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Tue, Dec. 10

Over the rainbow and back again


The Daily Courier

PRESCOTT ­ In 1938, 15-year-old Margaret Pellegrini boarded a train in Alabama and, with $5 in her pocket, traveled to Hollywood, Calif.

The teenager did not know she soon would be part of motion picture history.

Pellegrini was on her way to be part of "The Wizard of Oz." She was one of the original munchkins in the movie classic.

Pellegrini shared her memories of filming "The Wizard of Oz" Wednesday evening at Prescott United Methodist Church.

Her connection to the movie was a stroke of luck.

Pellegrini, who lived in Alabama, was visiting her sister in Tennessee. Her brother-in-law worked for a potato chip company and asked her if she wanted to help pass out samples at the state fair.

"While at the state fair, I met some other little people. They asked if I wanted to join their act. I said 'no.' I was only 13 and didn't want to leave home. However, they took my name and address. Two years later, I received a letter from an agent in Hollywood asking if I wanted to be in this movie 'Wizard of Oz,'" Pellegrini said.

The little people she met at the state fair had moved to California and they told the agent about Pellegrini.

Two weeks later, she was on her way to Hollywood.

Pellegrini said the studio filmed munchkin sequences in November and December of 1938, and released the movie in 1939.

"It was a lot of fun making the movie and being with the movie stars, especially Judy Garland. She was only 16 at the time and such a lovely girl. It is a shame the way her life wasted away," Pellegrini said. "It's a shame she is not here to see how many people loved her, and still do."

Pellegrini used a laser pointer to identify herself in the opening sequence of the movie. She is prominent in the scene when Dorothy meets the munchkins. She also is one of the Sleepy Heads, although all you see is her back.

Pellegrini said she was in San Francisco when the film premiered. She was one of three little people whom producers chose to attend the premier.

"We had to stand in the back behind the seats. When I saw myself on the screen I jumped up and down screaming, 'That's me, that's me!'"

Pellegrini said that in real life, the Wicked Witch of the West was a kindergarten teacher; the blue dye in the pond turned the ducks blue; and the horse of a different color was the result of Jell-O.

Pellegrini earned $50 a week, room and board, and transportation for eight weeks. She said her father was making $5 a week at home in Alabama. She gave her agent $5, kept $5 and sent the rest home.

"You know what upset us? Toto made more money than we did. He made $125 a week," she said.

Pellegrini said 124 little people performed in the movie.

"We were not mistreated. A lot of little people were already in show business. The little people ranged in age from 12 to 40. I was assigned an older woman as my roommate. She taught me a lot," Pellegrini said.

Everyone at the studio ate at the commissary, Pellegrini said. The one star she wanted to meet was Clark Gable. One day she saw a man who looked like Gable.

"I went up to him and he was Clark Gable's double. I never got to meet Gable, but I met his double," she said.

At 83, Pellegrini is one of nine living "Wizard of Oz" actors and crew still alive. She is a widow, and her two children are deceased. She has four grandchildren, nine great grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

Max McQueen travels with Pellegrini. A former entertainment reporter, he met her at the 50th anniversary of "The Wizard of Oz."

"Her story is worthy of its own movie," McQueen said,

Prescott United Methodist Church Pastor George Cushman said he met Pellegrini through McQueen.

"Max was on the staff of two different churches where we had Margaret come and speak. When I shared that information here, it was something the congregation was willing to do," Cushman said.

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