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Obituary: Mickey Carroll retained his 'Munchkin' allure

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2009 - When a musician records only one chart-topping tune, he or she is known as a "one-hit wonder." The same doesn’t necessarily apply to movie stars. Well, at least not Mickey Carroll. Mr. Carroll, whose real name was Michael Finocchiaro, got more mileage out of one film than many actors get out of a lifetime of movie roles. That’s because the film was the 1939 MGM classic “The Wizard of Oz” and Mr. Carroll was one of the Munchkins in the beloved classic.

Actually, he was several of the munchkins:  He was the Munchkinland "Town Crier,” a "Munchkin Soldier" and one of the candy-striped "Fiddlers" who escorted Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City.

It was a joyous, musical escort that kept Mr. Carroll strolling along for seven decades and raising money for his favorite charitable causes.

Mr. Carroll died Thursday (May 7, 2009)  at the home of his caretaker in Crestwood. He was 89. Visitation for Mr. Carroll will be Tuesday afternoon and evening, followed by funeral services on Wednesday morning.

Mr. Carroll had returned to the St. Louis area after his brief, but wildly successful movie career and had lived in Bel-Nor for seven decades.

Mr. Carroll and his twin sister were born on July 8, 1919.  He attended Patrick Henry School growing up in St. Louis. But while under contract to MGM, he went to Hollywood High School with the likes of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. It was Garland, he said, who offered him a part in “The Wizard of Oz” and a place to stay during the filming.

He was one of more than 100 adults and children who were cast to play Munchkins in a make-believe world that author L. Frank Baum and illustrator W.W. Denslow called Munchkin Country in their much-beloved children’s book, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," which was published in 1900.

The “Official Mickey Carroll Web Site” details the sometimes difficult journey that took Mr. Carroll to Munchkinland and beyond. He notes that even as a boy, he had the urge to entertain, entering every amateur contest he could find, took free dance lessons at the St. Louis Fox Theater and used those hoofing lessons onstage at the Muny. Suddenly at age 9, he stopped growing. He topped out at 4’7” and just over 80 pounds. But with undaunted will and the help of a 6-foot tall brother, he found work in vaudeville as a singer, a dancer and an emcee.

His father died while Mr. Carroll was in his teens. He helped support his family by working in vaudeville at the newly opened Fox Theatre.

At 17, he played a role as a bellhop in the "Call for Phillip Morris" live radio ads, and by age 18, he was appearing in shows with Mae West and performing as the emcee at several of Al Capone's famous Chicago nightclubs.

He gave up living dangerously when “the” role came along. In 1939, Mr. Carroll was invited to Hollywood to play a part in “The Wizard of Oz.”

His post-“Oz” days included movie voiceovers and more vaudeville. He even entertained presidents, serving as the warm-up act for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman during their presidential campaigns. He also did radio shows with some of the biggest names of their era: George Burns, Gracie Allen, Jack Benny and Al Jolson.

Although he would forever carry the celebrity that Munchkinhood had bestowed, he left Hollywood for good in the mid-1940s, and returned to St. Louis to run the family business, Standard Monument Co. on St. Charles Rock Road, which he operated until he sold it in 1996.

Unbeknownst to many of his fans, Mr. Carroll was an artist and a painter, as well as a skilled artisan. He was literally a hands-on manager, a stone carver like his grandfather before him, working on many of the headstones that his company made. It was a skill customers across the nation appreciated, and they spread the word.

“He made everyone comfortable,” said Linda Dodge, his friend and caretaker. “A lot of people came to him because they remembered the work he had done for them previously, and they would come again or send others.”

(Dodge is at odds with some of Mr. Carroll’s relatives. Mr. Carroll's estate, estimated at more than $1 million, is in dispute by family members, including a niece, Jan Finocchiaro, of Dallas, Tex., said the family's attorney, Patrick J. McCarthy. Dodge claims that Mr. Carroll was estranged from his family, except a disabled nephew for whom he cared for about 40 years)

There is a story that when the burial place of L. Frank Baum's niece, Dorothy Gage, was rediscovered, Mr. Carroll replaced her deteriorated headstone with one produced by his family's tombstone company.

Although during interviews in years past Mr. Carroll said that the Munchkins made only $125 a week while filming “Oz,” his one great role gave him a lifetime of recognition. In fact, he couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized.

“We’d be at an event or a game – he was an avid Cards, Rams and Blues fan – and Mick would say, ‘Linda, I’ve got to get out of here; I’m running out of (autograph) pictures',” Dodge laughed.

“He always put his fans first and was glad to sign autographs. He was the most recognizable Munchkin of them all and he gave so much of his time.<

“Of course he told the same stories hundreds, maybe thousands of times, but it always thrilled him to see the people’s faces as he told his stories. No matter how tired he was, he cared about his fans.”

Some of that time was given to Backstoppers; it was during an event for the fire and police support organization about 20 years ago that he and Dodge met.

“I gave him a ride home and we’ve been friends ever since,” Dodge said. “He always told me that if he had a daughter, he wished it were me. And I told him I appreciated that.”

Mr. Carroll also received tangible recognition for his work. In 2007, along with six of the other remaining Munchkins, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A year earlier, he had been honored with a star on the Missouri Walk of Fame in Marshfield, Mo. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Roland Williams Youth Foundation.

But there was an award he coveted that he never received and in an interview with the Riverfront Times in 2007, he called the award’s denial “a kick in the head.”

He wanted recognition from his hometown by way of a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in the Delmar Loop in University City. In 2007, Mr. Carroll’s name was on the ballot, but he did not receive enough votes to get the honor. The denial was attributed to a dispute with the award’s founder, Joe Edwards, the owner of Blueberry Hill. Edwards had alleged some discrepancies in Mr. Carroll’s career claims and noted that Mr. Carroll would not be eligible for the award again until 2012. At the time, Dodge, who had campaigned for the award on Mr. Carroll’s behalf, noted that might be too late.

“Mick really wanted that (star on the Walk of Fame) to happen,” Dodge said. “He was very upset; I was very upset. We wanted a place for the St. Louis people to pay their respects.” And she still wants it for him, even posthumously.

Edwards did not rule out the possibility, but he didn't make any promises, either. "Mickey was a very, very kind and wonderful man," Edwards said.  "But at the time they voted, the people voting just didn't think Mickey had the required impact on culture.  There are only three inductees a year, so it's just very difficult to get in. A few years from now, I may put him back on the ballot."

Throughout his life, Mr. Carroll made numerous appearances each year, serving as a grand marshal in parades, appearing on nationwide radio and television shows, and, of course, raising funds for worthy causes.

His caretaker called him “a small man with a big heart.” Mr. Carroll estimated that he used his Munchkin fame to raise more than $2 million ver the years.   The charities that he helped raise money for was included The Amanda Cates Memorial Scholarship Fund, for victims of domestic violence, The Adoption Exchange, Basket of Hope, Albert Pujols’ Family Foundation, The Backstoppers Inc., The Special Olympics and The National Kidney Foundation.

More than two decades after “The Wizard of Oz” hit the silver screen, its television release in 1960 breathed new life into Mr. Carroll’s celebrity and every generation since knows the Munchkin song: “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

But that was not Mr. Carroll’s mantra. His parting words were always “may the magic of Oz always be with you.”

Mr. Carroll was preceded in death by his parents, Joe and Josephine Finocchiaro, and his five siblings. Mr. Carroll never married or had children. In addition to his niece, among his survivors is his nephew for whom he cared for about 40 years, Frank Parenti, of Crestwood.

Visitation for Mr. Carroll will be from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday May at Kutis Funeral Home, 10151 Gravois Road, Affton, Mo. 63123. Services will be at 10 a.m. on Wednesday at Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, 4431 Lindell Blvd.

Mr. Carroll requested that “flowers” be given in the form of contributions to his favorite charities.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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