Hot Dog! It's Little Oscar

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been almost three decades since he peddled them throughout the Midwest--at shopping centers, street corners and kiddie shows--but Joe White still knows wieners.

Over the years, he has sampled them all, from the prissy finger-size smokies to today's high-tech franks that double in size when cooked on the grill. But for his money, White says that his favorite dog still comes in the familiar pack with the yellow band, sold by Oscar Mayer.

However, it is dogged loyalty rather than culinary taste that may explain White's preference for Oscar Mayer hot dogs. The 71-year-old White, who has worked as a magician, circus clown, Las Vegas performer, television show host, movie actor and submarine pilot, was also the meat company's Little Oscar, "the world's smallest chef," for 20 years.

Now retired and head of a senior citizens group in this north Orange County community, White recently regaled a visitor with stories from his past, including his job as Little Oscar, when he dressed in a chef's outfit and traveled the Midwest in the Wienermobile, giving out hot dog samples and the famous wiener whistles.

At 4 feet, 3 inches tall (or about 12 wieners high), White was a natural for the part. As one of only nine Little Oscars used by the company since 1936, White is proud of the place in Americana occupied by the Wienermobile and Little Oscar.

"Little Oscar and the Wienermobile were inseparable promotional symbols. Every kid who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s knows about us," White said. "My job was to sell wieners. That was my job, and it and the Wienermobile were both a great ride!"

Today, White still enjoys a can of pork and beans "and a pack of dogs" for dinner. Instinctively, he finds himself straightening out the wiener display case at the market whenever he shops.

He came to company founder Oscar F. Mayer's attention in 1950, when he was co-hosting a children's cartoon show at a Chicago television station. White signed an $80-per-week contract to join three other Little Oscars who promoted the company's products, and he stayed with the company until 1970.

The other three Little Oscars--Meinhardt Raabe, Jerry Maren, a Los Angeles resident, and George Molchan--are still alive. Molchan, who has played the role since 1951, is the current and only Little Oscar. When White shared the role with the others, each man worked in different areas of the country.

*

White is nostalgic about the years that he spent as Little Oscar, crisscrossing the Midwest in the Wienermobile to the new suburban shopping centers or markets that seemed to open every week. He knew that his size and costume were a gimmick to promote the company's meat products, but he said that he never felt exploited.

In the 20 years that White "worked the Midwest," he estimated that he "threw out thousands of wiener whistles." Typically, he would sit atop the Wienermobile and toss out handfuls of whistles. The original whistles, shaped like tiny wieners, were attached to hot dog packages when first produced in 1951. They were discontinued in 1971, and later versions of the whistle were modeled after the Wienermobile.

"I was thrilled the first time I put on Little Oscar's costume. The Wienermobile and I were always on the go," he said. "I made a good living from my size all of my life. I never felt embarrassed or ashamed of my size."

In fact, White said there were some women, not necessarily little people, who were attracted to him because of his stature.

White sometimes was mistaken for another famous little person of that era, Johnny Roventini, a New York hotel bellhop who hawked Philip Morris cigarettes with a piercing "Call-ll for-r Philip Maw-reees!"

"Johnny was more famous," he said. He added with a mischievous chuckle: "There was a time or two when I pretended to be him, when the ladies mistook me for him or when they wanted me to be Johnny."

*

White was good at another illusion--magic. He entertained kids at Wienermobile events with magic tricks he learned during the three years he spent with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, from 1942 to 1945.

White was with the circus at Hartford, Conn., on July 6, 1944, when a canvas tent caught fire, sending 6,000 screaming spectators rushing for the exits. The tent, which was two football fields long and about one field wide, burned completely in 10 minutes, killing 168 people, including more than 100 children.

After his circus stint, White toured with carnivals and magic shows, performing as "Prince Tiny, the World's Smallest Magician." In the 1980s, he reduced his stage name to "Micro."

In between gigs, White also worked for an underwater research firm in Florida, piloting a midget (of course) submarine. In 1980 he had a minor role in a movie with Chevy Chase called "Under the Rainbow."

Born in Dorchester, Mass., on New Year's Day, 1925, White, an only child, never knew his mother, who was Irish, and father, who was Canadian. His parents, who were both normal size, died in a automobile accident when he was an infant. White was raised in foster homes in Cambridge.

He and his wife, Dorothy, met in Kenosha, Wis., in 1948. Dorothy, who is also a little person, was sitting in the front row with her mother, watching White's carnival act, when she caught his eye. They married two months later and eventually had a son, Joe Jr. who is 42 and of normal size.

*

But White's life on the road as Little Oscar put a strain on his marriage. Typically, he would be home only on alternating weekends. In 1970, the couple divorced. Joe got custody of their son and they lost all contact with Dorothy for 20 years.

She ended up in California, where she married again and settled in Cypress. In 1991, after her second husband died, Dorothy hired a private detective to track down Joe Sr. and Joe Jr.

The couple's son was living in Florida, and White was in Las Vegas, working at the Excalibur Hotel as a cast member in the King Arthur's Tournament revue. He played Little Merlin, Merlin's alter ego, and a court jester in the show.

"I'm the little guy who ran across the field, with his back on fire," White said laughing. "I did two shows a day, six days a week for 2 1/2 years."

The couple reunited in 1991, and White moved into Dorothy's condominium when he retired in 1993. Nowadays, White spends most of his time carrying for his sick wife, who is 72, when he is not attending to business as president of the Cypress Senior Sunshine Club.

Despite a busy schedule, White still finds time to write for magicians' magazines. He has been a frequent contributor for more than 30 years and has also written seven books about magic tricks.

"I've had a good life; no regrets. I'm dedicating the rest of my life to 'outing' closet little people. There are still a large number of little people who are bitter about being short or are tired of being ridiculed and try to hide from the world," White said. "My motto is, 'I'm for the little man,' and my philosophy is, 'Keep looking up.' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
70°