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For these performers, no role is too small

Dwarfs have become chic entertainers for parties. Critics say the jobs are demeaning.

March 17, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Melvin Rossi II sat on a sofa in a Las Vegas hotel suite, BlackBerry in hand, talking deal points, hiring talent and checking on rehearsals.

But Rossi, 38, is not a typical entertainment company executive. For one thing, he was wearing a leprechaun outfit. And he's 4 feet tall.

Rossi is co-owner of Short Entertainment, a company that books dwarfs for live events nationwide. Business has never been so good. "We've got so many bookings for St. Patrick's Day, we're running out of little people," Rossi said.

For the holiday, which is its busiest day of the year (think leprechauns), the company will have more than 60 performers working.

The practice of showcasing dwarfs, which dwindled with the civil rights movement, is back in vogue. Dwarfs were hired to show up recently at separate parties for Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. But you don't have to be in the tabloids to join in the wave of what Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, calls "little person chic."

Across the nation, dwarfs are being hired as party greeters, ring bearers, bartenders (who stand on the bar), tribute bands, celebrity impersonators and dunk tank sitters. They've even been hired to show up at corporate events as mini-CEOs.

Using little people as party accessories makes many people uneasy and raises uncomfortable questions. "When people grew up in this culture, they were taught things about acceptance," said Gary Arnold, spokesman for the Oregon-based Little People of America, the leading support organization for dwarfs. "But it seems like it's OK to treat some people differently, like a novelty."

The owners of Short Entertainment -- and many of their 80 performers -- are members of the advocacy group and support its anti-discrimination agenda. But because they have limited opportunities to get mainstream entertainment work, novelty equates to making a living.

Rossi acknowledged getting calls from dwarfs who say his business is hurting their image. "I tell them, 'If you don't like what we're doing, just don't look at it,' " he said angrily.

Rossi, who lives in San Francisco and uses the stage name Shorty, was hired to show up at a bachelor party in Las Vegas as a surprise to the groom-to-be. He has done this bit dozens of times. On that same night, Short Entertainment had four other little people attending private parties in town as bartenders or greeters.

"My job is just to party along with them, like any other person," Rossi said, grabbing his green velour hat as he got off the sofa, "except that I'm wearing this damn outfit."

Rossi, who grew up in a South Los Angeles housing project, doesn't protest too much. In 2006, Short Entertainment brought in $350,000 and is on track to more than double that this year.

"It's become a hip thing to hire a little person," said Allison Queal, his 3-foot-11 business partner.

Rossi went to meet one of the organizers of the party, Joel Samuels of Mission Viejo, at the doorway of an expensive restaurant. They walked inside to the bar and up to the prospective groom, Mike Hamm, who had his back to the door.

"Here's your date for the evening," Samuels said. Hamm turned around and broke into a laugh. "You got me, you got me!" he said to his friends, high-fiving as a broadly smiling Rossi shook hands and introduced himself.

Rossi plays a different role for almost every type of job, but sometimes he's just a punch line, as in the case with corporate seminar gigs at which the script is almost always the same, starting with a company executive addressing the group.

"He says something like, 'As a matter of fact, we had to hire a new CEO, and we got a discount on this one!' " Rossi said. "At that point, I come out in a suit and it gets huge laughs."

Dwarfs have played special roles for centuries, from participating in religious rites in ancient Egypt to being jesters in medieval courts and more recently as featured attractions in circus side shows.

Now, dwarfs are not just party fare; they're also on widely distributed shows -- as figures of fun -- including bits on the Howard Stern and Jimmy Kimmel talk shows. A little people's fight on "Jerry Springer" has become a YouTube favorite.

"We want to get over stereotypes created in the days of the freak show when we were put on display," said Arnold of the little people's organization.

Psychologist Betty Adelson, who has written extensively on dwarfism, said there had been progress in dwarfs being taken seriously in entertainment, including roles in the film "The Station Agent" and the TV show "Boston Public." But she said businesses such as Short Entertainment can do harm. She cited postings on online dwarf message boards.

"They say, someone came up to them and made a rude remark, mimicked them or laughed at them," Adelson said. "I think there is some connection with that and this kind of lowbrow entertainment."

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