If you’re like me, when you were a kid, you looked at the credits of the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz, and saw listed among all the principles “Pat Walshe as Niko”, and then went “Niko?! Who the hell is Niko???” Niko was the name of the principal flying monkey, the Wicked Witch of the West’s lackey and primary confidante. He has no lines and his name is never uttered. So why does he rate such a decent credit in a major motion picture. It is a delight to be able to tell you why.
I often remarked in these pages and others how nearly every single actor (and many of the other artists) in The Wizard of Oz had a background in vaudeville. Pat Walshe (1900-1991) was one of them, and how. Walshe was a Little Person, standing 3′ 10″ in adulthood. He worked in vaudeville, circuses and on Broadway for years. His particular specialty, not surprising, was playing animals, especially simians and monkeys, in acrobatic comedy routines.
When he was just eight years old Walshe made his debut in Lew Field’s Broadway adaptation of The Girl Behind the Counter, with Fields, Louise Dresser, and Lotta Faust, remaining with the show for over two years until it closed in late 1910. This was followed by Hell (1911) at the Folies Bergere; Weber and Fields reunion shows (1912 and 1915); A Good Little Devil (1913) with Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Norman Taurog; Goodbye Bill (1918); The Jewelled Tree (1926); and the Joe Cook shows Rain or Shine (1928), Fine and Dandy (1930-31), and The Topsy Turvy Revue (1936).
His first film was the William Demarest comedy Seeing Things (1930). Work on The Wizard of Oz began in 1938. While Walshe was himself an expert make-up artist on the order of Lon Chaney, this was an occasion where he had to go with the studio’s specialists. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that Walshe’s make-up and prosthetics are much more detailed and subtle than his fellow Winged Monkeys, as he is the only one to be shown in close-up. He later appeared in small roles in Pinky (1949), Roseanna McCoy (1949), and Panic in the Streets (1951). In the latter he played a newsboy, his only speaking role in a film. Walshe’s last professional credit is as a double in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979). For the life of me, I can’t remember any Little People in the film, although there are children as I recall. the next time I look at that problematic comedy, I’ll watch it with him in mind.
In 1991. Walshe became the last credited cast member of The Wizard of Oz to pass away. Having played so many imps and little devils over the course of his career, one hopes he was able to exchange his monkey wings for some angel ones. But I don’t know — I’ve heard some pretty salty stories about those Little People in The Wizard of Oz.
Come hear the stories of Niko and many others you love in my illustrated talk Vaudeville, Sideshow and The Wizard of Oz at the Coney Island Museum, August 24!
For more on performing little people please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.