Munchkinville, Munchkin Land, Midgetville, Midget Town: all are names of a mythical place I’d heard about since I was in Junior High School back in the 1970’s. It was always told about in the second person. Somebody’s brother, uncle, older friend, always someone else had been there. Never the person who was doing the telling. The story survives to this day. A niece of mine, who graduated from Palm Springs High school in 2000 had heard the rumors too; as had a cousin who is even younger still. Munchkinville was and is an Urban Legend of the city of Palm Springs.
I was in high school the first time I went looking for it. As the legend goes, after the Wizard of Oz was made back in the 1930’s some of the midget actors took their earnings and bought some land in the Araby area of Palm Springs. They played a key role in the building of their homes, wanting door ways, windows, counters and roof lines to be built especially for the little people. Much of the homes were made out of natural rock and they were constructed at the end of a long dead end street out of sight from the rest of the world. They wanted to create a place for themselves in the celebrity haven of Palm Springs.
The main road into the Araby area in the 70’s was a curvy narrow black top and dirt path called Rim Road, barely wide enough for a single car. If two were to pass each other, one had to squeeze either against the mountain which carved the inner edge of the road, or hang a tire dangerously close to the 50 foot drop off the other side of the road which ran above the desert wash left clear for winter floods. It was late and dark. We dared Rim Road and then searched the few cross streets in the small neighborhood of Araby. Finally we reached the top of the small crest at the peak of the homes and an even thinner dirt road led farther back along the mountains edge and then turned downward toward the wash.
We crept our car forward until someone shouted and pointed at a small cluster of rough homes, “There it is!” I tried to look through the haze in the car, in my head, and through the glare of the headlights and the darkness outside of its misty pools of yellow light. I wasn’t sure what I saw, but it fit the description I’d been given. A person inside one of the homes poked his or her head up in a window. My brother yelled, “Oh shit!” and we drove away fast, laughing like idiots.
When I was old enough to have a driver’s license of my own I tried to recreate our discovery. But I never saw with certainty anything reminiscent of that dark, drunk night. Still, anytime a friend was asked about Munchkinland they either claimed to have been there themselves or knew somebody personally who had. But if asked to take me back there they would always exclaim a busy schedule, “Gotta go.”
Fast forward 30+ years, to just recently actually, I found myself in palm Springs one day with a digital camera in my hand and more time than I’d scheduled for. I decided I would drive the same paths I remembered as a teenager and see what I could. Up Araby drive I went. It had been built into a regular road over the years and gave easier access to the now prestigious neighborhood of secluded homes. Poking my car down the different roads during daytime I determined that there was no cross ways path that lead to a group of homes beyond the most easily detectable, and none of them seemed to be hand made of rock. But on a street called Smoketree I did find a fairly new and ominously large gate of iron, brick and mortar with small lions perched atop the pillars and lions heads on the fencing which seemed anything but cowardly. The placing of this gate and the small amount of road beyond it which I could see implied that it might travel barely along the wash to some home or homes beyond 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 that read: NO PARKING ANYTIME. I parked. And stepped so as to let my car shield me from sight of any homes beneath me while I took a leak. Ahead of me was an old water tower, and beneath it was an iron cross bar blocking access from Araby Drive onto 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 wash below till it reached a small cluster of homes, made of stone. They were hardly discernible, blending into the mountain and desert so natural and covered in decades of plant growth. I didn’t walk down. They looked as if 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. There were some 50 comments posted in return. Seems everyone had a story to tell about Munchkinville. Some believed they had found it when they were young. Others claimed it a false rumor. But all had stories to share.