Lessons from La Jolla’s Munchkin Land

In 1939 Jerry Maren, playing a Lollipop Guild Member, presents Judy Garland with a lollipop in the film "The Wizard of Oz." (File photo)
(Getty Images / Getty Images)

Any La Jollan with half a brain realizes there’s no truth to the story of a former Munchkin colony on Mt. Soledad. Even Google points directly to dozens of websites debunking it. Yet this urban legend refuses to go away. Tourists, UC San Diego students and even some residents (mostly teenagers) keep scouring Hillside Drive looking for it, year after year, needing to somehow judge with their own eyes.

According to the legend, there’s one house left standing - the last remnant of a villa where, flush with MGM cheddar, the most diminutive former stars of “The Wizard of Oz” lived out the rest of their lives in ocean-viewing secrecy.

Why are urban legends so satisfying and persistent, even when there’s ample evidence to contradict them? We followed this yellow brick road in search of answers.

The truth

In the 1930s, four Mt. Soledad homes were designed by San Diego architect Cliff May, the celebrated father of the California ranch-style house, on the 7470 block of Hillside Drive. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, May often built embracing Mother Nature instead of confronting it. In this case, instead of constructing atop the rising hillside, he built slightly underneath it, allowing the street and sidewalk to creep up 3 degrees along the foundations. Thus, some of the roofs could be touched from street level, while the rooms inside were still standard height.

“That’s what he did a lot of times,” said May’s son, Michael, a retired Alamo, California property developer. “He and Tommy Church, one of his landscape architects, would site the buildings looking at the lay of the land and settle the house in the most comfortable way, instead of just building a box on top of a hill.

“Because of that, you have some of these unique designs.”

The arching door frame of the remaining house stands just under six feet tall at its highest point. That may seem unusually low now, but it wasn’t atypical for either the ‘30s or for May.

“I showed Cliff May’s actual original ranch house in Kensington to a client about six months ago and it was exactly that way - lower,” said La Jolla real-estate agent Eugenia Garcia. “That was the style.”

The tall tale

To some mysterious someone in the intervening decades, however, these architectural quirks required some deeper meaning. So, since the houses hit the market around the time of “The Wizard of Oz’s” 1939 release and since L. Frank Baum wrote parts of his Oz book series while wintering in Coronado, boom.

Retellings of the story all seem to take on a similar structure - a friend, or a friend’s parent or grandparent, knocked on the door of one of the houses years ago and got shooed away by an angry Lollipop Guilder. (There’s only one left, 97-year-old Jerry Maren, who lives in Boston.)

“At least once a day, someone drives up here,” said Jeff Carlson, Garcia’s husband and also a real-estate agent. The couple occupy the modern mansion they had built in 2013 across the street from the “Munchkin house,” as Garcia says it’s actually identified on one of her Realtor apps.

They have a bird’s-eye view from 50 feet above the property and think of themselves as its guardians, since they say it’s currently owned by a sweet elderly couple who aren’t home much. (This reporter knocked on two separate occasions and no one answered.)

“During the day, it looks like they’re tourists pulling up,” Carlson said. “At night, I think it’s more of the younger people telling more of the urban legend.”

Garcia added: “It’s never a party thing, never obnoxious or anything. People just stop there, get out, take a picture and drive on.”

The constant fascination is probably more of a nuisance to La Jolla Historical Society archivist Michael Mishler.

“This is actually one of those things, working here, it’s like, not the Munchkins again,”he said. “They are one of those things that people just want to talk about. For me as an archivist, someone who studies history, I don’t consider ghost stories (to be) history stories.”

However, even Mishler admits ascending the winding road almost as soon as he got his driver’s license in the mid-’70s. “One of my friends mentioned that I had to see the Munchkin houses,” he said. (There were three at the time, he recalled.)

By the way, there are similar nonexistent “Munchkin Lands” in both Long Beach and Detroit.

Myth interpreted

Even 78 years later, the Munchkins have something to teach us about ourselves.

“We love things that are amazing but true,” said UC San Diego psychology professor Nicholas Christenfeld. “Our whole visual system is primed to detect change, movement, things that pop out. So urban legends capitalize on this - you won’t believe this but.”

At the same time, Christenfeld said, we’re also famously unresponsive to empirical evidence.

“People have a belief and then are skeptical about evidence that defies it and embrace evidence that supports it,” Christenfeld said. “If the story is good enough, sometimes we don’t care whether it’s true.”

Is this sounding familiar yet?

“Urban legends are fake news in a literal sense,” Christenfeld said. “We hear of something because it could be true and it’s really too bad that it isn’t, but I’m going to share it anyway.”

Now add to all this the desire most of us have for a personal relationship with our favorite bits of pop culture, and the enduring legacy of “The Wizard of Oz,” and it all makes perfect sense.

May’s son said he never heard of Mt. Soledad’s Munchkin Land, and can’t speak on the subject on behalf of his dad, who died in 1989.

“But it’s interesting,” he said. “I think he had a good sense of humor, I think he’d have had fun with it and thought it was funny.”