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One of last living Munchkins reflects from her home in Sonoma

A childhood role in a treasured film classic during the Golden Age of Hollywood didn’t define Betty Ann Bruno’s life, but being a Munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz” has been a joyful claim to fame.

“Oz has been a presence in my life, my whole life, a huge presence,” said Bruno, who turned 88 earlier this month. She was one of about 10 young girls of average height who sang and danced with more than 100 little people in the bright and colorful Munchkinland in the beloved 1939 movie.

Bruno is a Stanford University graduate who raised three sons, earned three Emmy Awards as a KTVU television news reporter in Oakland, and established the popular Hula Mai dance program in Sonoma in her retirement years.

But to legions of “The Wizard of Oz” fans, her most enduring achievement came at age 7, when she was cast in the film starring a teenage Judy Garland as a Kansas farm girl traveling along the Yellow Brick Road to meet the powerful Wizard of Oz after her home was displaced in a whirling cyclone.

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios movie was among the first filmed in Technicolor, with considerable artistry and special effects for the era.

Even today, 80 years after the film’s premiere, Bruno still finds handwritten fan letters and autograph requests in her mailbox on a quiet cul-de-sac in El Verano, where she lives with her husband, former KTVU cameraman Craig Scheiner.

“They come from all over the world. The letters are so heartfelt and so beautiful,” Bruno said. Fans range from children to senior citizens, many remarking that generations of their family adore the film. “There’s no movie idolized like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It’s the most-watched movie in the world.”

Being in the film is “like two tracks. It was an incredible part of my childhood experience for me and that’s all it was, until I realized in my forties it was a highly beloved film and I was a part of film history. I can’t get my arms around that.”

Bruno, who stands 5 feet, 1 inch tall, is one of the film’s few surviving cast members. She took amused exception to news reports last year that the world’s last living Munchkin had died. When Jerry Maren passed away at age 98 (he was the Lollipop Guild member who welcomed Garland to Munchkinland), he was presented as the final adult Munchkin to die. A few child Munchkins are still around to share their memories, Bruno emphasizes.

“We were little bodies in the background,” she said. The girls were part of the crowds gathered in scenes and peeking out from thatched-roof Munchkin huts; only the adult Munchkin actors had speaking roles and close-ups.

Munchkin hatchlings

Bruno was one of four girls selected to appear in a nest as Munchkin hatchlings, dozing and yawning in oversized cracked eggs. The scene was cut and refilmed after an agent for the diminutive adult actors protested that child Munchkins weren’t contracted for any feature shots.

“It was my big chance for stardom,” Bruno said with a laugh, although by then she’d already appeared on the big screen, notably in 1937’s “The Hurricane” with Dorothy Lamour, and also danced with her brother in Hawaiian-themed films (their mother was part Hawaiian). Her film career came to a halt a few years after “The Wizard of Oz” when her family moved from Hollywood to the countryside nearly 100 miles away.

Still, her brief career was magical. Bruno recalls her three weeks on “The Wizard of Oz” set with great detail and affection. She remembers colorful plastic flowers larger than dinner plates; a kindly Judy Garland; eating lunch with her mother while watching the flying Winged Monkey actors practice their aerial stunts; and the beautiful pink gown of flowing tulle netting worn by Billie Burke as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

“I felt as if I had gone into another world,” said Bruno, whose scenes were filmed during late 1938, during the Great Depression. “That was like dying and going to heaven. The set was so brilliant.”

Burke “just floated in all this netting. For a little girl at that time, to see all that glamour – and she had a magic wand. That was quite an experience.”

Bruno recalled that Garland, as Dorothy Gale in the iconic ruby slippers, “was just like she was in the movie. She was genuinely nice.” Bruno remembers walking across the set to a restricted area - what seemed like a mile away to the 7-year-old - to visit Garland’s trailer with a request.

Never got a photo

“The word got around that one of the midgets had gotten an autographed photo of Judy Garland, and I wanted one, too,” she said. Bruno (then Betty Ann Cain) summoned the courage and knocked on Garland’s door.

“She looked at me with those big eyes,” Bruno said, then the actress apologized. “I am so sorry. I would give you one if I had one. Come back tomorrow,” Garland told Bruno.

“Every day I would go back and do that, and I never got her picture.”

Bruno does have a black-and-white photo with Garland and a group of costumed Munchkins, the dark-haired Bruno peering over Garland’s shoulder.

She envied the Munchkins’ colorful attire. She wore a flowerpot-topped bonnet and a gray felt dress, not the costume the young Bruno would have preferred.

One frightening experience stood out from the magical moments: a fiery accident involving Margaret Hamilton, who portrayed the dreaded Wicked Witch of the West. Hamilton threatened Dorothy (“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”) before disappearing from Munchkinland in a cloud of smoke as she was lowered beneath the set.

“She went down, and the flames went up,” Bruno said. “We were all there. It was during a camera shot and it was very dicey.” Hamilton reportedly was injured, but eventually returned to filming.

Impact on her life

Bruno, now a grandmother, marvels how working three weeks on “The Wizard of Oz” impacted her life. “I always loved doing it,” she said, “and love the memory of it.”

The movie lost out to “Gone with the Wind” for the Academy Award for best picture, but remains a timeless favorite for countless movie fans today.

After retiring from her long career at KTVU, Bruno accepted an invitation to an Oz convention in a small Indiana town. More than 95,000 people attended to purchase souvenirs, meet Munchkins and collect autographs. She and about six other Munchkins - “the nicest people anybody could hope to meet” - signed autographs steadily for three days.

Bruno returned home with severe writers’ cramp and a warm reminder of the world’s never-ending affection for “The Wizard of Oz.”

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