HANNIBAL - When a professional group of Wizard of Oz characters from Indiana led the Oz Days celebration at the Hannibal Inn and Suites on Saturday, they had a special little person to introduce to the huge crowd attending.
Mary Ellen St. Aubin, whose late husband, Parnell St. Aubin, was a munchkin in the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, was honored as the first lady of the celebration.
St. Aubin later explained she is introduced as age 99 but actually will celebrate her 99th birthday on Sept. 21. "I don't mind be called a midget," she said. "All our life we've been called midgets, and now they have a nationwide club called Little People of America.
St. Aubin is 3-foot-7, and her husband was an inch shorter. Still in good health, St. Aubin enjoys traveling from her home in Chicago to two or three Oz events each year,
"At every Oz thing I go to, they are all very polite," she said.
St. Aubin and her husband were reared in Chicago but did not meet until both had returned after ending their show business careers. She appeared in only one movie, Three Wise Fools. His only movie role was in the Wizard of Oz.
Parnell was 16 years old when he read a newspaper ad seeking midgets for a movie. He went to Hollywood and said he was 18, because otherwise he would have had to attend school during the day as the movie was made.
"He turned 17 when they were making it," St. Aubin said, adding about the Wizard of Oz: "It's wonderful that for 80 years it's still popular."
She and many other midgets lied about their age to get hired, and no one was to concerned about that, she explained.
Asked if her husband enjoyed becoming an actor, she said: "When you are a kid, it's fun but hard work.
"In the movie he was the smallest soldier in the munchkin army. They marched and had to dance and sing, but the singing was dubbed in," because some munchkins were from other countries and had accents.
Parnell met Judy Garland and some of the others stars of the movie, Mary Ellen said. "But when the munchkin scene was over, the munchkins went home."
"I didn't meet him until after I quit show business in 1947," she said. "I was moving around for 13 years and figured it was time to settle down. He was 25, and I was 27 when we were married."
Parnell had returned to Chicago and finished high school and college, then because of his size he could not serve in the U.S. military during World War II, so he worked as a riveter at an aircraft company.
After they were married, they owned and operated a bar in Chicago for 32 years.
They had no children, she said, because, "I didn't want children with somebody else raising them (or raising them in a bar)."
It was challenging for midgets to run a bar for everyone, she said. "Instead of bar stools, we had regular size chairs." Sometimes other midgets came in. Although it was challenging, she said, "We loved it, and it worked out great. We tried hiring people, but they didn't want to work Friday and Saturday night. If you're going to be in business, you have to work those hours. So we ran it ourselves.
"It was a good crowd," she continued. "If anybody started swearing, my husband would say 'quiet, quiet.' We did not have a TV in the bar, and the wives were happy about that. They said their husbands would talk to them, with no TV."
St. Aubin had two sisters and Parnell had three sisters and three brothers. Her sisters are deceased, but she still has a big family because, "They had 11 children, and those 11 had 14. So I have little nieces and nephews."
Asked how she stays healthy and strong at age 98, she said, "I keep moving. I always say you gotta keep moving. I live alone and go out with my friends to dinner and meet people."
She added that being small is not a problem, and she has regular furniture, explaining that midgets learn to adapt to it.
"Like little kids, they learn to climb. If I had little furniture, my friends wouldn't be able to visit me."
In addition to meeting St. Aubin and posing for photos with the Oz characters, the people attending Oz Days learned about the International Wizard of Oz Club of Grand Rapids, Mich. This is an all-volunteer organization that publishes a magazine three times a year. More details are available at ozclub.org.