For these performers, no role is too small
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.”
But Arnold doesn’t criticize Rossi and Queal for creating a business. And dwarf actor Mark Povinelli put the onus more on the buyer than the seller.
“Melvin is no fool,” he said. “He’s got a business to run and he’s exploiting them as much as they are exploiting him.”
Rossi was working as a law firm receptionist in 1998 when a friend suggested he try out for the Alvin and the Chipmunks show at the Universal Studios tour.
“I said I wouldn’t do that,” Rossi said. “Then he said it pays almost $200 a day.”
Rossi played Alvin on and off for nearly four years. He performed in other Universal live shows and was in the touring “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.”
An increase in job opportunities for dwarfs was sparked, several performers said, by the 1999 release of “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” which introduced the character Mini-Me, the dwarf clone of Dr. Evil.
“Mini-Me is a sort of lovable, cuddly little character,” said Povinelli, who was recently in a highly touted touring production of “A Doll’s House.” “Why not have him at your party?”
Rossi took notice that dwarfs were increasingly getting work at private events. In 2000, he and Queal, who met when they were in the same Radio City troupe, became business partners and launched their company.
When the bachelor party hit one of the hottest Las Vegas clubs, the novelty of having Rossi along got them to the front of the long line.
Once inside, he helped serve drinks for the group. But what particularly delighted the guys was how Rossi’s presence pulled several women to their corner to have their pictures taken and to dance with him.
“Probably because he seems safe to them,” party co-organizer Brian Coleman said.
Although the women didn’t stick around, Rossi was a huge hit with the party, which paid him $400 plus expenses. “We were lucky to get him,” Coleman said. “The guy created so much fun.”
A couple of weeks after the bachelor party, Rossi and four contract actors were at Queal’s house to rehearse for a gig. They went over musical numbers and then donned outfits depicting a soldier, a policeman, a cowboy, a construction worker and an American Indian.
That night, at a 1970s-theme party in Laguna Beach, they took the stage as a Village People tribute band.
It was lip-syncing, but the crowd of about 150 people didn’t care. They sang along and took pictures as the band members danced and stabbed their fists into the air to the beat of “Macho Man.”
“They were off the hook; they made the party,” said real estate developer Sean Baldwin, who threw the fete.
The band performed only two numbers. But the performers, when not on stage, circulated among the crowd to help keep the party lively. Short Entertainment, based in San Francisco and Orange County, was paid $2,875 for the evening.
Baldwin said he “never gave it two seconds of thought” if hiring dwarfs would be inappropriate. “I was talking with them before the party and was never thinking, ‘Is this going to be a joke?’ ”
Samuels, 38, of the bachelor party, said he heard only one objection to hiring Rossi.
“One person said, ‘It’s morally reprehensible.’ But someone else said, ‘Lighten up. It’s just funny.’ ”
“For my 40th birthday,” he said, “I might have three of them.”