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Hardworking Munchkin

Joe Holley

A 4-foot-6-inch Texan who stood tall among loyal "Wizard of Oz" fans died last week in Pflugerville, an Austin suburb. The Austin American-Statesman reported that Clarence Swensen, 91, was one of nine surviving members of the 125 Munchkins in the 1939 classic movie.

Swensen, who grew up in Austin, told the American-Statesman he was not allowed to attend public schools until he was 9, because of his size. In the late 1930s, he joined a troupe called the Stanley R. Graham All Midget Circus, which performed at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. His job with the circus led him to join a network of smaller-than-average actors who were in demand for character roles in Hollywood.

MGM paid him $700 to play a Munchkin. He told the Austin paper he was astonished the first time he walked onto the expensive, multitiered set the studio had erected for Munchkin Land. "It was huge," he said.

In later years, Mr. Swensen worked as an electronics technician for the University of Texas at Austin.

For a picture of Mr. Swensen and his fellow Munchkins, plus a trove of 'Oz' information, go here. The Munchkin information on the site was provided by the late Donna Stewart Hardway, a child Munchkin who lived in Pinch, W.Va.

Hardway sought to dispel rumors of Munchkins running amok on the "Wizard of Oz" set. "Most of the stories are just not true," she wrote. "There were perhaps four or five of them that drank to excess and created a number of problems for other people, including other Munchkins. But the great majority of the 'little people' were hard workers and did everything they could to fulfill their contract."

Mr. Swensen must have been one of the good Munchkins. "We worked hard -- from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- but it was fun," he told the American-Statesman.

By Joe Holley  |  March 15, 2009; 1:17 PM ET
Categories:  Joe Holley  
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