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Video: Famous ‘Oz’ Munchkin passes away

  1. Transcript of: Famous ‘Oz’ Munchkin passes away

    MATT LAUER, co-host: We're back now at 7:49 with the death of someone who played a role in one of the most popular movies of all time. You may not know his name, but almost everyone knows his work. TODAY national correspondent Amy Robach has more on this. Amy , good morning.

    AMY ROBACH reporting: Matt, good morning to you. That's right , Karl Slover passed away on Tuesday in a hospital in Georgia . He was 93 years old and was one of the last surviving Munchkins from the classic film " The Wizard of Oz ."

    ROBACH: You might say he was a little guy with a big heart. That's Karl Slover playing the role of lead trumpeter in the Munchkin band, heralding the mayor of Munchkinland .

    ROBACH: And Slover helped send Dorothy and her dog, Toto , off to see the wizard when he and his fellow Munchkins sang...

    ROBACH: At four foot five inches, Slover was an unlikely Hollywood hero , but the film's success was a defining moment in his life. He went on to travel the country, appearing at festivals and events honoring " The Wizard of Oz ."

    Mr. JOHN FRICKE (Film Historian): Karl was amazingly upbeat. He never stopped enjoying the chance to meet fans. There's an immortality that has come to everybody who had anything to do with " The Wizard of Oz ."

    ROBACH: In 2007 he was part of a group of former Munchkins receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at Grauman's Chinese Theatre . It was the site of the film's premiere in 1939 . The Munchkins were part of Hollywood history, and while some developed a reputation as hard partyers behind the scenes, historians point out that for most, it was about the work.

    Mr. FRICKE: It was just hard work for everybody. It was a six-day schedule. They had to be there at 6 in the morning for two hours of makeup. They worked until 6 at night. And by the time makeup and all the rest of it was done, they were beat.

    ROBACH: Those who knew Slover say people who met him were never disappointed. During this visit with Sirius XM Radio , he treated his audience to one of his signature a cappella performances.

    Mr. KARL SLOVER: "Because, because of the wonderful things he does, tra- la-la - la-la - la-la . We're off to see the wizard , the wonderful wizard of Oz ."

    Offscreen Voice: Yay!

    ROBACH: The classic movie will live on for generations to come and so will Slover 's legacy as he and the Munchkins continue to enchant the young and old. And out of 124 people who played Munchkins in " The Wizard of Oz ," only three are alive today. All of the major actors from "Oz" have also passed away, of course, including Judy Garland , who died tragically young at the age of 47.

    ANN CURRY, co-host: But what a legacy...

    ROBACH: Oh!

    CURRY: ...to actually still today make so many of us smile and be happy.

    ROBACH: The movie's still magical for everyone.

    AL ROKER reporting: We're just sitting here in the studio, smiling, watching the footage from that.

    LAUER:

Image: Karl Slover
Charles Sykes  /  AP
Karl Slover, one of the last surviving actors who played Munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz," died Tuesday, Nov. 15.
updated 11/15/2011 11:45:39 PM ET 2011-11-16T04:45:39

Karl Slover, one of the last surviving actors who played Munchkins in the 1939 classic film, "The Wizard of Oz," has died. He was 93.

The 4-foot-5 Slover died of cardiopulmonary arrest Tuesday afternoon in a suburban Atlanta hospital, said Laurens County Deputy Coroner Nathan Stanley. According to friends, as recently as last weekend, Slover appeared at events in the suburban Chicago area.

Slover was best known for playing the lead trumpeter in the Munchkins' band but also had roles as a townsman and soldier in the film, said John Fricke, author of "100 Years of Oz" and five other books on the movie and its star, Judy Garland. Slover was one of the tiniest male Munchkins in the movie.

Long after Slover retired, he continued to appear around the country at festivals and events related to the movie. He was one of seven Munchkins at the 2007 unveiling of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame dedicated to the little people in the movie. Only three remain of the 124 diminutive actors who played the beloved Munchkins.

"He has a genuine immortality," Fricke said. "Of the 124 little people, he's one of the handful who got to enjoy this latter-day fame, to have people know who he was and be able to pick him out of the crowd in the movie."

Slover is the first of the three trumpeters to herald the Munchkin mayor when he makes his entrance. Slover had been cast to play the second trumpeter but switched when another actor got stage fright during filiming, said longtime friend Allen Pease, the co-founder of the former Munchkinland Market Days outside Chesterton, Ind.

"Karl didn't know what stage fright meant," he said.

Slover was born Karl Kosiczky in what is now the Czech Republic and he was the only child in his family to be dwarf sized.

"In those uninformed days, his father tried witch doctor treatments to make him grow," Fricke said. "Knowing Karl and his triumph over his early life, you can't help but celebrate the man at a time like this."

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He was buried in the backyard, immersed in heated oil until his skin blistered and then attached to a stretching machine at a hospital, all in the attempt to make him become taller. Eventually he was sold by his father at age 9 to a traveling show in Europe, Fricke said.

Slover continued to perform into his late 20s, when he moved to the United States, changed his name and appeared in circuses as part of a vaudeville group known as the Singer Midgets. The group's 30 performers became the nucleus of the Munchkins.

He was paid $50 a week for the movie and told friends that Garland's dog in the movie, "Toto," made more money.

The surviving Munchkin actors found new generations of fans in the late 1980s when they began making appearances around the country.

"It wasn't until the Munchkins started making their appearances in 1989 that they all came to realize how potent the film had become and remained," Fricke said. "He was wonderfully articulate about his memories, he had anecdotes to share."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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