Beloved Sonoma resident Betty Ann Bruno passes away at 91
When 90-year-old Betty Ann Bruno appeared on the television show “To Tell the Truth” in May 2022, panelists and viewers were startled to learn that she had appeared as a Munchkin in the beloved 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.”
But their reactions most likely weren’t due as much to the Sonoma resident being in the film as they were to the perception that she seemed, in every way — including her lovely appearance, seemingly boundless energy, sharp wit and strong voice — far too young to have been in an 84-year-old film.
Many in Sonoma Valley were stunned and saddened to learn of the death of Bruno — who achieved success as a child actress, TV reporter and hula instructor — on Sunday, July 30. She was 91.
By Monday, more than 200 people had reached out to Bruno’s husband, Craig Scheiner.
She had just finished doing the “Pua Mana” ("Majestic, Everlasting Flower”) dance at the Hula Mai kanikapila (a gathering of people to make music) at the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club when she developed a sudden splitting headache. Scheiner drove her to the emergency room at Sonoma Valley Hospital, but when they reached the front desk, she had a massive heart attack and collapsed on the floor.
Bruno had been very active in the weeks before her passing, teaching hula classes and bopping around Sonoma, connecting with her many friends.
Scheiner attributed her long, vibrant life to good genes and regular exercise.
“She had no major health issues,” he said. “Her heart just wore out. She died of old age.”
She was in fine form when she traveled to Chittenango, New York, in June to participate in the Oz Stravaganza, the longest-running celebration of the book by L. Frank Baum and “all things Oz.”
Bruno, who was believed to be one of the last-living Munchkins, was honored throughout the event, riding in a parade, signing autographs, teaching hula dances and being named an honorary member of the International L. Frank Baum and All Things Oz Historical Foundation.
“It was really great to be able to experience the Oz Stravaganza with her and see how everyone there loved her just as much as we do,” said Hula Mai dancer Becky Zyskowski, who traveled to the event with Bruno.
Many people were aware of Bruno because of her appearance in “The Wizard of Oz,” but she had a successful career that spanned several fields.
She was born in Wahiawa on the Hawaii resident island of Oahu in 1931 to a Dutch-Irish father and a Chinese-Hawaiian mother. Her family moved to Hollywood when she was a young girl, and she began taking singing and dancing lessons.
Bruno appeared in several movies, but her film stint ended when her family moved to a small farm in San Jacinto, California.
She later attended Stanford University, where she graduated with a political science degree in 1953. She then worked for the CIA as a secretary, though she had been promised a spot in its junior officer training program. She met her first husband, Russell Bruno, while serving the CIA.
When Russell Bruno was accepted to UC Berkeley School of Law in 1966, the couple moved to the Bay Area and raised three sons.
Bruno joined the Oakland League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group focused on community issues. Oakland television station KTVU became aware of her activism and in 1971 hired her as a writer for the “10 O’clock News,” the station’s most-watched program.
The couple divorced after 31 years of marriage, but remained close friends. She subsequently married Craig Scheiner, a cameraman, producer and editor at KTVU.
Scheiner said that in 1977, his heart told him that she was “the one” for him. Bruno was known to joke that she married him because he helped her to get through her first day as a news reporter.
He said they were “like peas in a pod.”
“We worked together on everything,” he said. “We enjoyed each other’s company more than anything else. We always seemed skilled in complimentary areas.
“I loved her with all my heart. Nobody can replace her. She was my honey bunch.”
At KTVU, Bruno covered stories of national and local importance and won three Emmys: for breaking news, news-feature series and investigative series.
“She was proud that she was the best investigative reporter at KTVU,” Scheiner said. “Being the only reporter there who could take shorthand gave her a big advantage, plus she could easily access public records.”
Bruno covered the Oakland Hills Fire in October 1991 while her house there was burning.
“She stood on the producer’s roof in Lower Rockridge in Oakland and did live shots,” Scheiner said. “It was about three blocks from her house.”
Bruno retired from her television career in 1992, and the couple moved to Sonoma 10 years later. In 2009, she led a hula workshop at Vintage House senior center in Sonoma and it was so well-received that she decided to open Hula Mai, which offers classes in both modern and ancient hula to inspire a love for the hula and Hawaii resident culture.
Scheiner said that Bruno was proud to be one of the few people who could teach the old style of hula.
“Betty Ann always turned conversations around to the other person,” said Hula Mai dancer Gail Ford, who also accompanied Bruno to the Oz Stravaganza this year. “She rarely or never said ‘no’ to anything, and gave so generously of her time to any dancer needing more help, any time of day or night. She was always willing to cram 48 hours of work and fun into every 24 hours.”
Hula Mai will be performing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds at Shade Park Stage 2 on Saturday at 2 p.m.
“It’s what Betty Ann would have wanted,” Scheiner said.
Ford added, “There was no one like Betty Ann … larger than life in such a tiny (5 feet, 1 inch) package, and we will all try to keep her spirit alive by thinking of what she would want us to do.”
She is survived by her husband, Craig Scheiner; brother, Everett; grandchild, Chelsea; and great-grandchildren, Jimmy and Emily.
A memorial service will be held, but details have not been announced.
Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at firstname.lastname@example.org.