03 March 2015

Four- Feet Tall and Searching

Who's your favorite Wizard of Oz character?  Dorothy? Scarecrow? Perhaps the great and powerful Oz himself?

Position wanted ad from Billboard, January 22, 1921

My favorite is a character, who, despite decades of watching the film - first on the annual CBS television broadcast in the 1960s, then on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, and finally Blu-Ray - I have never actually seen.


I am talking about my cousin John Ballas.  My grandfather's cousin more precisely - but mine too, because that's how those things work - who appeared with dozens of other little people as a Munchkin in the classic 1939 MGM film.  And it's not correct to say I have never seen him in the film.  I must have.  I just didn't know which one he was!

Story from the Buffalo Courier Express, October 23, 1927

Johnny, a native of Brooklyn, NY, got his start in show business in 1919 at the age of 16.  Two years later, probably eager to break out of the Coney Island sideshow world, he placed an ad in Billboard providing prospective employers with his most vital statisitics.

I am a midget, 18 years of age, height, 3 ft., 11 in.; 60 lbs.  Have had one year and six months experience in show business.  Would like to get with good, reliable show company.

1927 advertisement from the Buffalo Courier Express

By the mid 1920s, Johnny was working regularly in vaudeville, including a revue called Midgets' Pastime, which included future fellow Munchkins the Hoy Sisters.

Tonowanda News, October 27, 1926

Evidently John Ballas was no small talent (pun intended), and soon graduated to Broadway, appearing in the 1930 revival of Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland.

The Taming of the Shrew 1935 program, John Ballas among the dwarfs

In 1935, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne had an idea to add dwarfs to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and John Ballas was given one of those four unique roles.

December 28, 1935 New York Post

Many of the little people who answered the call for The Wizard of Oz were part of the Singer's Midgets troupe.  Others, like John Ballas, were working actors with long resumes.  Several were given featured roles in Munchkinland - the Mayor, the Coroner, the Lollipop Guild trio, etc. - but John Ballas was not among them.  He was one of the many dozens, spectacularly costumed, but more or less employed in filling out the scenes.

Munchkins with actor Victor McLaglen on the backlot of MGM.  John Ballas is second from left.
I have only been able to find a couple of photos of my cousin from his Wizard of Oz experience - neither in costume or on the set.  Still, I will keep looking for that needle in a Munchkin-land haystack.  At nearly four feet tall, he shouldn't be THAT hard to find!

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