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Group Honors Little Big Man as Role Model : Heroes: Actor Jerry Maren paved the way for midgets and dwarfs in Hollywood. He helped found an organization for improving their status.

August 02, 1993|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Well, the first thing actor Jerry Maren wanted to do was to thank all the little people.

No, we're not talking any Barbra Streisand-type nod to Hollywood's grips, gaffers and best boys. This was serious stuff.

These were the real little people.

They were actors who played leprechauns, Santa's elves, Time Bandits, Munchkins and cigar-smoking children. They were little men and women who during a Sunday afternoon brunch at the Smoke House restaurant in Burbank opened their hearts to honor a man whose character had inspired them all.

For Jerry Maren is a four-foot, three-inch role model. As a teen, Maren played one of the original Lollipop Kids in the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz"--the tyke in the middle who handed Dorothy that big lollipop. He went on to portray Buster Brown and was the original Oscar Mayer Wiener character. In more recent times, he was McDonald's Mayor McCheese and showered bad performers with wads of paper as the Gong Show's Confetti Man.

Maren paved the way for many midgets and dwarfs who followed him to Hollywood and he helped found Little People of America, an organization devoted to improving the status of little people.

Jerry Maren has come a long way since the time his mother poured her horrible-tasting, homemade concoctions down his throat so he would start to grow.

"Hey, I'm a normal human being. All of us little people are," he said Sunday. "Some are wise guys. Some are a pain in the ass, just like the bigger folks. All the world is represented in little people."

This was a day when being small was hip, when two dozen of Hollywood's dwarfs and midgets gathered to pat each other on the back, buy each other drinks and let one another know that mere physical stature gave no hint whatsoever to the size of the heart.

It was also a day for some Little People Humor--this time told by the little people themselves.

As Maren's wife Elizabeth gave him pecks on the cheek, someone suggested that they use the guest of honor as the main course for some Shrimp on the Barbie. When another guest was introduced, the crowd yelled for him to stand and take a bow.

"I am standing!" replied Jimmy Briscoe, a 41-year-old character actor.

And when a regular-sized guest took the podium to speak, she had to bend over to reach the microphone. That's when someone quipped, "Life's a bitch, ain't it?"

The crowd went wild.

But when it came right down to it, they had gathered to recognize one of their own, a little person who had moved beyond society's stereotypes of shortness to make a successful living as an actor and spokesman.

"Today we honor a man of great stature," one speaker said. "Thank you, Jerry, for all you've given us. You're the ultimate."

And they talked about the successes and failures of being small.

One big day, of course, was when Randy Newman wrote the song "Short People," an anthem that, after initial criticism, many little people took to their hearts because it recognized their place in the world.

Funny, but somewhere in the narcissism of Southern California's body-beautiful culture, short people have found a place to feel at home. A sizable handful of the 1.5 million little people nationwide live in Southern California, they say.

"It's easier being small in L. A.," said Briscoe. "You go to Idaho and you're a freak. Here, we have little-people organizations. We have support."

But for each of them, there have been trying moments. Many didn't attend their high school senior proms, too short to find a date.

"I fought like crazy to get the attention of the shortest girl at school," recalled actor and stuntman Bobby Porter. "It just never worked. As the little guy, you had to be that much more funny and charming than the big guys. And still you sat at home."

For a little person, phone receivers are always too long. Toilets were a joke. Elevator buttons were the same story. Eventually, the changes made for wheelchair occupants helped little people in their physical battle.

But public attitudes were another story.

Growing up, they endured the cruel stares of children, the hushed jokes from would-be adults: "Hey, little Mommy." Or, "Don't you know that smoking stunts your growth?"

But Kathy Gieb found a way to cope.

"I would always tell myself, 'They don't know who I am. I know who I am. I'm a good person who happens to be little.' After awhile, you start to feel sorry for them, the cruel ones."

Now, Kathy and her friends have learned to buy children's clothes. And they have trained their grocery store manager to supply stools so they can reach the top-shelf items. And if they can't reach, they're not afraid to ask.

"There was a day when you had to settle for things you could reach," she said. "Now we're out to change things."

At 73, Jerry Maren's going to take it easy these days, work less and play more golf. After all, this is the guy Jack Nicklaus once called "a pro at some miniature golf course."

When asked about his golf game, Maren was quick to name his strength:

"My short game, of course."

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