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Analysis: More than any San Diego urban legend, readers asked us to find the mysterious Munchkin community on Mt. Soledad in La Jolla.
But we’re sorry to disappoint. This rumor’s a fake, just like Oz himself.
In the online Museum of Hoaxes, local author and urban legend debunker Alex Boese summarizes the legend this way:
Back in the 1930s a group of little people who had made a lot of money in Hollywood appearing in movies such as The Wizard of Oz supposedly came down to San Diego and built a collection of miniature houses on Mt. Soledad where they could live in comfort together.
Boese toured Mt. Soledad with his wife and suspects the story may have something to do with an unusual-looking home on 7700 block of Hillside Drive. The smallish, quaint-looking home was built in 1935 and designed by noted architect Cliff May.
And it’s perhaps the last remnant of San Diego’s lost Munchkin colony? Not exactly.
“There are these houses that might look a little smaller than your normal house if you look at them in the right way,” Boese said in an interview. “The only truth is that there’s an optical illusion.”
While it’s unclear how the legend started circulating San Diego, it’s actually a common fable elsewhere. Long Beach has one too, as does Detroit.
“It’s one of those legends that people adopt for their own hometown when they see funny little houses that are curiosities,” said Scott Michaels, a historian who operates a Hollywood death-and-scandal bus tour.
Stephen Cox, author of The Munchkins of Oz, said he’s heard rumors of colonies of houses for Munchkin (the term originated in the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) actors in La Jolla and Los Angeles. But he debunked them.
“I’ve never seen houses like this or one photo, nor have any of the surviving little people,” he said. “Nor have I heard of any of the little people living together in any type of situation other than the hotel in Hollywood where a lot of them stayed that was sort of like a boarding houses for actors.”
There were, however, plenty of actors who could have moved here if they felt like it. A total of 124 little people played Munchkins in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Cox said, plus several children. Four of them are alive today, Cox said.
Did they ever live in miniature houses? At least one did and does, sort of. The 90-year-old Jerry Maren, who played a Munchkin who hands Dorothy a lollipop, lives in a custom-built average-sized home with countertops, tables and sinks all lowered, said Cox, who’s interviewed 30 of the Munchkin actors.
To summarize our look behind the curtain: The actors who played the Munchkins didn’t (and don’t) live in colonies. There never was a colony of homes for them on Mt. Soledad, and the house that some think might have housed little people was built before The Wizard of Oz was made. So, the urban legend of Mt. Soledad’s Munchkin actors is false.
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Clarification: The original version of this post attributed the term “Munchkin” to the Wizard of Oz movie due to an editing error. It is actually from the books that the movie was based on.