If you watch the 1939 movie classic, The Wizard of Oz with a stop watch, you’ll find that one of its most famous one-liners – (the Munchkin Coroner officially confirming the demise of the Wicked Witch of the East) – took a mere 12 seconds to recite.
Yet it remains, 66 years later, the most repeatable, unbeatable death announcement ever recorded.
Meinhardt Raabe – nor its star Judy Garland- had any clue just how successful the film would be; how it would translate into dozens of languages; be watched in theaters, on television and on videotape by millions around the world year after year.
On the day of the MGM audition, Raabe was a shoe-in for the part. ‘I had done a considerable amount of public speaking which started by winning a declamatory contest in which I had to speak as loudly and forcefully as possible. After that I went on to study phonics, learning to pronounce each syllable clearly. Distinctly.’ The four foot tall 21 year old boldly walked up six steps and said: ‘As Coroner I must aver, I thoroughly examined her…and she’s not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.’ The casting director said: ‘OK! Meinhardt. It’s you! You are the coroner!
‘For the past 66 years, you can’t believe how many people have asked me what ‘I aver’ means,’ laughs Raabe. ‘It is simply the legal equivalent of ‘I swear.”
Raabe, of German descent was raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm. ‘My pituitary gland which regulates growth, didn’t work adequately, so each year, from the age of five to 20, I grew only 1/4 of an inch. Raabe remained four feet tall until the age of 35. Now at 89, Raabe stands four feet and seven inches tall. He not only survived – but thrived – in a world of taller folks.
The Chicago World’s Fair of 1934 included among its attractions – a Midget Village. Raabe worked as a barker, calling out to get the attention of the crowds. ‘This was the first time in my life,’ he explains, ‘that I actually witnessed little people, with friends their own size, falling in love, marrying and raising families.’ He went on to work the 1935 San Diego Fair, followed by Cleveland’s Great Lakes Exposition in 1936, and a host of others.
Then, opportunity of a lifetime knocked when MGM was on on the prowl for little people for the Wizard of Oz. In 1938, Raabe took the challenge – along with a two month leave from his full time job. During two months of a grueling production schedule, Raabe met 124 other little people – who were to be known and loved forever as the Munchkins.
Raabe’s continuing education never ceases. Under his belt is a Bachelor of Arts in Accounting, a Masters of Science and Business Administration, along with a recently gained certification through the Florida Extension Service as a Master Gardener.
He’s a volunteer teacher of math, German and horticulture and continues to gives motivational speeches. His advice as he lectures to children is ‘…study as hard as you can. Study every subject available to you.’
While travelling during his full time job, Raabe met his wife Marie, at the time who was a cigarette girl in a large Akron, Ohio hotel. ‘She was all show business,’ smiles Raabe. ‘From the ages of 14 to 17 – even before high school, she travelled the vaudeville circuit, performing in a midget troupe.’ The two began dating. Their time together was interrupted, however, by World War II. Gas rationing made visits to Marie few and far between.
During that time, the young man wasted no time. Raabe earned his pilot’s license and became the smallest licensed pilot to fly during World War II. ‘I served as a Ground Instructor for the Civil Air Patrol and flew every single engine plane that existed at that time.’
After five years of long distance courtship, the two tied the knot – a knot which lasted for 50 years. Both continually worked: Marie for a discount chain. Meinhardt for a food corporation for which he did cooking shows, promotions and TV spots. In 1970 Raabe took mandatory retirement from the food company and began teaching German in Philadelphia schools. He was again forced to retire by the mandatory policy of the Board of Education.
In 1986, the Raabes became Floridians, residing at Penney Farms. Tragically, Marie lost her life in a car accident in October of 1997. ‘I dearly miss Marie,’ he says, ‘but I’m surrounded by beautiful friends. This is a wonderful place to live.’
His advice to seniors is ‘…all I can say is you may run out of steam as time goes on, but never, never retire to a rocking chair!’
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