Sixty-eight years ago, a four-foot-seven actor named Mickey Carroll — then just eighteen years old — donned a purple elf's outfit and joined some 130 fellow Munchkins in filming The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy's tornado-tossed house killed the Wicked Witch of the East, Carroll's character memorably effused: "We thank you very sweetly, for doing it so neatly."
Later in the iconic 1939 film, Carroll is seen as one of the tiny soldiers parading Dorothy through Munchkin Land. Many of the performers who played Munchkins had fled Nazi Germany for fear of persecution, and it was Carroll who provided their voice-overs. It's his voice, in fact, that first advises Dorothy to "follow the yellow brick road."
Today, the 87-year-old Carroll is one of just nine surviving Munchkins from the classic movie, and each passing year seems to bring him ever-greater recognition. Last week Carroll and his fellow Munchkins were inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In April 2006 Carroll earned a star on the Missouri Walk of Fame in Marshfield.
Surprisingly, no similar honor awaits Carroll in his hometown of St. Louis — but it's not for lack of trying. Since early spring Carroll's caretaker and friend Linda Dodge has distributed thousands of petitions urging Joe Edwards, founder of the St. Louis Walk of Fame in the Delmar Loop, to honor the Munchkin with a gold star. Dodge says everyone she's presented the petitions to is thrilled with the idea. Everyone, that is, except Edwards.
"Mickey and I ran into Joe two years ago at an Albert Pujols benefit dinner," recalls the 46-year-old Dodge. "We mentioned that Mickey was being considered for a Hollywood star and asked why he didn't have a star here in St. Louis. Joe was very noncommittal. He acted like he didn't want Mickey to have a star."
In recent weeks, Edwards estimates, he's received several hundred of Dodge's petitions signed by Munchkin enthusiasts across the region. Edwards says he wrote back to the first few people who sent him the letters but has now taken to throwing the petitions out.
"I think Mickey is a wonderful person, and I'm a huge fan of the movie," says Edwards, who first organized the Walk of Fame in 1988 as a way to showcase significant St. Louisans. "But inductees into the Walk of Fame are chosen by a committee. No volume of letters I receive about an individual nominee is going to change that."
The letter — available on Carroll's Web site, www.munchkinmickeycarroll.com — states that the actor began his career taking free dance lessons at the Fox Theatre. By the age of ten, a hormonal disorder permanently stunted Carroll's growth, and he found work as a singer and dancer in vaudeville. He was signed to MGM in the late 1930s when he met Judy Garland, who played Dorothy. Carroll says it was Garland who offered him a role as a Munchkin.
Carroll's modest bungalow in the north St. Louis suburb of Bel-Nor stands as a time capsule of his days in showbiz. Wizard of Oz bric-a-brac lines the walls. Scrapbooks burst with photos of him warming up the crowd for Harry Truman, or dressed as a tiny Mae West in his vaudeville days.
"I was a song-and-dance man for gangsters," boasts the 72-pound Carroll, who claims his real-life godfather was the Godfather, Al Capone. "My dad and he were friends from Brooklyn. I worked Capone's clubs in Chicago."
The ex-Munchkin also says Ripley's Believe It or Not once named him the fastest dancer in all the land. A lifelong Cardinals fan, Carroll cites a USA Today article from earlier this year in which he says Tony La Russa credits him with the team winning the World Series last October. A close read of that article, though, has the quote coming from Carroll, not the Redbirds' skipper.
Honest mistake or gross hyperbole? That's the question Joe Edwards has aimed at Carroll and Linda Dodge. Edwards says he's been unable to verify several statements made on the Munchkin's petition letter, including a claim that Carroll appeared in the Spanky and Our Gang series.
"I haven't been able to verify it," says Edwards. "I told them if they can show me what episodes he was in, that would help me a lot. Finally, they called me and said I was right. Apparently he wasn't on the show."
Edwards says he reviews every candidate's qualifications before passing the information along to the 120-person committee that ultimately decides who is inducted into the Walk of Fame. Composed of librarians, historians, journalists, academics and past Walk of Fame inductees, the committee makes its decision on the basis of two categories: a nominee's impact on the nation's culture and heritage, and his or her ties to St. Louis.
"These aren't just film stars," notes Edwards. "They're scientists, authors, educators and professional athletes. With just two to three people chosen each year, it's getting harder and harder to get in." Among the first round of inductees to the St. Louis Walk of Fame were Chuck Berry, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Pulitzer and architect James Eads.
In the case of Mickey Carroll, Edwards says, he'll wait until the last minute to pass along the ex-Munchkin's letter of recommendation to the committee. But, he warns, the biographical information had better be accurate.
Linda Dodge argues that many of Carroll's deals in vaudeville were struck with a handshake, and the few contracts he did sign have been lost to time. Besides, Dodge contends, Carroll's role in The Wizard of Oz should suffice.
After his career in vaudeville ended in the 1940s, Carroll took over his family's St. Louis business, making and selling cemetery headstones. He's also used his celebrity status from The Wizard of Oz to raise thousands of dollars for local charities.
"Here's a guy who made a movie that's an American icon, and after years and years he's still in his hometown of St. Louis," says Dodge. "He's had the heart, the courage and the brains to persevere — he meets the Walk of Fame qualifications."
Last month entertainment heavies — including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Roger Ebert, Ted Turner and Hugh Hefner — penned letters to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, urging it to give Carroll and his fellow Munchkins a star. Chicago theater-owner Ted Bulthaup put up $25,000 to back the Munchkin's nomination for the Hollywood star.
"He doesn't have a star in St. Louis?" asks an incredulous Bulthaup. "Well, I know St. Louis has produced some fine people, but years from now people's grandchildren are going to know the Munchkins. Few characters are that universal."
In September Edwards will mail out the list of this year's nominees to the committee. It remains unclear whether Carroll will make the cut, and the former Munchkin worries he may not live to see the day the committee finally grants him the honor.
"I was born here and I'll die here," says Carroll. "I love St. Louis. But gee whiz: What's it take for someone to get a star?" What does an old Munchkin have to do to earn a place on the St. Louis Walk of Fame?