Monday, April 26, 2010

Most Sincerely Dead

Meinhardt Raabe


You probably heard of this guy's death a few weeks ago. His singular claim to fame was as the munchkin coroner who proclaimed the Wicked Witch of the East's death by falling house. He was born and raised in Wisconsin, and headed to Hollywood when he read there was work for midgets there (yes, I know we are now inflicted with the term "little people" to describe the pint-sized folk, but Raabe always referred to himself as a midget).
He was cast as the coroner in The Wizard of Oz on the basis of his reading of that all-important death announcement:

"As coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her
And she's not only merely dead
She's really, most sincerely dead! "

His performance lasted only 13 seconds in the finished film, but then, Ellen Burstyn won an Emmy nomination for a 14 second performance in the TV film Mrs. Harris, so what the hell? In fact, Raabe's voice is not heard in the final cut of the film; the munchkin voices were dubbed by other actors and then accelerated in the editing room.

Our boy had a long career on the road, as Oscar Meyer's spokesman, where he was known as "Little Oscar, the World's Smallest Chef," and in 1936, two years before pronouncing Wicked's Nessarose dead on film, he had been the first passenger in the Oscar Meyer weinermobile.

After filming Oz, he served with distinction in WWII, and earned a graduate degree in business administration. His marriage to his wife Margaret Marie lasted 50 years, until her death in a car accident in 1997, in which he was also injured.

Raabe always remained available to attend Oz commemorative events, and was present when the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz received their own star on the Hollywoood Walk of Fame.

The coroner of Munchkinland died last week at the age of 94.

I don't usually note the passing of sports figures, but this one caught my eye:

George Nissen


He was a gymnast and a diver in high school, and a trip to the circus started him a-thinkin'. He wondered if the net the trapeze artists used could be adapted to help him in his own training.

He crafted some canvas and pieces of rubber from old tires, and by the time he reached college, he had a prototype. He took it to a YMCA swimming camp, where he suspected he had something special when the kids stopped swimming completely and clamored for turns on what he referred to as "the bouncer." He teamed up with two fellow gymnasts and toured the country as the Three Leonardos, performing what he called "rebound tumbling."

He found a permanent name for his invention from the Spanish word for diving board. He had created the trampoline, and he staged a series of exhibitions and photo ops to introduce the invention to the world. His favorite publicity photo was taken in Central Park in 1960; he rented a kangaroo for the occasion:
Nissen was in the front row in Sydney in 2000, when the trampoline became an Olympic sport. He died a few weeks ago at the age of 96.

This guy's death brought back a flood of memories for me, of my early teen years:

Peter Haskell


He was an actor who spent his career in episodic television, and the occasional feature (he was in the Childs Play series of horror films). The list of programs in which he guested includes (are you ready?) The Outer Limits, Dr. Kildare, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ben Casey, The Fugitive, Charlie's Angels, Garrison's Gorillas, The Big Valley, Mannix, Medical Center, Barnaby Jones, Vega$, Matlock, Frasier, Columbo, JAG, The Closer, and Cold Case. He also spent time on the soaps Search for Tomorrow and Ryan's Hope. Back in the early 70s, I was personally thrilled when he starred in a Movie of the Week (that's what we called TV movies back then, ABC presented one every single week). This flick was also a pilot, called The Eyes of Charles Sand, and he teamed up with my favorite Dark Shadows alum Joan Bennett. That film did not go to series, for good reason, it was lousy.

Haskell first came to my attention as the star of another lousy series, though I did not know how crummy it was at the time.

When I was in the 8th and 9th grade, whenever there was a home game for the North Springs High football team, I would attend the Friday night event. Don't raise your eyebrows, I went only for the social aspect, I really couldn't have cared less about the actual game. But once the game was over, instead of joining the gang at Bella Pizza, I dashed home, mixed up a mug of hot chocolate, and settled in front of the TV to watch Bracken's World.
Never heard of it? Not surprising, as it struggled through only a season and a half before expiring. It was a melodramatic look at the lives of movie makers. Shot on the lot of 20th Century Fox, which doubled as "Century Studios," where the action took place, the ensemble series was headlined, initially, by aging film star Eleanor Parker, who played the executive assistant (read: secretary) of the studio head Bracken. Bracken himself remained unseen, though we occasionally heard him on the intercom or the phone. There were three young starlets in the series, including one played by Linda Harrison, who had married the head of Fox Studios, Richard Zanuck, and was thereby getting some help with her career (at the time, she was also starring in the original Planet of the Apes, as the mute hottie who mates with Charlton Heston).

I was enamored of all things show-biz back then, and had no idea how inaccurate this portrayal of life on a studio lot was, so I loved Bracken's World. The show was not a success, though somehow it survived into a second season; the writers tried to save the show by bringing the studio head onto the canvas. Parker left the show, and Leslie Neilson, back when he was a dramatic actor, was cast as the long-absent Bracken. It didn't do much to improve the ratings, and the show died before completing its second year.

Peter Haskell played my favorite character in the show, a womanizing film director with an alcoholic wife and a determination to make great movies. He interacted with most of the guest stars of the show, including Lee Grant (playing a lesbian gossip columnist), Ann Baxter (playing an aging film star), and Lois Nettleton (playing an actress faced with a nude scene...shocking!...) and a host of others. One of the fun factors of the series was the steady stream of cameo appearances by stars, playing themselves. Apparently, anyone who was on the Fox studio lot at any one time was fair game to be snagged by the Bracken's World team, to contribute a ten-second walk-on. The show also gave opportunities to the younger guest actors on the scene, including a pre-Waltons Richard Thomas, who played a fundamentalist nutcase who kidnapped one of our starlets, and Sally Field, post-Flying Nun and pre-Sybil, playing a left-wing activist with a penchant for publicity.

Can you tell I remember this series quite well? I have purchased a handful of episodes on EBay, all very poorly recorded on ancient video. The series itself may never be released on DVD, considering it was not a hit, and it contains so many appearances by the rich and famous. The studio system which the series portrayed was already dead and buried by the time the show aired in 1969, and some of the plotlines are pretty laughable, but I still hold Bracken's World close to my heart.

Peter Haskell died last week at the age of 75.