Growing up in the 1920s and ‘30s in Rush City, Ruth Robinson Duccini — at that time Ruth Robinson — didn’t know she would have a role in a film that would still be immensely popular around the time of her death, nearly eight decades later.
Duccini, about 4 feet tall, was one of the 126 little people who played the roles of Munchkins in the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.”
She was 95 years old when she died Jan. 16 of this year.
She was cast as a Munchkin townswoman when she traveled to Culver City, Calif., at the age of 20 with a troupe of performing dwarfs to audition for the film.
After the movie, she met her husband, Fred, and the two had a son and a daughter, Fred and Margaret.
Until 2007, at nearly 90 years old, Duccini likely had not returned to hometown since she left.
That year, the city had a celebration for her before she went to visit the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Garland’s hometown.
There are few in Rush City still around who had connections to Duccini, but there are two men who got to know her during her later years.
One of those men is Dick Ordner.
Ordner and his wife had met Munchkin cast members a few times when they visited the Judy Garland Museum, and they were introduced to Duccini one of those times.
So when she came to Rush City in 2007, Ordner and his wife, Bonnie, volunteered to drive Duccini and her son to the Judy Garland museum after their visit to Rush City.
“I think she enjoyed being up in Minnesota, but you know it was a strain for all of them, (the Munchkins), going to Grand Rapids,” Ordner said. “They’d either have to fly into Minneapolis or Duluth, and then they’d have to go by car.”
Ordner recalled the end of their trip to Grand Rapids.
“(Ruth) was tired. We stopped and ate, and then, of course, she had interviews for TV. I was talking to Fred (her son), about going to the casino, and he thought she wanted to rest, but he said he’d ask her about it,” Ordner said.
The prospect of going to the casino apparently re-energized Duccini and some of the other Munchkin cast members.
“As soon as he asked her, she was like, ‘We’re on for tonight,’” he said with a laugh.
Following her visit, Ordner said he would stay in contact with Duccini via occasional letters.
Rush City relative reflects
The other man in Rush City with a connection to Duccini is Chisago County Commissioner Mike Robinson, who is also Duccini’s relative.
Robinson’s grandfather, Elmer, and Duccini’s father, Lynn, were brothers.
Growing up, Robinson said he had been told he was related to one of the people cast as a Munchkin, but nobody knew who she was, or if she was even still alive.
When Duccini visited in 2007, Robinson got her phone number, and from that point forward, he called her about once a week.
The two got to know one another better, and when Duccini was about 92 years old, Robinson and his wife, Elaine, visited Duccini in Las Vegas.
Robinson said Duccini was “quick with comebacks” when people would joke with her.
“One time we were out in Vegas, west of downtown Vegas, and she’s in the backseat with my wife. I was teasing her a little bit, and she tells my wife, ‘If I had a newspaper, I’d roll it up and hit that guy in the head with it,’” Robinson said with a laugh.
Robinson also noted when he told people that he was related to someone who was a Munchkin in the film, they often didn’t believe him because Duccini didn’t talk to the press much about her hometown.
Robinson said he thought some of Duccini’s reluctance to talk about Rush City might have been due to her being bullied when she attended school in the city.
“She didn’t have a real good time in school because she got picked on a lot because of her height,” he said. “I tried to tell her, ‘Probably all of those people (who picked on her) are dead now, and the people in Rush City are really proud of you,’ but she was still upset that she got picked on. For her, (bullying) was forever.”
Robinson said Duccini used that experience of being bullied to help others. He said he met another one of Duccini’s relatives at her funeral in Prescott, Ariz., and he, like Duccini, was also smaller than average.
“He got picked on at school for being short and he had talked to Ruth about it, and she had helped him out,” Robinson said.
In addition to sharing accounts of her time on the set of the “Wizard of Oz” and her later film appearance, “Under the Rainbow” with Chevy Chase, Duccini also talked to Robinson about other aspects of her life, and she stressed family was very important to her.
When she visited Rush City in 2007, she told Robinson that Jason Davis from Channel 5’s “On the Road” program had contacted her about doing an interview while she was in Minnesota.
“She told him the reason she was coming up here was to meet her relatives, not to be on some TV show; he was probably like, ‘What the heck?’” Robinson said.
Duccini also told Robinson her mother, Ella, whom everyone called “Robbie” because of her last name, was the switchboard operator for the town when Duccini was growing up.
Ordner said in the early 1900s, there was a big fire in Rush City, and Ordner’s now-deceased cousin, Bill Schneider, actually found a film made around the time that was a re-enactment of how the city’s fire department fought the blaze.
Shown in that film was Duccini’s mother, working the switchboard.
“It was just kind of a historical film because it had been taken so long ago,” Ordner said.
Robinson said Duccini was very proud to be a “Rosie the Riveter” in California during World War II.
“She was small enough that she could crawl inside the wings to rivet,” Robinson said.
Robinson recalled Duccini told him about the time the Munchkins received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“When the Muchkins got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — I think there were (seven) of them there — they were going to put each of their names on the star,” Robinson said. “Ruth, she got upset and said, ‘There were 126 of us, not (seven).’ She said that wasn’t the way to do it. I think they just ended up putting “The Munchkins” on there. Ruth would have been a good union rep because she would fight for what was right.”
Robinson said he misses Duccini, but he’s glad she got to live such a long, fruitful life.
“She was a special lady, and I miss just calling her up and talking with her,” he said. “I was lucky to get to meet her.”