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I received a telephone call earlier this week from reader Hank Michalesko, 65, who is originally from Harvey, Ill., and now lives in South Holland, and who has been carefully following my coverage of this year's Wizard of Oz Festival this weekend in Porter County.

He had something interesting of his own to share with me, which I'm now passing along to readers.

"While growing up, my mother Elfrida Michalesko, whose maiden name was Herbst, had told me that we had 'little people' in our family tree," Herbst said.

"But as a kid, I never really understood what she was talking about. It wasn't until later, that I realized our family had our little brush with Hollywood fame in our family."

Herbst's mother was talking about her brother's son, Joseph Herbst, which would be his cousin.

Though the entire family came to this country from Austria in 1926 and settled in Joliet, Ill., Joseph, who was the only little person in the family, joined a traveling vaudeville musical troupe called "The Midget Singers" at age 16.

In 1937, he found himself in Hollywood after Columbia Pictures and director Sam Newfield announced casting for an entire feature film, with miniature sets, starring an all-midget cast.

"The Terror of Tiny Town," released in 1938 was an old-fashioned western with some silly twists (besides the fact that it featured all miniature actors and actresses), about a tiny gunslinger who comes to peaceful Tiny Town and causes trouble for the sheriff, who was played by Joseph Herbst.

"The first time I ever realized that I was related to a famous cousin was when I was in eighth grade," Hank told me.

"On Saturday mornings, they used to show old black and white movies, like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and Shirley Temple, and one time this movie 'Terror of Tiny Town' was the featured movie, and I remember my mom saying: 'Hey, that's your cousin!' I just remember being the most entertained by a scene in this western comedy where's there's this little angry chef with a German accent chasing a duck around his kitchen with a big knife."

However, at the time Joel said he was still to young to realize that his cousin "Little Joe" was featured in an even more famous film classic, MGM's 1939 movie legend "The Wizard of Oz."

"He's a little harder to see, but Joe played one of the Munchkin townsmen."

"Wizard of Oz" historian and author Stephen Cox, who wrote the first definitive book about the Munchkins, titled "The Munchkins Remember" (1989 E.P. Dutton $16.95), which was re-released and updated by Cox and Cumberland Press in 1996, told me Thursday he had traveled to Joliet to meet and interview Joseph Herbst who was already in his late 80s in 1988 while researching his book. He said Herbst had clear recollections of his movie days, which are included in Cox's books, but that he was ill and bedridden at the time and died the next year in 1989 when the book was released.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or 219.852.4327.


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