Totally true encounters with Munchkins, the World’s Tallest Man, and the King of Cool

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Pop culture aficionado Steve Cox and Munchkin Jerry Maren mark the 75th anniversary of the iconic “Wizard of Oz” with a cake on August 15, 2014. Cox co-wrote Maren’s memoir, “Short and Sweet: The Life and Times of the Lollipop Munchkin.” At the time of his passing four years later at the seasoned age of 98, Maren was the last surviving Munchkin. Image Credit: The Steve Cox Collection

Stephen (Steve) Cox ably demonstrates his astronomical lucky streak in an exclusive sit-down summit unleashed this morning. Possessing a genuine flair for tracking down celebrities since he was a teenager growing up in 1970s era St. Louis, the diligent retro pop culture aficionado has 22 books to his credit on diverse pop culture subjects ranging from One Fine Stooge: Larry Fine’s Frizzy Life in Pictures to his most recent, The Incredible Mr. Don Knotts: An Eye-Popping Look at His Movies.

Published during the 50th anniversary festivities surrounding The Wizard of Oz, Cox’s second tome, The Munchkins Remember, actually gained him the most notoriety. The freelance writer scoured the countryside for the little people, most living modestly in anonymity. Of the 124 Munchkins officially cast in the iconic 1939 film, Cox located the 33 then alive and convinced them to share their fantastic memories for the first time.

Several intriguing projects are on the author’s to-do list, but the one that has him most excited is an illustrated coffee table book, Hunted Giant: The Life and Legend of Robert Wadlow, World’s Tallest Man, devoted to the Guinness Book of World Records reigning champion.

When the “Alton, Illinois, Gentle Giant” was discovered by journalists, he didn’t have much choice but to tour the country when instantaneous celebrity was thrust upon him. Complicating matters was a particular blood thirsty country doctor who stalked the bespectacled, shy young man.

He was only 22 when he passed away unexpectedly in July 1940 in a rinky dink Michigan hotel room due to blood poisoning caused by a malfunctioning leg brace. Measuring an unheard of 8 feet, 11 inches — you read that correctly — Wadlow was still growing at the time of his death.

No doubt about it, Cox has traveled from one giant spectrum to another. Yours truly caught up with the talented wordsmith and asked why he chose the story of the World’s Tallest Man to chronicle as well as his inherent fascination with the Munchkins. Stick around as Cox also sheds light on his frequent encounters at the Beverly Hills Hamburger Hamlet with the swingin’ King of Cool, Dean Martin.

The Steve Cox Interview

Name a few autographs that you especially treasure.

I have one from Buddy Ebsen, a Beverly Hillbillies shot of the cast with the palm trees in the background, and he inscribed to me: “Californy is the place you oughta be…” I have some gems where actors wrote their real name for me, like Don Adams signing “Donald Yarmy,” his given name.

Unusual things like that intrigue me. It’s difficult to pin down my favorites after thirty years of collecting. I have a really nice Dean Martin shot of he and I outside Hamburger Hamlet in Beverly Hills, and he signed it “Cheers! Dean Martin.” Simple and signed beautifully. It’s one of the few photos of myself I don’t mind glancing at once in a while.

I also have a vintage comic book collection (mostly the ’60s TV show comics, like Dell and Gold Key, with those beautiful color photo covers) signed by the stars on the covers. I have a beautiful Three Stooges comic signed by Moe, Larry, and Curly-Joe which came from a friend who knew the Stooges and got it signed.

We did a little trade. That’s a neat piece for me. Curly Joe actually signed my first comic book for me back in 1979 when I met him.

How did you meet Dean Martin, who was virtually a recluse after losing son Dean Paul in a California National Guard jet crash and an ill-timed “Together Again” stadium tour reuniting the crooner with fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.?

I met Dean many times in the early 1990s because he would frequent the Hamburger Hamlet restaurant in Beverly Hills as a regular thing for dinner on Sunday nights. Keep in mind, Hamburger Hamlet is not some hamburger joint, it’s a really nice place to eat with a terrific bar with a beautiful, comfortable atmosphere.

He seemed to like the place immensely because he went there every Sunday night, almost religiously. I’d say hello sometimes in the restaurant and it was a common thing to see him sitting in the bar and having his usual angel hair pasta dinner and a drink, usually alone.

Most people did not bother him, but there were times when some fans overstayed their hello and the bartender would intercede. I saw that happen a few times. Or a celebrity would stop by and say hello.

I noticed Jerry Seinfeld very respectfully approaching him one evening and talking with him briefly. Also, Elizabeth Montgomery was having dinner there one evening and as she left she said hello and gave him a kiss on the cheek. I realized later they’d made a movie together called Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed? [1963].

Dean was not in good condition at that time, unfortunately. He moved very slowly like a 99 year old man with that old man shuffle and his body had just begun to deteriorate. But there he was on Sunday nights.

Dean didn’t say much usually, but was unfailingly kind to fans when coming and going outside the restaurant. It was a treat to meet such a legend and talented guy like that.

One time I spoke with him about the Three Stooges and asked him to sign a photo I had of him with the Stooges from the 1963 western 4 for Texas, costarring Frank Sinatra, where he delivers the triple-slap to the guys. Dean said, “I was just givin’ them what they gave everybody else.”

When not writing, what do you enjoy doing?

I love movies, vintage television, my new HD TV, Blu-ray movies, live plays, musicals, collecting autographs and memorabilia, writing, family, friends, and the rest that life brings me.

What is your best-selling book?

I’d say my best-selling (out of 22 titles) would have to be the book about the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. It was first published in 1989 for the 50th anniversary of the classic film.

The original title was The Munchkins Remember, and I’ve produced two more revised editions under the title The Munchkins of Oz. It just recently went out of print — after 20 years, believe it or not.

It’s funny, but when my book first hit the stores years ago, some readers assumed I was a midget, since I wrote the book. I had to clarify in my bio, I’m 5-feet-6. I’m short, but not that short. I like little people. I’ve always been fascinated by them, especially those who went into show business.

I’ve kept an open file on Oz and the Munchkins, and I’ll probably assemble one final revised edition in time for the 80th anniversary of the film. When I started that book in the late 1980s, there were 33 of the midgets alive. I always wondered who would be the last one standing [i.e. Jerry Maren, the green-garbed member of the Lollipop Guild who hands a lollipop to Dorothy].

The Incredible Mr. Don Knotts: An Eye-Popping Look at His Movies [2008] was my most recent book. Right now I am working on a Flintstones book due later this year or early next year.

Is there a project that you’re particularly proud to have written?

I must say that I’m probably most proud of the Munchkin book because of the sheer amount of research and painstaking problems I had to overcome and all of that which went along with locating these individuals some 50 years after they had made the film.

Most of the midgets — more aptly called little people today — were quietly living their lives in retirement in their individual cities around the country, and no one had searched like I did to locate them. I’m proud of the job I did to locate them and to put their memories in print and document their lives.

Many of the midgets went on to make numerous appearances and greet fans all over the nation since my book introduced them to the public. And, I rather think it helped them in their later years — not only financially but provided them a happier retirement with such adulation from fans.

Some of them traveled and strutted down red carpets in all areas of the country. One Munchkin was invited to an appearance in Australia. It was something most of them never expected in their final years. Beyond that, I absolutely love One Fine Stooge: Larry Fine’s Frizzy Life in Pictures.

If fans wish to acquire an autographed copy of one of your books, how should they proceed?

There are no book signings set up this year so far. I occasionally visit a Wizard of Oz fest or two. I absolutely love attending Wamego, Kansas, for their annual event in October [i.e. Oztoberfest].

How did the idea of writing about Robert Wadlow, the World’s Tallest Man, come to fruition?

My father and uncle went to a shoe fair with my grandfather years ago and saw Robert Wadlow in person. This was in the late 1930s, and my grandfather worked for International Shoe Company in St. Louis, the company who made Robert’s massive size 37AA shoes and hired him to promote their product.

I’d always heard about “The Alton Giant” since I was a kid from my grandparents, and the area of Alton, Illinois is not far from north St. Louis, where I grew up. As a kid, when you hear about an actual giant who lived and breathed in a town nearby, you listen intently. I wanted to know about this human being, this creature…

His story always intrigued me, and I’ve been researching Robert since the mid-‘90s. I mean, this guy was 8-feet-11 when he died, and he toured the country to meet people. His end is a sad one, and his life is somewhat tragic in one sense.

Robert languished away in a hotel room bed in Manistee, Michigan, the victim of blood poisoning. He had developed an abrasion on his ankle from a faulty leg brace that progressed to an infection, and it went untreated. He had very little feeling in some of his extremities.

Following a 4th of July parade, Robert went back to his hotel room, and doctors could not get his temperature down. He did not want to be moved to a hospital. This was about a year before the introduction of penicillin for wide use in the United States, so he missed his cure by a year or so when he died in 1940.

Robert was not only put through a life of gawks, gasps, and stares, but some in the medical field quite literally wanted his bones. His parents made sure the medical profession did not have access to his body upon death. Those were his wishes. By age 20, he detested doctors.

He only has distant cousins surviving and some nieces and nephews. Some of the family has been supportive, and others do not wish to speak about Robert for some reason. It’s been a strange reaction across the board.

Did you come across any vintage interviews with Robert?

Very few. He had stock answers for the press. There are only a couple of surviving transcription albums from radio interviews where Robert actually speaks and you hear his guttural booming voice. He sounded like someone talking into a barrel.

If Robert hadn’t developed the blister on his ankle, do you think he could have survived much longer?

I doubt he would have lived into his thirties. He was just growing at a nice clip and his body would not have been able to handle the growth. Funny, but when he was just nine or ten, doctors predicted — with near exactness — how tall he’d grow to be.

These predictions were in print back at the time, and they came true. His heart would have given out, I’d surmise. It’s difficult for an average heart to pump that much blood to such a sized creature.

How would you describe the photos that will appear in the book?

They are stunning and even jarring. Believe it or not, the photography is more important to me than the text. I have the only known color images of Robert from 1940, and maybe the final photos of him from his personal appearance at a festival in Manistee, Michigan where he languished and died in a hotel room (I even have the key for the hotel room).

Robert was very used to taking photos, nearly every day he stepped outside his home. But his family was not and in many family photos over the years — especially those posed by photographers — they seem stiff.

In the shot featured with this article, his family seems natural and enjoying the chore. Occasionally Robert wore these small ties, well, small for him anyway. And at other times he wore custom ties which were proportionate to his torso. He looked bizarre in the tiny ties.

I’m definitely interested in only securing a publisher that will give me color pages and a nice spread of photography throughout the book. Years ago I received an offer from Smithsonian Institution Press.

However, I declined as they wanted to produce a common biography — hardback with just a few photos in an insert. No, no…not for this guy. He deserves full page photos with nice quality paper to enhance the amazing photography. To see him, is to believe he existed.

Is the manuscript finished?

I am about fifty to sixty percent finished with the book. Most of the research has been completed, but it seems that every corner I turn, every time I assume I’m finished with the research, something eye-opening presents itself and literally drops before me. This book has been a ride, that’s for sure.

Long story short, I have no expected deadline at the moment. I’m pacing myself. If I land a contract, then it’s off to the races. So, I’ve written about midgets and giants; I’m traveling from one side of the spectrum to the other, it seems.

What made you pick Hunted Giant: The Life and Legend of Robert Wadlow, World’s Tallest Man, as the book’s title?

The angle emerged after some time. Initially I was intrigued by Robert’s human condition and the reaction he elicited from those who saw him in all of his glory.

But then dramatic facts began to surface about a particular country doctor who stalked Robert and also wrote and published some ridiculous things about the young man — someone Robert eventually sued for defamation — which only played into the doctor’s intrigue, actually. Robert was the eventual loser, and he died not long after the trial. Much of my book explores this peculiar small town physician who hunted Robert — and I say that with truth.

He was hunted by the press as well, so his life was plagued with the curiosity of others.

It’s interesting how Robert avoided — at all costs — the word “freak.” His parents instilled confidence and courage in this fellow and taught him that he was not a freak. But in actuality, he was a freak, he was a freak of nature, and there’s no two ways of getting around that title.

Of course, today people wear the title “freak” like a badge of honor. But in his day, it signified oddities who displayed themselves for profit or people who should be shunned for a grotesque nature. He felt he deserved neither of these descriptions. Robert was much more than a “freak,” and his 22 years on this earth were remarkable. It’s about time for a really good look at his brief life.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2011, 2016. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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