Let me tell you about a man you know, but whose name you’ve probably never heard. Because we can all learn an important lesson from Meinhardt Rabbe on this, the 75th anniversary of his Big Moment.
We begin with a confession: I’m a Wizard of Oz fan. Have been ever since I first saw it on TV as a child in the 60s. CBS ran the movie every spring at Easter, and I eagerly watched it year after year. (Growing up in Missouri, where tornadoes are as common as spring dandelions in the front yard, the storm scene was all too relevant. But I digress.)
As a kid, I didn’t like the singing – it got in the way of the action. With one exception: Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead. What a song! For a glorious four minutes and fifteen seconds, the Munchins let loose and gleefully romp around a freshly deceased corpse. Think how eerily ironic that is … celebrating the very thing we fear above all others: Death. Oh, it’s deliciously morbid alright, happily chortling, “She’s gone where the goblins go; below, below, below” (which was as close to saying ‘Hell’ as MGM dared go in 1939).
And amid the euphoric singing and dancing, which character stands out from all the others? Meinhardt Rabbe, who steps forward, unrolls a scroll and proclaims with bureaucratic efficiency: “As coroner, I must aver, I thoroughly examined her. And she’s not only merely dead; she’s really, most sincerely dead!”
Yes, Meinhardt Rabbe was that guy, the Munchkin Coroner in the dark suit who steals the show in the Ding Dong sequence. Those twenty words, lasting just over :10 seconds, made up Meinhardt’s entire Hollywood career; he never appeared in another movie. (Though in fairness to Hollywood, just how many roles were there for an actor who stood 3’3″ tall?)
But here’s the thing: Meinhardt Rabbe seized his :10 second window of opportunity and milked it for all it was worth.
Life didn’t start on a fair note for Meinhardt. As the only “little person” in his hometown of Watertown, Wisconsin, he thought no one else was like him. In fact, he didn’t see another height-challenged person until age 17, when he visited the Midget Village at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
But he was no dummy. He earned a bachelor’s degree, and later a master’s, in accounting. Rejected for job after job because of his stature (and what the heck does height have to with accounting ability anyway?) he finally found work in 1936 playing “Little Oscar,” driving around in Oscar Mayer’s very first Weinermobile.
Meinhardt took a break from his hot dog gig exactly 75 years ago to play the Munchkin Coroner. Those :10 seconds, his only acting role ever, let him step into film history. Then it was back to the Weinermobile, followed by World War II service as a Civil Air Patrol pilot and -finally- work in his chosen profession as an accountant.
But as the Wizard of Oz passed from hit movie to cinematic classic to beloved legend, Meinhardt’s popularity rose along with it. He became a featured guest at Wizard of Oz fan conventions, appeared in multiple Oz documentaries, and was a guest on countless TV talk shows where he told about this days on the MGM movie set. He even published his autobigraphy: Memories of a Munchkin: An Illustrated Walk Down the Yellow Brick Road.
When Meinhardt Rabbe died on April 9, 2010 at the ripe old age of 94, he was the last surviving person who’d had a speaking role in the Wizard of Oz, and had turned the experience into something of a second career.
All this from just :10 seconds on camera.
Which brings me to my point: opportunity often presents itself to us cloaked in a disguise. You don’t know what seemingly small, :10 second role could turn out to be the chance of a lifetime. Think how different Meinhardt’s life would have been if he had said, “Naw. It’s just twenty words of dialogue. I’d be on and off screen in a heartbeat. It’s not worth messing with.”
You never know when your :10 second window of opportunity will present itself. My advice: be like Meinhardt and grab the brass ring before it passes by. There’s no guarantee you’ll get a second chance.
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