Obit: Clarence Swensen

OBITUARY

‘Oz’ Munchkin soldier Clarence Swensen dead at 91

 

Clarence Swensen

  

BY PHILIP POTEMPA
ppotempa@nwitimes.com
Thursday, February 26, 2009

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Clarence Swensen, who played a Munchkin soldier in the 1939 MGM film classic “The Wizard of Oz” and annually attended the Porter County Wizard of Oz Festival, died Wednesday evening at his home near Austin, Texas. He was 91.    (Click on ‘Continue Reading’ for more)

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According to Swensen’s family, funeral arrangements are pending.

 

Though in a wheelchair, Swensen, who had been in frail health for the past three years, attended the unveiling of the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for the Munchkins in November 2007.

 

Swensen, who measured just 4-feet-, was a favorite of fans and always easily recognizable at events since he always wore a custom-tailored recreation of the the Munchkin soldier suit he wore in the film, including a perfectly replicated striped fez-like hat with a large plume.

 

In recent years, although unable to still sign autographs, he used a small rubber stamp bearing a likeness of his personal signature to adorn items.

 

Swensen and his wife Myrna, who was also a little person but did not appear in “The Wizard of Oz,” were married in 1945. The couple have three daughters and five grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren. His death came on the day of wife Myrna’s 83rd birthday.

 

Clarence Swensen was one of the last of the movie Munchkins to be reunited with his surviving film castmates from the famed yellow brick road landscape.

 

It wasn’t until 1989, and the film’s 50th anniversary that Clarence Swensen was located and began attending annual reunion festivals, including the September gathering in Chesterton, Ind. Stephen Cox, author of “The Munchkins of Oz” (Cumberland Press) first published in 1989 was contacted by one of Swensen’s family members about his appearance in the movie.

 

“I called Clarence and talked to him by phone and he was very hesitant to talk, simply because he didn’t think it was anything special that he had appeared in the film or that anyone would care,” Cox said Thursday.

 

“But he opened up and with some encouraging, attended that 1989 festival and after that, never missed a festival.”

 

According to Cox, only seven Munchkins who appeared in the film, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, now survive.

 

Clarence Swensen’s career in show business began even before his casting in “The Wizard of Oz.”

 

Born August Clarence Swensen on Dec. 29, 1917, he was the smallest of five brothers and one sister.

 

“In 1937 I was supposed to be in Stanley R. Graham’s All-Midget Circus in San Antonio working with Christy Ball’s elephants, as well as playing the saxophone and drums with a band,” he told Cox in an interview for the Munchkins book.

 

“After nearly eight weeks of rehearsals, we opened for a day and half when we were shut down because of monsoon rains.”

 

He then headed to Hollywood and appeared in “The Terror of Tiny Town” before his work on “The Wizard of Oz.” Wearing an ape costume, he also appeared opposite Olympic swimmer-turned-actor Johnny Weissmuller and actress Maureen O’Sullivan in the 1939 MGM film “Tarzan Finds a Son!”

 

He left Hollywood and his film career to move to Texas where he met his wife and spent the remainder of his career at the University of Texas Research Center as an electronic technician.

 

The couple was featured in a February 1947 issue of LIFE magazine holding their first-born daughter and surrounded by their extended family for a story and photo spread about “midgets appearing in three generations of one family.”

 

During the 1990s, the couple agreed to participate in a battery of tests at the respected John Hopkins Hospital about whether midgetism is gentically inherited.

 

Always defining themselves as “true Texans,” Swensen always delighted in telling others: “It’s not true that everything and everybody in Texas is bigger.”

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