Margaret Pellegrini, one of the three surviving original Munchkins from the legendary 1939 MGM film "The Wizard of Oz," died early Wednesday in an assisted living care center near Phoenix, Ariz. She was 89, and would have celebrated her 90th birthday on Sept. 23.
Pellegrini, who was a favorite personality at Chesterton's annual Wizard of Oz Festival, had heart surgery in July 2011 for a pacemaker, and more recently, had suffered a series of strokes.
She held the distinction of playing two roles in the Munchkinland scene in the classic film that starred Judy Garland. Both Pellegrini and Garland were just 16 years old at the time they were cast for the film, which features Pellegrini portraying both a Munchkin townslady wearing a flowerpot hat, as well as one of the Munchkin "Sleepy Heads," shown emerging from a giant nest and rubbing their tired eyes.
Jean Nelson, who founded The Wizard of Oz Festival in 1981, confirmed Pellegrini's death Thursday.
"Margaret was living in a retirement home and had been in frail health in recent months," Nelson said.
"I met Margaret at a 'Wizard of Oz' festival in Liberal, Kan. She was very business oriented, and I think that's why we got along so well."
Pellegrini was the only Munchkin who attended last year's 31st annual Wizard of Oz Festival in Chesterton. Following the event, the organizers later announced 2012 would be the final festival.
Of the original 124 "little people" cast as Munchkins, now only two survive, Jerry Maren, 93, who played the Munchkin leader of The Lollipop Guild, who so famously presents Dorothy with a large welcoming lollipop, and Ruth Duccini, 95, who played a Munchkin townswoman.
Born Margaret Williams in Sheffield, Ala., her path to fame began when her sister's husband asked her to attend the Tennessee State Fair, to help at a booth hosted by the potato chip company where he worked. Standing at just 3 feet, 4 inches, she was noticed by the little people traveling as part of Henry Kramer's Midgets Show. According to author Stephen Cox and his book "The Munchkins of Oz," she gave the traveling troupe her address and was later contacted by a booking agent for Leo Singer and his Singing Midgets Show, asking her to travel to Hollywood because "little people" were needed for a movie being made.
In later years, while many of the other Munchkins, who also made personal appearances, refused to wear replicas of the whimsical costumes of their Munchkinland character counterparts, Pellegrini was happy to oblige.
Sporting a large, puffy, petticoat floor-length dress with matching apron and a custom re-created flowerpot hat just like the one she wore in the film, Pellegrini became one of the most visible of the remaining Munchkins.
"When she would fly in to appear at the annual festival, Margaret would always have her hat carefully protected in a hat box (that was) always carried in her sight," said her friend Carla Sellers, who also was one of the organizers for the Wizard of Oz Festival in Chesterton.
Pellegrini appeared on countless television interview shows, from "Larry King Live" and "Good Morning America" to daytime talk shows such as "Geraldo." During the holidays, she would don the jingle-bell adorned uniform of an elf from the North Pole and work at shopping malls as "Santa's helper" to the delight of children there to visit the man in red.
She married ex-fighter Willie Pellegrini in 1943 and the couple had two children, Margaret Jo and William Joseph Jr. She also is survived by three granddaughters, Donelle, Anna and Juliet and one grandson, Billy. Funeral arrangements are pending.