Before dinner with Groucho ... Before hitting the road with Hope and Crosby ... Before Seinfeld ... Nearly 70 years ago, Jerry Maren gave a lollipop to a young girl from Minnesota -- a staged gesture that would forever change his life.
The girl was Judy Garland. The setting was the filming of "The Wizard of Oz." And Maren, a teenager from Boston cast in his first major movie, suddenly found himself following a magical journey that has rarely drifted from the yellow brick road.
"I expected the worst, but Judy Garland was an angel," said Maren, now 88 and one of only eight surviving cast members -- all Munchkins -- left from Oz.
"If it was hot on the set, she'd tell the producer, 'For God's sakes, put the little people where it's cool.' When we went to her dressing room, she gave us chocolates."
She brought Maren fame. Every city Maren visits is the Emerald City. He's off to see Columbia Heights this Saturday and Sunday, where he will appear at the historic Heights Theatre for two 11 a.m. showings of the fully restored 35 mm print of the "Wizard of Oz." Tickets are $8 and the doors open at 9:30 a.m., when Maren will sign his autobiography, "Short and Sweet: The Life and Times of the Lollipop Munchkin." There will also be a silent auction of movie memorabilia.
Maren's appearance will benefit the Judy Garland Museum in Garland's hometown of Grand Rapids, Minn., where he has visited annually for festivals honoring the legendary star.
Not in Boston any more
Maren always had big dreams. And he knew that it would take more than wishing upon a star to make them real.
Born Gerald Marenghi in Boston, he was encouraged by his mother to get into show business at an early age. He took dance lessons with his sisters. "We weren't great," he said recently from his home. But he was good enough to land jobs working with the Boston Symphony in the Depression era.
He was 17 when a recruiter came to Boston, saying that 200 "little people" were needed for a movie.
"They told me about 'The Wizard of Oz.' I didn't know what to think. But at that stage of my career, I'd appear in any show."
Ultimately, 124 were cast for the "Wizard of Oz," including Maren. He and the others were paid $50 a week for six-day work weeks.
Toto was paid $125 a week, he said.
"But Judy never gave Toto chocolates," he said. "She didn't give Toto an 8-by-10 autographed picture."
There was something different about Maren, Donna Mason, the show's choreographer, told him.
"She liked that I was fast, that I took direction well," Maren said. "She said I'd be the best one for the Lollipop Kid."
Watch the movie again, and you'll see three Munchkins -- the Lollipop Guild -- make a presentation to Garland's Dorothy. Maren's the Munchkin in the middle.
But once the movie was released, in 1939, Maren continued his quest, looking far beyond over the rainbow. He appeared in "The Marx Brothers at the Circus," striking a friendship with Groucho Marx, who twice brought Maren to his home for dinner.
"The Marx Brothers were wonderful boys, but Groucho was especially kind to me," Maren said. "Lots of people were. I wonder why."
He speaks of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and his experience in "The Road to Morocco" fondly. But he's worked with everyone and every type of character -- from "Superman" to "The Odd Couple" to "The Beverly Hillbillies" to "The Bad News Bears" -- and says everyone's been nice to him. After Groucho, Jodie Foster and Fess Parker (TV's Daniel Boone) may have been the most generous.
Then there was the Seinfeld set. Maren appeared in a 1997 episode titled "The Yada Yada." Michael Richards (Kramer) joked around and offered cigars. But Jerry Seinfeld got serious. He wanted to know what it was like filming "The Wizard of Oz."
"Everybody wants to know," Maren said.
Maren still finds it hard to understand how, three years ago, someone could have stolen the sequined ruby slippers Dorothy wore -- the most famous pair of shoes in movie history and the toughest shoes to fill in Grand Rapids, Minn. The size 5 1/2 slippers, which once survived a trip from Oz to Kansas, skipping their way down a yellow brick road and nearly floating over the rainbow, aren't at the Children's Discovery Museum in Grand Rapids anymore.
The slippers, insured for $1 million, were never returned after they were stolen from the Judy Garland Museum, John Kelsch, director of the 14-year-old museum, said recently. But the museum does have Garland's Tony award and a gold record for "Over the Rainbow."
"What can you say about Judy Garland?" Maren asked. "She was the emerald in the Emerald City."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419