Dwarfs from antiquity to Burger King

August 10, 2006|By TOM DUNKEL | TOM DUNKEL,SUN REPORTER

In a 2005 article for Disability Studies Quarterly, author Betty Adelson notes that little people "are highlighted in the legends and myths of every nation."

Dwarfs were teamed with Amazonian gladiators in Rome; elevated to the status of priests in ancient Egypt. Later they became objects of private amusement for English royalty.

The 18th century ushered in the golden era of sideshows and circuses - and greater public exposure. Here are a few highlights of little people in American pop culture:

Charles Stratton, dubbed "General Tom Thumb," peaked at 3 feet 4 inches. He was made world famous by showman P.T. Barnum, who taught him to sing and dance - and make money. Stratton's marriage to another little person made headlines, and the newlyweds were invited to the White House by President Abraham Lincoln. Tom Thumb twice entertained Queen Victoria, once getting attacked by her pet poodle. When Stratton died in 1883 at age 45 some 10,000 mourners attended his funeral.

During the filming of The Wizard of Oz in 1938-1939, Judy Garland and producer Mervyn Le Roy reportedly complained about the Munchkin actors' off-camera "orgies and drunkenness." On-camera they created a classic.

On Aug. 19, 1951, 3-foot-7-inch Eddie Gaedel (wearing number 1/8) became the first and only dwarf to appear in a Major League Baseball game. The St. Louis Browns used him as a pinch hitter. Gaedel walked on four pitches and was immediately removed from the game, receiving a standing ovation. Today his uniform is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The late Billy Barty, real name William John Bertanzetti, had an extended career in film and television. His movie credits included Foul Play, The Lord of the Rings, Legend and Willow. He founded the advocacy organization Little People of America.

In 1994, Seinfeld broke ground by featuring a dwarf actor in a recurring role. Danny Woodburn played Kramer's friend Mickey Abbott. He currently stars in Burger King commercials.

The two most highly regarded films about a little person arguably are The Station Agent, in which Peter Dinklage plays a brooding dwarf who inherits a ramshackle train station, and Frankie Starlight, an under-the-radar independent feature with Matt Dillon and Gabriel Byrne. The latter tells the tale of an author with dwarfism reflecting upon his difficult childhood.

"It's one of my favorite films," says Elena Fondacaro, a Hollywood talent agent who belongs to the Little People of America. "I could talk all day about it."

TOM DUNKEL

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