Obituary: Meinhardt Raabe

Meinhardt Raabe, Actor, Born: 2 September, 1915, in Watertown, in Wisconsin.

Died: 9 April, 2010, in Orange Park, Florida, aged 94.

WHEN Meinhardt Raabe, an unknown 23-year-old, sang As coroner, I must aver, I thoroughly examined her, And she's not only merely dead, She's really most sincerely dead" in his first and only Hollywood feature film, he little suspected that they would shape the course of his life for the next seven decades.

The lines, of course, belong to the Munchkin coroner in the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Raabe's brief appearance in the film – about 13 seconds of uncredited screen time – made him an internationally recognised pop- cultural figure, if not precisely a household name.

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With his high-collared indigo cloak and curly-brimmed hat, Raabe's character was known to generations of film fans for his official proclamation that the Wicked Witch of the East was dead, the victim of blunt force trauma from an errant Kansas farmhouse.

At 4ft, Raabe (pronounced Robby) was among the taller little people, or midgets as they were then known, hired for the film. Though over 100 Munchkins appeared on screen, he was one of the few with dialogue – lines he obligingly repeated, month in and month out, for the next 70 years as a motivational speaker before school groups, Rotary Clubs and Oz conventions.

Meinhardt Raabe was born on 2 September, 1915, in Wisconsin. Though he never surpassed 4ft 7in at his tallest (he continued to grow till he was in his 30s), he did not hear the word "dwarf", or even "midget", until he was an adult. No-one in his community had seen a person with dwarfism before. Growing up, he later said, he assumed there was no-one else in the world like him.

That changed in 1933, when the young Raabe visited the Midget Village at the Chicago World's Fair. There before his eyes was a world of men and women just like him. Thrilled, he took a job as a barker there the next summer.

Raabe received a bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Wisconsin in 1937, and an MBA from Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1970. A skilled aviator, he served in the Civil Air Patrol in the Second World War, by all accounts the smallest pilot in uniform. On graduating from Wisconsin, Raabe was turned down for one corporate job after another. As he recalled in his autobiography, Memories of a Munchkin, one recruiter told him he belonged in a carnival.

He eventually joined Oscar Mayer as a salesman. After the company made him Little Oscar, "the World's Smallest Chef," he spent nearly 30 years touring the country in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, promoting the company's wares.

In late 1938, after Raabe heard that Hollywood was hiring midgets for a film, he took a holiday from his job and boarded a train west. At MGM, he found his excellent diction, honed in his work as a barker and a meat salesman, stood him in good stead and he won the film role.

Though he wrote in his memoir that he came to believe his lines in the finished film (and those of all the other Munchkins) were dubbed, Raabe remained a fan of The Wizard of Oz to the end of his life. In 2007, he was on hand when a star collectively honouring the Munchkins was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Raabe's wife, Marie, who spent her youth touring with a midget vaudeville act, died in 1997.