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After the rainbow

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[Times photo: Stefanie Boyer]
A longtime resident of Tampa's Hyde Park district, Karl Slover enjoys watching game shows on TV, reminiscing about his life in show biz and, of course, adding color commentary when Oz is in the news.

By TOM ZUCCO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 2, 2001


Karl Slover grew up to be a Munchkin. The Tampa resident played several of the little folks in The Wizard of Oz and on special cinematic occasions relives his days with the stars.

TAMPA -- He opens the sliding glass door, steps out into the sunlight and smiles at the stranger who rang the doorbell. Even if you had no clue as to who he was or what he was famous for, you'd have to smile back.

It's okay, Karl Slover says in a high-pitched voice. It happens every couple of years. The Wizard of Oz hits some sort of milestone, and reporters seek out surviving cast members. Most of the film's principal actors are dead, but 10 of the Munchkins are still alive.

This time reporters are calling because Turner Classic Movies is showing The Wizard of Oz, along with other Oz-related programming, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

"I'd worry if they didn't call," Slover says, grinning even more.

photo
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyer]
Karl Slover, 82, was one of more than 120 midgets who were Munchkins in the 1939 classic film, The Wizard of Oz . One of the roles Slover played was the first trumpeter, who leads the mayor to be introduced to Dorothy; others he also portrayed included a Munchkin baby and woman, the latter made necessary by a shortage of female midgets on the set.
In the movie, Slover played a trumpeter, a soldier, one of the babies who popped out of the eggs -- even a female Munchkin because of a shortage of midget women.

He was 21 when the movie was made. He's 82 now.

Slover is what's known as a pituitary dwarf, and he still doesn't understand why he is one. His father stood 6-foot-6 and was vice mayor of a small town in what is now the Czech Republic. His mother was just a few inches shorter, and his four sisters were all normal height.

But by the time Slover was 8, he was still barely 2 feet tall. (He is 4-foot-4 now.) His father sent him to work in a traveling midget show; after coming to the United States, Slover worked in Hollywood and with a family-owned carnival. He changed his last name from Kosiczky to Slover, the name of the family that owned the carnival, when he became an American citizen in 1943. He moved to Hyde Park in 1962, and has lived there ever since.

Taking walks, watching reruns and game shows, and waiting for the phone to ring.

"Always does," he said.

* * *

Question: I've read that your father tried to make you tall by -- and this is hard to believe -- stretching you. Is that right?

Answer: Oh, yeah. I guess he wanted me to grow up. And I didn't.

He took me to a big hospital in Hungary, and there were eight doctors who examined me. They put stretchers on me. But one of the doctors said he thought they were going at it the wrong way. He said stretching is stupid; the best thing would be a different climate, different food. Get him away from here.

But they put me on the stretcher and one of my bones made a noise. I let out a yell because it hurt.

Question: What exactly did they do? Tie you down?

Answer: It was some kind of a darned contraption. They put it on my legs and arms and pulled both ways.

Question: How old were you at the time?

Answer: 7 or 8.

Question: You had to have been scared to death.

Answer: Oh, my gosh, yes. I didn't know what they were trying to do. After that, they tried to stretch me by just pulling me by my legs and arms. But when I hollered, that one doctor said if they continued, they're going to kill me before I know what's what.

Question: And then they stopped?

Answer: Yes, but later, my father had two other bright ideas. He got a big wooden barrel and filled it full of coconut leaves and boiled it, and they put me in it. I was as red as a lobster when they took me out. My mother had to put stuff on me so my skin wouldn't blister.

Another idea was to put me in the sand in the backyard and leave me covered up to my neck. We had a Doberman pinscher named Luxy, and he loved us kids. My mother told the maid to bring me in at 4 o'clock. Well, the maid unhooked the dog but left me out there. Then it started to sprinkle. So I called Luxy, and he came and pulled me out. My mother and father really bawled the heck out of the maid when they got home.

Question: So after having all that fun, your father decides to send you to work in a midget show?

Answer: Leo Singer -- they called him the maestro of midgets -- had the largest midget show in the world, based in Berlin. And when I was nine an agent came to get me. I was so darned small I couldn't reach the doorknob, I couldn't get up on a bed. My roommate helped me a lot.

Question: What about school, your education?

Answer: They had teachers in the midget show.

Question: Well, you had to have missed your family.

Answer: In a way, yes. But then again, I was with little people more my size. It was like a new family.

Question: What did you do in the show?

Answer: I was dressed like a police officer, I trained dogs, and I sang and danced. Sometimes I played the ukulele and sang Old Black Joe. And I used to ride a camel. I even rode a donkey and a turkey one time. Would you believe that? A turkey!

Question: That must have been a pretty big turkey.

Answer: Well, I was pretty small, too. At the time, they said I was the smallest midget in the world -- about 3 feet tall. In fact, John Ringling in 1929 said he wanted to buy me to bring me to the States. He said if he saw me on the street, he'd kidnap me. (Laughs) But I was about 4 inches smaller than the midget they had.

Question: Was that Tom Thumb?

Answer: No, that was Major Mike.

Question: Of course. I was just testing you. So how much did you make?

Answer: We made $35 a week.

Question: Did your family ever visit you or come to see the show?

Answer: No. My father was working. Mr. Singer told me I would get a vacation, but that never happened. And we were always traveling. By train.

Question: Was it fun?

Answer: I enjoyed it. We were just like a family.

Question: You never married?

Answer: No, but I almost did once. We were in San Francisco for the Golden Gate Exposition in about 1937. She and I used to sit together, and one of the newest midgets told everybody I had a girlfriend. And she would always ball me out for telling people. But I told her I didn't. Then the same midget told everybody we were going to get married. She got all over me. She got fired a little bit later.

Question: Sounds like the two of you never had much of a chance.

Answer: She was a tramp. She wasn't good enough for me.

Question: Ooo-kay . . . So how did you get involved in The Wizard of Oz?

Answer: We were working in Hawaii and someone in Hollywood called Mr. Singer, and we left the next day.

Question: What was Judy Garland like?

Answer: I didn't get a chance to talk to her much. But she was real nice. She had a security lady who came with her. She asked how long they were going to use Judy that day, then she picked her up from school, took her to the studio, and took her home. She was only 16 then.

Question: What about the other actors? Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr?

Answer: They were all nice. The doubles were the ones who were stuck up. The movie stars themselves were all very nice and easy to talk to.

Question: Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West. Mean off the set, too?

Answer: Oh, no. She was very nice, too. She used to be a school teacher.

Question: I heard a story about the talking apple trees . . .

Answer: Oh, yeah. The first day on the set, they took us around the studio to show us what the different scenery was. I motioned to my friend and said, "You know that darned apple tree just made a face at me." He said I was crazy. But I knew what I saw, and that all I had to drink was coffee. (Laughs)

By that time, the prop man told us they were rubber trees and there was a man in each one, and they were checking the different faces they're going to make when Judy Garland comes out. We got a big kick out of that.

Question: How long did filming take?

Answer: It took two months. That was just the midgets. I heard they started the picture in '37 and finished it in '39. Imagine that.

Question: Maybe the flying monkeys had a union.

Answer: (silence)

Question: So when you were making the movie, did you have any clue that it would become a classic?

Answer: No idea whatsoever. We were hoping it would be successful. And because we were traveling so much, we just hoped to get to see it.

Question: How much were you paid for your work?

Answer: Mr. Singer was supposed to give each of us $100 a week. And what did he do? Some of us got $50 and some of us didn't get anything. He swallowed the rest. So two or three weeks after The Wizard of Oz was over with, we all left him.

Question: Did your father get a chance to see the movie?

Answer: No, he died in '37 or '38. I never saw him after I left home. He had made a remark to the agent who took me to Berlin that he was glad to get rid of me -- that I wouldn't be able to follow in his footsteps when I got older. Years later, I told my mother about it. She said he didn't mean it. And I told her, "Then he shouldn't have said it." That didn't set right with me.

Question: Why is The Wizard of Oz still so popular?

Answer: Because children like it. It's a family movie. And there's no filthy language going on. That's the reason, wouldn't you say?

Question: No question. But I also think Pulp Fiction is really good, so I'm not a good person to . . .

Answer: Pulp what?

Question: So what's a typical day like?

Answer: I just take it easy, watch TV. I like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. I imagine you watch that, too.

Question: Well . . . er. Sure. Never miss it. So, can you drive?

Answer: No. I tried to learn in a go-cart, but it scared the living heck out of me. I don't want any part of driving.

Question: I hear you. But you did ride a turkey. That's impressive.

Answer: And Bavarian mountain goats. When you get them young, you can train them.

Question: Do you regret that you never grew taller?

Answer: I guess I was always hoping I would grow taller. As small as I was, I had to have help to go to the bathroom. But I grew enough to do stuff on my own, and I felt better about it.

And I got to be in The Wizard of Oz and got to meet some movie stars and a lot of really nice people. So I don't regret it. No.

The little people that don't enjoy it, well, they must be sick in the head. Or maybe they got the big head. (Laughs)

Question: Right. Like the doubles in the movie.

Answer: (Laughs) Yeah. Like the doubles.

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[Photo: MGM]
It is in Munchkinland where Dorothy meets Glinda, the good witch of the north.

BACK TO OZ

The cable channel Turner Classic Movies is airing a series of Wizard of Oz-related programs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. The evening begins with Memories of Oz, a special about the making of the movie. The film itself and the documentary The Wonderful World of Oz: 50 Years of Magic will follow.

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