A Little Lesson in Fame
The Greensboro connection to pop culture icon Meinhardt Raabe
By Maria Johnson
The emails landed in my inbox a few days apart.
The authors — who didn’t know each other — had read my February column about riding in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile (www.o.henrymag.com/lifes-funny-76/) and wanted to know if I’d run across any mention of “Little Oscar, The World’s Smallest Chef.”
Bob Sandberg, who lives in Colfax, wrote that while growing up in Madison, Wisconsin — the headquarters of Oscar Mayer — he’d encountered the wiener-on-wheels several times, and that “Little Oscar was a huge draw wherever the Wienermobile went. He was this ‘little person’ dressed in a white chef’s jackets and slacks and a white chef’s toque. He would mingle with the crowd and hand out the Wienermobile whistles.”
No, indeed, I had not heard about Little Oscar, but I was happy to add this to my stash of wiener trivia.
Then came an email from Diana Wold of Browns Summit, also by way of Wisconsin. She, too, wanted to talk about Little Oscar.
At this point, I’m thinking “What’s up with Little Oscar?” But I’m glad Diana reached out because I learned some juicy facts.
One: Little Oscar’s real name was Meinhardt Raabe (pronounced Robbie), and he was her second cousin, her father’s cousin’s child.
And two: Raabe’s bigger claim to fame was his role as the Munchkin coroner who pronounces the Wicked Witch of the East dead in The Wizard of Oz movie.
It’s a globally recognized scene in which Raabe — in a bright orange wig, waxed beard and mustache, along with a dark purple cape and huge hat with tightly curled brim — stands beside Dorothy and unfurls a Certificate of Death. (Heʼs the third from the left in the poster pictured.)
He then warbles this 13-second line in front of the Mayor of Munchkinland:
As coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her
And she’s not only merely dead
She’s really most sincerely dead
His announcement sets off the Munchkins, who break into jubilant song — “Ding, dong, the witch is dead . . . ” — which gets the attention of the squashed hag’s sibling, the Wicked Witch of the West, who appears in a puff of red smoke.
“Who killed my sister?” WWW demands.
My heart leapt to know about the Greensboro connection to this classic snippet of moviedom, and I made a beeline to Diana’s kitchen, where she and her husband Russ shared stories and documents that told more about their esteemed cuz of Oz.
Born to German immigrants in 1915, Raabe grew up on a dairy farm in Watertown, Wisconsin. He was the only little person in his family — indeed, in the whole area — something he was painfully aware of.
“He wanted to be a minister, but the story went back then that he was not tall enough to see out of the pulpit,” says Diana.
So Raabe went to a local college to study accounting. In the summer of 1933, his parents took him to the World’s Fair in Chicago. They’d heard about Midget Village, a scaled-down replica of a German town populated by small adults.
It was a life-changing experience, Raabe told interviewers, to see people like himself. They lived, worked and played together. He’d found a community.
He worked at Midget Village the following summer and used his earnings to help pay for school. He finished his accounting degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and looked for white-collar work. He was 3-foot-4.
“The accounting companies couldn’t see me for dust. Prejudice was very outspoken at that time,” he told the Lutheran magazine, Correspondent, in 1992. One manager suggested that he work in a carnival sideshow.
Raabe finally landed a job with Oscar Mayer. Soon afterward, in 1936, the company christened the first Wienermobile, a novelty car for promotional appearances.
Years later, Raabe suggested to an interviewer that he’d come up with the idea for Little Oscar after noticing a small chef pictured on the company’s packaging.
“I said, ‘Well, look, I can be a little chef and a sales promotion person,’” he told Correspondent. “I could speak fluent German and probably 70 percent of their customers at that time were butchers of German parentage.”
Raabe suited up for the part-time Wienermobile gig in addition to his sales job.
In 1938, he heard about a little-people casting call for an MGM movie. He hopped a train to California and auditioned. His speaking ability landed him the part of coroner in The Wizard of Oz. He took a leave of absence from one cultural touchstone to work on another.
When the film wrapped, Raabe, then 23, went back to the Wienermobile. Wizard was released in 1939. Gone with the Wind hit big screens the same year, and Wizard lingered in the shadow of the Civil War blockbuster until television boosted its profile.
Even as a child in the 1940s, Diana Wold says no one in her family talked about Raabe being in the Wizard. He was celebrated as Little Oscar. It wasn’t until Wold became an adult that she realized the movie’s status.
When she and Russ lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, a neighbor found out that Raabe was Diana’s relative. He was overjoyed to meet the one-time actor.
“So help me, I thought he was going to wet his pants,” says Diana, now 80. “People are like that about The Wizard of Oz.”
Yep. The movie has so many rabid devotees that Raabe and his wife Marie — also a small person whom Raabe met when he was traveling with the Wienermobile and she was working as a cigarette girl in an Akron, Ohio, hotel — traveled the country attending Oz-related events after his retirement from Oscar Mayer in 1971.
Raabe, who continued growing to 4-foot-7 after the movie, relished mingling with fans, signing autographs and repeating his lines from the movie, even though it was later revealed that his speaking part, and those of other Munchkins, were altered and dubbed.
“It’s been a lifetime means of making a living,” Raabe once said. “You can’t get sick of something that keeps you going.”
At times, he still felt the sting of disrespect — he reported that people fronted him in lines and reached over his head to grab items in stores — but he also understood that his stature was key to his security.
After the Wolds moved to Greensboro in 1994, Raabe and his wife drove their custom RV to visit the couple several times, usually between fanfests.
“Meinhardt could talk about anything,” Russ recalls.
“A mile a minute,” says Diana.
“He could talk your arm off,” Russ adds. “He seemed like he was in his teacher mode a lot of the time.”
Raabe, also a pilot, taught navigation and meteorology as a member of the Civil Air Patrol in World War II. He earned a master’s degree in accounting and studied horticulture. He liked to walk around people’s yards, identifying plants and giving instructions on how to care for them.
“He was going to tell you what he knew,” says Diana, laughing.
Retired to a senior community in Florida, Raabe continued traveling after his wife died of injuries from a car wreck that hurt both of them in 1997.
He came to Greensboro in 2001, at age 86, to attend the Community Theatre of Greensboro’s seventh annual stage production of Wizard, a local tradition.
He recalled his time on the movie set to Cathy Gant Hill of the Greensboro News & Record.
Judy Garland, he said, was not quite 16, but sophisticated for her age.
“She’d come in the morning and say, ‘Hi, gang!’ We got the impression she enjoyed working with 124 little people as much as we did with her,” he said.
Raabe kept going.
He appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2005, the year he released his autobiography, Munchkin Memories.
In 2007, he attended the unveiling of the Munchkins’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2009, he was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.
“He enjoyed the limelight,” says Russ Wold.
Raabe died in Florida in 2010. He was 94. He and his wife had no children. His estate gave $1 million to Bethesda Lutheran Communities, an organization based in his hometown. He had previously given the outfit $3.5 million. Now known as AbleLight, the nonprofit helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Because he experienced discrimination based on his appearance and perceived ability . . . he gave with an open hand and an open heart,” the organization’s annual report said in 2015.
Sitting in her kitchen, Diana Wold shakes her head in amazement.
“He had quite a life, with the Wienermobile and The Wizard of Oz, and everything in between,” she says. “He’s my claim to fame.” OH
Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.