Brittany also brought back two short stories from her excursion to Winkie Con, told elsewhere in this issue in “We Found a Rainbow Highway.”
Kurt Raymond prepares for his role.
I’ll portray you, my pretty
Kurt Raymond walks up to a lectern and, carrying a pair of witchy women’s boots, offers, “I’m in sandals because I have to wear these all night!” His cackle — and a joke about what 15 years of wearing heels will do to your calves — electrifies the crowd, immediately under his spell. “I enjoy pleasing people through the magic of Oz,” he says.
But a spell was cast over Raymond first. Enamored with Oz from a young age but told by his parents to stay away from the land of enchantment, he was just 10 when he wrote to the International Wizard of Oz Club secretary, Fred Meyer, asking if he knew how to get a photo of Margaret Hamilton, who portrayed the Wicked Witch of the West in the MGM film. Meyer said that although the club didn’t have pictures, Hamilton would, and he gave Raymond her address. “[Meyer] didn’t live long enough for me to tell him to his face that he changed my life,” Raymond says.
As he pencils in dark eyebrows over his already bushy ones — brows he’s shaved to make them grow in thicker for the role — he explains how work found him once he began perfecting his impression of not just the witch but Hamilton specifically, who wrote to him many times during his childhood. “I was given this opportunity — the fact that she wrote back,” he says sincerely. In total, Raymond has played the character 1,700 times onstage, in television and on film, in parades, and at theme parks like Knott’s Berry Farm, where he suits up for 30 days every Halloween.1 “I have a lot of opinions when it comes to the Witch,” he says, laughing though not entirely joking.
Though his entire transformation takes just 45 minutes and happens in front of an audience, the crowd screams when he snaps into character and shrieks, “I’ll get you, my pretties!” Hours later, he scampers between tables at dinner, screeching at more delighted participants. But he’s the one having the most fun. When people throw water bottles at him onstage at Knott’s, he says, he just pretends to melt. “Oz is my drug.”
Step into the sun, step into the light
Priscilla Montgomery Clark is a slight woman in her mid-80s who practically radiates joyous light. If you look up her filmography, you find cryptic Oz wiki entries that declare “Her later years are unrevealed.” But on this Sunday, she’s come to her first Oz event to tell her story. Her shining silver hair is in a long braid draped over her left shoulder, red sunglasses perched artfully on her head. Her winning smile lights up her face, and her husband of nearly 65 years, Bud, and at least one of their children are on hand in solidarity. L. Frank Baum’s great-grandson Robert Baum sits in the front row.
Priscilla Montgomery Clark
Clark is one of the few still-living children cast to play Munchkins along with the 120-some little people. She was nine when girls from the Bud Murray Dance Troupe, in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra, were encouraged to audition for the film. After she was cast, she became fast friends with one of the most famous Munchkins, the actress Margaret Pellegrini. Back then, it wasn’t as common to encounter little people. “I thought they were our size, which was kinda nice,” Clark says of her childhood castmates.
After filming ended, Pellegrini stayed with the Montgomery family for months, bonding over their shared Southern heritage. Clark’s mother, a gifted seamstress, kindly made Pellegrini some of her first adult clothes, because back then little people only had the option of shopping in the children’s department.
Decades passed, and the women lost touch. Clark raised her children and kept busy with family life. Roger Baum was signing a book several years ago when she happened to stop by and told him who she was. Baum was still in touch with many of the original cast members, and helped Clark and Pellegrini reunite shortly thereafter — and shortly before the surviving Munchkins, both former child actors and little people, convened to receive their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “Margaret was just over the rainbow!” Clark remembers of reconnecting with Pellegrini. The old friends caught up over dinners, even meeting one another’s grandchildren. Even now, Clark chokes up talking about Pellegrini, who passed away in 2013.
From working in movies, Clark saved money to attend college for several years. When she worked on It’s a Wonderful Life, for example, she was offered an extra $50 if she’d lead the group of actors leaping into the pool fully clothed. “We were all going in sooner or later. And I did love the water,” she says.
Oz was a magical experience she never forgot, even though as an adult she often failed to tell friends of her remarkable childhood experience. “I didn’t know how excited they would be.” After all, it was so long ago. “The whole thing was such a fairy tale,” she says wistfully.
Until this year, all Wicked Witches at Knott’s were men. None of them speak except Raymond. ↩
San Francisco-based journalist Brittany Shoot, the managing editor of The Magazine, writes about fascinating people and far-flung places. She is a contributing writer to Mental Floss, Spirituality & Health, and Sojourners, and also writes for magazines including Time, San Francisco, and Islands.