"The Wizard of Oz," one of the most popular films in history, premiered this week — not in Hollywood or New York, but at the Strand Theater in Oconomowoc on Aug. 12, 1939.
Meinhardt Raabe, in costume as the Munchkin coroner. Wisconsin Historical Images.
Oconomowoc was one of three locations (Kenosha was another) chosen as a soft launch for the film that MGM feared might be a bust. Part of the appeal of Oconomowoc was the local connection for two people involved in the film. Composer Herbert Strothart, who wrote the movie score, was from Milwaukee and had a lake home in Okauchee; and Meinhardt Raabe, pictured, the munchkin coroner who declared the Wicked Witch dead, was born in Watertown in 1915.
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Raabe's less-than-15-second appearance in the film made him famous (he was one of the few Munchkins with dialogue), even if he remained not quite a household name throughout his long life.
Raabe graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in accounting in 1937 and served as the smallest pilot in uniform with the Civil Air Patrol during World War II. After college, Raabe took a job as a salesman with Oscar Mayer. The company made him "Little Oscar," the world's smallest chef, and he spent the next three decades traveling the country with the Wienermobile. He took leave from his job as Little Oscar to be in "The Wizard of Oz" when he heard they were hiring little people, or "midgets" as they were referred to at the time.
"The Wizard of Oz" played to sold-out shows for its five-day run in Oconomowoc. The publicists used the audience reaction to craft the national publicity campaign for the film, which had a much splashier — and expected — opening at Grauman's Chinese Theater on Aug. 15.