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Munchkinville: An Urban Legend of Palm Springs – Did Wizard of Oz Midgets Settle in the Desert?
Munchkinville, Munchkin Land, Midgetville, Midget Town: all are names of a mythical place I’ve heard about since I was in high school in the 70s. It was always told in the second person. Someone’s brother, uncle, older friend, there was always someone else. Never the one who told it. The story lives on to this day. My niece, who graduated from Palm Springs High School in 2000, also heard the rumors; as had a cousin who is even younger. Munchkinville was and is an urban legend in Palm Springs.
I first looked it up in high school. Legend has it that after The Wizard of Oz was filmed in the 1930s, some dwarves took their earnings and bought land in the Arab area of Palm Springs. They played a key role in the construction of their homes and wanted the doors, windows, counters and rooflines to be built specifically for little people. Most of the houses were made of natural rock and were built at the end of a long cul-de-sac out of sight of the rest of the world. They wanted to carve out a place for themselves in the celebrity paradise of Palm Springs.
The main road into the Arabia region in the 1970s was a curvy, narrow blacktop and dirt road called the Rim Road, barely wide enough for one car. If the two were to pass, one had to either squeeze against the mountain that carved the inside edge of the road, or hook a tire dangerously close to the 50-foot drop on the other side of the road that ran above the left desert wash. clear for winter floods. It was late and dark. We ventured up the Rim Road and then explored a few side streets in the small Araby neighborhood. Finally we reached the top of a small ridge at the top of the houses and an even thinner dirt road continued along the edge of the mountains and then turned down into the wash.
We crept forward in the car until someone shouted, pointing to a small cluster of rough houses, “There it is!” I tried to see through the haze of the car, inside my head, and through the glare of the headlights and the darkness beyond his hazy pools of yellow light. I wasn’t sure what I saw, but it matched the description I was given. A person in one of the houses put his head in the window. My brother yelled, “Shit!” and we quickly left, laughing like idiots.
When I was old enough to have my own driver’s license, I tried to recreate our discovery. But I never for sure saw anything that resembled that dark, drunken night. Yet, whenever a friend was asked about Munchkinland, they either claimed to have been there themselves or knew someone personally. But when asked to take me there, they would always say a busy schedule, “I have to go.”
Fast forward 30+ years to when I actually found myself in Palm Springs recently with a digital camera in hand and more time than I had planned. I decided to take the same routes I remembered as a teenager and see what I could do. I drove up Araby drive. Over the years, it was built into a regular road, allowing easier access to what is now a prestigious neighborhood of single houses. Pushing the car along various roads during the day, I found that there was no way of the cross that led to the group of houses beyond the easiest to spot, and none of them looked like they were hand-made from rock. But in a street called Smoketree I found quite a new and formidable gate of iron, brick, and mortar, with little lions perched on posts, and lions’ heads on the fence, which looked anything but cowardly. The location of this gate and the little amount of road behind it that I could see suggested that it could hardly travel along the wash to a house or houses outside of the normal neighborhood.
I drove more around the neighborhood to the top of Araby Drive and found a small wide spot in the road with signs saying NO PARKING AT ANY TIME. I parked. And he stepped so that the car shielded me from the view of all the houses below me while I escaped. In front of me was an old water tower and below it an iron bar blocking access from Araby Drive to a much older and narrower dirt road, now overgrown with weeds and brush. It descended as it wound around the base of the mountain, staying just above the gully below until it reached a small cluster of houses made of stone. They were barely discernible, blending in with the mountains and desert so natural and covered in decades of plant growth. I didn’t go down. They looked like they hadn’t been lived in for years. And besides, my car was parked illegally.
Later that day I posted my thoughts on Facebook to all my old lifelong friends. About 50 comments were sent in return. It seems everyone had a story about Munchkinville. Some believed they found it when they were young. Others claimed it was a false rumor. But they all had stories to share.
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