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Around the Valley

Short and Tall Lend a Hand

March 17, 1990|Leslie Berger

For the first time in his life, Michael Gilden used a bowling ball that actually fit, with holes custom drilled for his small fingers and thumb, and the short distance between them.

"It's really a nice, comfortable feeling," explained Gilden, a pony-tailed, part-time actor about 4 feet tall who marveled at the seemingly simple gift from the Brunswick Corp.

Finding the right fit weighed on everyone's mind this night, from the dwarves who teetered beneath the weight of bowling balls to the giants who couldn't get a beer without brushing their heads on the bar's doorway. Average-sized patrons in the 1950s-style Burbank bowling alley, with its shadowy lighting, rhythmic crashing of pins and smell of wax, made an admirable pretense of concentrating on their games, despite the odd-looking party a few lanes away.

The Los Angeles chapter of the Little People of America was holding a fund-raiser, meaning that 10 lanes at Pickwick Bowl were reserved for several dozen dwarves.

Five members of the California Tip Toppers Club--whose female members must stand at least 6 feet, male members 6 feet, 4 inches--attended in a show of support.

Each group came with its own points of view, sets of problems and wry defenses against lifetimes of stares and thoughtless comments.

"I'm the eighth dwarf--Horny," said the bumper sticker that actor Tommy Madden, 4 feet, 3 inches, brought as a joke for 4-foot-tall Louise Yankofsky.

"I don't play basketball, my name isn't Shorty and the weather's fine up here," said the T-shirt of Warren Pratt, 6 feet, 8 inches tall, a second generation Tip Topper whose parents met in the club.

"Be patient. God isn't finished with me yet," said the shirt worn by Elizabeth Barrington, a 4-foot, 4-inch stunt actor in children's movies.

The Little People sat while waiting their turns to bowl, their legs dangling from their chairs. The legs of their dwarf children--affectionately known as "Little Littles"--stuck straight out like those of dolls. Tip Toppers reveled in their stature, standing between bowls, looking cool, leaning against the partition separating bowlers from spectators.

Tip Toppers cheered strikes with high fives, very high fives; Little People celebrated with low fives. But flashes of snobbery--some good-natured, some less so--flickered among the general goodwill.

"Them poor souls, they can never find a bed that fits," joshed Jerry Maren, 4 feet, 3 1/2 inches, one of the Lollipop Kids in "The Wizard of Oz."

"It really bothers me to see a tall man with a short woman," griped Mary, a 5-foot, 11-inch homemaker whose marriage to 6-foot, 7-inch Paul entitles her to associate membership in the Tip Toppers.

"I think, 'Oh, what a waste of a nice tall man. One of my friends could be with him.' "

Tip Toppers acknowledged that they joined the club in the hope of finding mates they could kiss without slipping a disc. They also described unexpected joy in being around people like themselves and finally feeling free from isolation and envy.

At a Tip Topper party shortly before, teacher Linda Goldman and other female members talked of the pain of being unusually tall.

An art teacher recalled that the length of her skirt never satisfied the nuns in her parochial school because she outgrew her clothes so quickly. A young department store manager, 6 feet, 4 inches, said she didn't date until college, and referred to herself as a freak. A middle-aged mother, 6 feet, 5 inches, told of being followed by little boys singing "the Jolly Green Giant" and pestered for dates by men with fetishes for tall women.

"I think my initial reaction was that it just felt so wonderful being able to look everyone in the eye, or look up and feel dainty," said Robin, a 6-foot, 1-inch waitress with broad shoulders and chestnut hair. As a teen-ager in Venice in the 1950s, Robin recalled, "I wanted to be a little blond cheerleader."

Little People, too, remembered the first time they were around other dwarves. For Maren, now 70, it was on the set of "The Wizard of Oz." "I was with 125 Little People, and I'd never seen one in my life," said Maren, who was 18 when the Munchkin recruiters found him.

Patty Maloney discovered she was a dwarf at age 12 when her parents took her to a vaudeville show and a dwarf performer noticed her. "She came up to me and said, 'You're older than what you appear to be,' " recalled Maloney, who followed the woman backstage and found herself standing before images of what she would become.

"I thought, 'How wonderful!' " said Maloney, who wanted to go into show business and eventually became an actress.

Jimmy Briscoe had a different reaction. "It fried me," said Briscoe, a former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clown.

"I said, 'Oh, my God, I look like them?' It was very hard at first. I guess I didn't want to take in the reality. But I grew up, and now I don't even think about it."

The results of a raffle were announced. The winners of balls and bags and other bowling gear, gleaned from the entire bowling alley and not just the Little People party, left their games to pose for a picture.

They lined up for the cameras: Pratt, 6 feet, 8 inches; Goldman, 6 feet, 1/4 inch; Yankofsky, 4 feet; Maloney, 3 feet, 11 inches; Brunswick salesman Jerry Hale, 5 feet, 10 1/2 inches, and bystander bowler Phil Culotta, 5 feet, 11 inches.

They smiled and stood together, a fleeting reminder of the uneven world outside.

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