Standing Short : Jokes About Small People Spur 2 Squirts to Raise Their Voices

Times Staff Writer

They could put up with constantly straining to see over people's heads in crowds and dangling their legs uncomfortably from too-high bus seats. But after listening to a barrage of jokes about Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis' height during a debate last year, Diane Keaton and Belle Adler of San Francisco decided it was time to take action.

The two television producers, both 5 feet 1 1/2 inches, founded the National Assn. of Short Adults (NASA), also known as the Alternative Space Agency.

The pair began their campaign in April, 1988, to raise the standing of short people by writing humorous letters to local newspapers that questioned the media's long lens on Dukakis' 5-foot-8 stature.

"Regardless of your political beliefs, it was kind of a low blow to deal with his height," said Adler, citing slogans like "shrimp and wimp" used to designate Dukakis and his opponent, George Bush. Height, they argued, had nothing to do with Dukakis' leadership ability and provided certain advantages. "We pointed out that Dukakis would use less food and fiber," Keaton said.

The Keaton-Adler letter-writing campaign blossomed into a 50-member organization, which published its first newsletter this month, "The Short Sheet." In addition to tidbits such as "sports shorts" and "short health tips," the newsletter calls for an equal heights amendment to outlaw hats and bouffant hairdos in movie theaters and to lower the seat level of chairs in public places by 6 1/2 inches.

"Very often in movie theaters, I just don't know where to sit," said Adler, who frequently hops from seat to seat after a tall person sits in front of her. "I'm paying the same $7 they are."

Despite the organization's name, membership in NASA is not restricted by height. Adler and Keaton say shortness is a matter of perception rather than stature. "I knew a guy who was 6 feet tall but thought he was short because his brother was 6 foot 2," Adler said.

Room for Shortcomings

An application to NASA, in fact, leaves plenty of room for interested members who can qualify on the basis of physical attributes, (short, short-waisted), personality (short-tempered), occupation (short-order cook) and other (short name or nickname). The application also includes a space for shortcomings.

Adler and Keaton's humorous attack on short-bashing generated nationwide media attention last summer and led to appearances on radio talk shows from San Francisco to Philadelphia to Tampa, Fla. During that time, the pair received hundreds of letters from short people and decided to begin a membership campaign earlier this year.

In return for a $10 application fee, members receive a card and button featuring NASA's motto, "Down in Front," and a newsletter subscription. Adler said the group wants to hold social events in the future.

While Adler and Keaton favor a comical approach to their campaign, both point out that being sleight of height can have serious implications. In presidential elections, the taller candidate has won 17 of 21 times. Letters from short men frequently complain that they have trouble meeting women, Adler said. And a 1986 study of male graduates with master's degrees in business administration conducted at the University of Pittsburgh found that graduates earned an additional $600 annually for every extra inch of height, Keaton said.

Short women, meanwhile, are often labeled "cute" and "feisty" and are not always considered as authoritative as their taller female counterparts, Keaton said. "When you're short and cute, I think there's a real diminution of being taken seriously," she said.

Whether male or female, shorter people also complain about finding clothing that fits. "I was 32 before I realized shirt sleeves didn't come down to my knuckles," said NASA member Butch Colyear, a medical illustrator at Stanford University.

But Colyear, at 5 feet 6, said he has not suffered any serious drawbacks from being short, although he used to be afraid to ask taller women for dates. And there is that persistent problem of seeing in crowds. In fact, it was the habit of standing on tiptoes in crowds that inspired Colyear's design for the group's "Down in Front" motto. The logo features a below-the-knee drawing of three people, one of whom is standing tiptoe.

'Have to Be Aggressive'

"We do it a lot in crowds," explained Colyear. "If you want to see, you have to get up front, you have to be aggressive."

Keaton knows that all too well. The San Franciscan decided to attend a Dukakis rally in the city last fall in hopes of glimpsing NASA's inspirational figure. Aware that she could never see him above the crowd, she stood strategically by a fence near the candidate's limousine, hoping to see him as he left the rally. But at the event's conclusion, the crowd realized that Dukakis would be approaching the fence and pushed in front of her.

Undaunted, Keaton yelled out, "Let the short people through!" In her words, the crowd "parted like the Red Sea."

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