Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Midget Club in Chicago

Bruce Spence as the Gyro Captain 

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the grass in a park on the northwest side of Chicago.  While I sat there, a guy came along and started to talk to me.  The guy looked interesting.  He looked like a cross between the Bruce Spence character Gyro Captain in the Road Warrior and Zeddicus in The Legend of the Seeker.  If you combine those characters, add a grey mullet and a pair of Kareem Abdul Jabbar goggles, that is what this guy looked like. 

He asked me if I knew of "The Midget Club."  He was talking about a bar on the south side of Chicago that was open for about 34 or 35 years, from 1948 until 1982.  I obviously don't like the name of a bar using the word midget, but I've always been a little bit curious about the club.  Once, long ago on public television, a documentary I was watching included a piece about "The Midget Club." The club was run by a husband and wife.  I remember the segment as a simple interview with the husband, Parnell St. Aubin who had been a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz.  Parnell talked about the bar and the documentary showed some b-roll of him serving customers and working the cash register.  Watching the segment, I think I was impressed because the bar didn't seem like a gimmick dwarf establishment.  Clearly, the name was somewhat of a gimmick, but it wasn't one of the bars with hooting fraternity boys cheering on a bunch of midget wrestlers, or one of those places in Las Vegas or Manilla where everything about the bar is actually miniature.  From what I understood, "The Midget Club" was just a regular bar that happened to be run by little people.  Of course, they had step stools and things, but those were more accommodations than gimmicks.  Even the name wasn't so much of a gimmick.  Back in those days, the word midget didn't carry nearly the same baggage it does today.  Probably, I thought, it was a name the owners used to give the place some character.

The guy in the park told me that he used to dance at "The Midget Club."  From what I had seen of the documentary, the club didn't seem like a place where any dancing happened.  It seemed like the kind of place where regulars just sat at the bar and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon or Old Style.  But what do I know.  I then tried to picture this Bruce Spence looking guy either as an employee of the bar who was paid to dance or as a customer who danced to songs played in the jukebox.  Either way, the encounter with the guy in the park encouraged me to learn a little bit more about the club.  Later on, I did a few internet searches, no deep research. 

At first, what I found told me that the club was a little more gimmicky than I assumed.  The bar stools were all small, the payphone was just a few inches off the ground, and there was a large Wizard of Oz Mural.  I was a little surprised to learn this.  The piece I found said that the bar was built with people of short stature in mind.  But the reality of the population of dwarfs in Chicago says that, if the bar stayed open for more than 30 years, there must have been a lot of regulars who were not dwarfs.  If you build low stools, and know that they will be used by average size people, that's kind of gimmicky.   Learning about the miniature bar stools, I started to picture hard working average statured residents of the southwest side of Chicago sitting on the small stools and drinking a beer after their shifts. 

But another site explained that not all of the bar stools were short.  Just a few were, just in case some other people of short stature came into the bar.  In terms of the phone, a tall person can use a small phone, but not vice versa.  So, if only one phone is installed, it makes sense to put in a phone lower to the ground. 

Whatever the case, it makes sense that the bar was somewhat gimmicky.  Both the husband and wife were veterans of the entertainment world.  And in the end, I still like to believe that, more than anything else, "The Midget Club" was just a regular bar that happened to be run by two people of short stature.   The name notwithstanding, it would have been cool to have a beer at the place when it was open, especially if it was a day that Bruce Spence was dancing.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Snow White and Huntsman

On Monday, June 5, Little People of America received a media inquiry from TMZ.  I've written about TMZ in earlier posts.  Though they are more similar to the Enquirer than the New York Times, I like TMZ.  They've helped raise awareness around the word midget and on the television show they've even had editorial room discussions around portrayal of people of short stature.  Because of this fondness for TMZ, LPA decided the respond to the inquiry, which asked for our opinion about the casting of average sized actors for the role of the dwarfs in the new movie "Snow White and the Huntsman."  Typically, this is not an issue with which LPA would get involved.  But in order to maintain a good relationship with TMZ, we sent a written statement.  The statement was very general.  Without making an specific reference to the "Snow White" movie, the statement claimed that people with dwarfism deserve equal opportunity in employment.  This includes casting for roles that are written for people with dwarfism. 

I didn't expect much to happen with the story.  I was wrong.  The story was posted on the TMZ website early Tuesday morning.  The story ran with the headline "Snow White screwed us out of dwarf roles."  Though I just stated that I like TMZ, I never expected TMZ to be such a leader of trends in the media industry.  With such a sensationalist headline, and the story that accompanied the headline, the story was picked and built upon by scores and scores, if not hundreds, of other media outlets.  Most of these outlets were tabloid types entertainment websites, but not all of them were.  The story was also picked up by TIME and CNN. 

The day the story ran, LPA was overwhelmed with more media requests from outlets that wanted to spin the story in their own way.  We denied all of the requests except for one.  Instead of participating in interviews that we thought might blow the issue out of proportion, and interviews we thought might be driven by entertainment value rather than political and issue value, we sent our original statement.  These strategy became even more important later in the week when TMZ, once again on the forefront of the news, ran a story about an entertainer with "Beacher's Mad House" was calling for a so-called "100 Midget March."  Involvement in stories that also included such a despicable event would have only brought more bad, exploitative media to LPA.  If any good was going to come from the media around the issue, LPA didn't need to do anything more than continue issuing the original statement.

For the first few days after the original story, it didn't seem like any good would come from this media.  The stories and commentaries weren't looking at the issue.  Rather, they were trying to draw water from the entertainment value of a bunch of little people who were upset with the entertainment industry.  But, as the week moved on, the potential good from this issue did start to rise to the surface.  Once the entertainment value wore off, some media outlets began to look at the issue behind the immediate shock value of headlines like "Dwarfs say 'we got screwed.'"  What interesting is that when the media does begin to look at the issue, by large they are sympathetic to the dwarf community.  They think the casting was wrong. 

The best of these stories in my opinion was an interview with Danny Woodburn on National Public Radio.  Woodburn is a career actor, well known now for many roles, including that of Mickey, Krammer's friend on Seinfeld.  What's fascinating about this interview is that one learns the Woodburn has been political throughout his career, advocating to change language in scripts and advocating for the casting of people with disabilities to play roles intended for people with disabilities.  Here is the interview.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Artist Expression

On Friday night, I stayed late after work for an Arts and Culture event at Access Living.  When Access Living moved to the building at Chicago and LaSalle in 2007, the organization launched an Arts and Culture project to give visibility to artists with disabilities and to raise awareness around disability culture.  Probably six to eight times a year, Access Living will host culture events, from a battle of the bands, to dance performances, to poetry readings and artist lectures.  Friday night, an artist named Sandie Yi talked about her art. According to Yi's website, she makes "wearable art that addresses bodily and social experience, and social stigma."  Two stories Yi shared on Friday strongly resonated with me.  First, she talked about this piece of art she created that she would wear on her hand.  It was like a glove with an outer layer of attractive, soft felt.  So attractive, and so soft that people would be encouraged to touch it, and stroke it.  But within the glove were rose thorns.  If an admirer stroked the glove, the thorns would prick the hand of whoever wore the glove.  According to Yi, the piece is intended to show the dichotomy between fashion and physical difference.  Traditionally, one chooses fashion in order to fit, to stand out, or to be attractive.  But no matter what fashion choices we make, it doesn't change our physical differences, and often times, strangers will define us by our physical differences, not by what we wear. 

Yi also shared a story about going to Marshall Fields in Chicago.  Now it's known as Macy's but at the time it was Marshall Fields.  Yi's hands don't look like typical hands.  Rather than five fingers, she has two.  One winter in Chicago, Yi entered Marshall Fields.  The ground floor of the store, then and now, is full of cosmetic counters, with sales people peddling all kinds of perfume, make up, and lotion.  Soon as Yi entered the store, a sales person asked if she wanted to sample some lotion for her hands.  It being cold and dry in Chicago, Yi thought, "perfect, I could go for some lotion."  Yi put out her hand.  The sales person, startled at the site of Yi's fingers, gasped.  Yi followed the Marshall Fields story with another one, about a time when she put her palms together to collect some change from a cashier.  Like the Marshall Fields sales person, the cashier was startled at the site of Yi's fingers, and let out a cry.  The stories reminded me of the many times that strangers, unfamiliar with dwarfism, acted startled, if not scared, in my presence. 

Yi didn't give any advice about what to do when strangers act startled.  She didn't reveal some brilliant coping mechanism.  At the time of the incidents, there is really not much that can be done.  It's going to hurt, and it's going to take a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days to get over it.  But it was great to hear it from Yi.  It was one of those moments when one feels, "Oh, I am not alone." 

It is people like Yi, who share their experiences, that make it is easier for people with physical differences to deal with outside pressures.  And the more we all share these experiences, the better those not familiar with physical differences, will be able to cope.