Munchkin stereotype a big issue

Image: The little people point out that caricatures have largely disappeared from popular culture, but not for them.

February 16, 1999|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

After listening to children warble 100-plus choruses of "Ding Dong The Witch is Dead," even a munchkin couldn't be blamed for wanting to leap out of the highest window.

But there he was, the 4-foot-tall Marty Klebba sticking it out after four hours for his craft. Everyone else was looking for the quick exits.

No doubt, this audition for six walk-on munchkins was a shameless promotional gig to pump up interest for the late-February stage show of "The Wizard of Oz" at Washington's National Theater. Klebba, a munchkin in the show and director for the auditions, was being ringmaster for anyone under 4-foot-11 who knew the words to the munchkins' song and wanted to be in the show.

The public relations blitz worked brilliantly. About 200 people arrived at the theater yesterday to compete.

But cu- riously, not one dwarf showed up.

"I am not surprised," says 29-year-old Klebba, sipping water while waiting for the next group of kids to sing and dance for him. "There are a lot of little people who look down on playing a munchkin or elf or anything like that."

Whether little people should play munchkins and elves is a vexing problem in the world of short-statured. Members of the Little People of America, a Lubbock, Texas-based organization for dwarfs and others under 4-foot-10, are going to debate it this July at their annual meeting, says president Leroy Bankowski.

"It is a bad stereotype," Bankowski says. "A lot of little people think this type of role is degrading."

On the other hand, little people should be able to pursue acting roles, if that's what they want. There aren't a lot of dramatic leading roles being offered to little people, Bankowski says.

Back in 1939, when "The Wizard of Oz" was in theaters, little people -- called midgets in those days -- were expected to be in these types of roles. No one thought it was offensive. They were human toys, circus acts to gawk at purely for the amusement of average-stature people.

But 60 years have gone by, and Hollywood's portrayals of almost everyone has changed for the better, except perhaps for little people. Many little people say that today, munchkin-esque roles are regressive and prevent others from seeing them as just like everyone else.

"I'd rather people not know I existed than to rely on a stereotype," says Anthony Soares, a little-person activist and art director for a New York advertising agency. "We are helping people to laugh at us."

Case in point:

During a break in the action at the Washington tryouts, one reporter from Voice of America, who is at least 6 feet, mugs it up like he's doing a munchkin audition. He stands in the middle of the room and sings the welcome song heard in "The Wizard of Oz." He marches in jerky moves, his back straight, turns up his nose and mouth and starts to sing in this child-like staccato voice.

Klebba, the only little person in the audition room, drops his jaw in disbelief.

"That's the problem, ignorance. Not all little people have munchkin voices," Klebba says to himself. And not all of them have those herky-jerky moves.

The Voice of America reporter looks to Klebba for approval.

"The unemployment line starts over there," Klebba motions, then gives a weak smile. The reporter walks away in silence.

"I was offended by that," says one of the judges, Dave Adler, a disc jockey for WBIG-FM, a radio station known as Oldies 100. "It is a stereotype of years gone by."

The irony isn't lost on Klebba. He is a little person playing a munchkin and, in some respects, perpetuating the stereotype.

If there was a short part to play, Klebba, in his 8-year-long acting career, has done it. Christmas elf. Flying monkey. Crow. Lollipop Kid.

Acting in those parts keeps food on his table, for both his wife and his 2-year-old.

"Most little people would rather see me in a more challenging role," says Klebba.

Soares said yesterday that he is glad no little people showed for the audition, because children should be the ones playing the role anyway.

"I've had people say that we are elitist, but I look forward to the day when more dwarf people are playing better roles and can be better role models."

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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