, Betty is called Sally’s sister. Sister?—whether that’s coy, obfuscating, or just ignorant of the facts, it indicates Betty was still alive. Yet I can’t find her. The telephone number Grandma gave me is no longer in service. I assume I won’t be speaking with Betty ever again.

But at least I talked with Sally and Betty about Howard Cruse.

Cartoonist Howard Cruse and some of his creations.