Joan Kenmore is one of only a handful of people who can say they danced on the Yellow Brick Road in one of America’s most beloved movies, The Wizard of Oz.
When she was 7, she was cast as a Munchkin in the movie because there weren't enough little people to tell the story. Kenmore said there was one child to every two little people—about 10 or 12 children in all.
"Dancing on the Yellow Brick Road was fun, but the children had to stay in the back of the little people. They had a contract that none of the little girls would have bigger parts," said Kenmore, 79, a Dana Point resident, dressed in a purple sweat suit surrounded by her collection of Wizard of Oz memorabilia. "I stood in the back, on the far right with my flowerpot hat. We took the same steps as Judy did," she said, referring to actress Judy Garland, the star.
"Outside of Joan, I know of these other surviving 'child Munchkins' (or some call Munchkids): Betty Ann Bruno, Priscilla Montgomery, Ardith Dondanville, Elaine Mirk and Valerie Shepard," he said. "All are around the same age, and all have equally fond memories of making the film."
While some of the former child dancers recall being up in the huts for the filming, waving out of the windows, some of them are quite clearly among the dwarfs in the city square singing and dancing during the scene, Cox said.
"The reason MGM hired about a dozen young female dancers, around age 8 to 10 or so, was because they were lacking little women; the number of male midgets outnumbered the female greatly at that time. These young ladies were dancers who were used to being in recitals and such, taking direction and working alongside other dancers."
No Judy Meetings
Now standing at 5 foot 3, Kenmore said she remembers going to the casting call to vie for a part in the 1939 film along with a lot of other little girls. Her mother, Florence Leonard, who had been an extra in a silent movie, thought Joan would be a perfect choice because she had also studied dance.
“I did my ballet routine in the casting call, and they hired me,” she said.
She said making the movie was a lot of fun, but it was also hard work.
“I liked being on the set, from what I can remember. The little people were fun,” she said, laughing, “even though they were cranky because we were in their huts playing house.
“We had to sit in those little huts for hours in Munchkinland. Ours was the third on the right. There were two girls and two little people, and we'd be in the hut playing house. We also ate our boxed lunches inside, but the real stars got to eat in the commissary."
She also recalled the "awful pancake makeup" that all the Munchkins had to wear.
“It smelled so awful. I could not wait to come home and wash it off. I can still smell it. They used the same sponge for everyone to apply it. I also remember being scared of the monkeys and when the black smoke came from the Wicked Witch."
Kenmore also had to go to school on the MGM movie lot and earned $8.09 a day for a five-day workweek for two hours.
“Mom put the $8 in an account, and I had 9 cents for candy. We had to stand in line to get paid, and it was in cash,” she said, laughing. “When I think back about it, that was pretty good money, considering after high school, I was an elevator operator at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949 and made $37.50 for the week. The midgets made $50 per week.”
A Showbiz Background
Kenmore grew up in a show business family and was raised in Los Angeles. Her father was a wholesale clothier. Her grandmother Marie Leonard was also an extra in a few silent movies, as was her Aunt Julie, who appeared in about seven.
Her first cousin is the late Jackie Cooper of The Little Rascals fame. Kenmore’s late brother, Roger, was also in the movies and had small parts in Boys Town and Men of Boys Town, both films starring Spencer Tracy.
“We lived in L.A., and my mother would always take us to these cattle calls,” she recalled. “Roger had one line in Boys Town: 'Yes, sir,’ he said to Spencer Tracy. I think he got a few extra bucks.”
Kenmore said she spent her younger years visiting Cooper at his family's home in the Holmby Hills.
“Just Garland would be there, Mickey Rooney, Deanna Durbin, Bonita Granville—who was engaged to Jackie at one time—and Van Heflin,” she said. “It wasn’t a big deal because we were used to it. I remember we went to Jackie’s house once, and he was in this little room playing his drums."
As for her own movie career, Kenmore said she was not interested in pursuing films after she made Oz. After working as an elevator operator, she modeled, and later she had six children—five sons and a daughter. She has 13 grandkids.
Kenmore also worked in Beverly Hills for Gene Shacove, who was the inspiration for the film Shampoo, in the early 1950s before moving to Orange County and to Laguna Niguel in 1988. She has lived in Dana Point for 20 years.
She was present when the Munchkins received their star (No. 2,352) on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007.
"I just look back at it, and it was no big deal," she said. "I think my kids and grandkids are more impressed and excited about me being in the film than I ever was. But it was fun."