How big a shadow can you cast when you stand 3 feet, 9 inches tall? A giant one, in the case of Billy Barty.
Barty was a comedian to the very end. He could dress up like a pint-sized Liberace, in a silver wig and satin pants, and play a toy piano as shaving cream bubbled from a candelabra. It was an act that brought down the house.
And his gag at Jimmy Stewart’s 1946 bachelor party, when he surprised Stewart in a diaper and called him “Daddy,” is Hollywood legend.
Barty, who was 76 when he died two days before Christmas, was America’s most recognizable little person, a dwarf, magic elf — and sometimes a guy who just happened to be short — in more than 40 films and countless TV appearances.
But more important, Barty changed America. He’s a national hero to dwarfs, forever changing the lives of little people.
Mickey Rooney Honors a Friend
“He was one of the funniest guys I ever worked with, a great friend,” Mickey Rooney told The Wolf Files, speaking from his home in Los Angeles less than three weeks after he underwent multiple bypass heart surgery to treat a blocked artery.
“I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without Billy. He was one of a kind.”
Rooney had only been home from the hospital two days when he paid last respects to Barty at a memorial service Dec. 28 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Los Angeles. Comic Red Buttons and Barty’s 6-foot-tall son Braden delivered the eulogy.
“I had to be there,” said Rooney, who says he is feeling much better since returning home Dec. 26 from the hospital. “Billy had done so much. He had meant so much to so many people. He was so charitable.”
Rooney and Barty appeared in the Mickey McGuire film series in the late ’20s and ’30s. Barty went on to join the Spike Jones comedy band, and starred in dozens of movies, notably Foul Play, Willow and Day of the Locust.
A Little Person Soul Searching
But Barty’s real achievement was getting dwarfs together. Until he founded Little People of America, many dwarfs lived in miserable isolation. Some didn’t even know another dwarf. And many didn’t think it possible to work a normal job, marry and have children.
“Until he founded LPA in 1957, gatherings of Little People were virtually unheard of,” says LPA national president Leroy Bankowski. “We were isolated, often exploited.”
LPA gatherings are now how many dwarfs meet, marry and figure out ways to live normal lives. It’s not so easy using a drive-through automatic teller machine or reaching half of the products in grocery stores when you are shorter than 4 feet tall. But it is possible.
Bankowski, 53, is a 4-foot, 6-inch database manager at Verizon. Like most dwarfs, he is the child of average-sized parents and is the only dwarf in his family. “My three brothers aren’t little people,” he says. “As you can imagine, growing up, I had to do a lot of soul-searching to come to terms with who I am.”
He met his wife Donna, also a little person, at an LPA function and they have been married 26 years.
There are more than 100 forms of dwarfism. The most common form, achondroplasia, is a congenital bone disorder. Such dwarfs have normal-sized torsos but shorter arms and legs.
About one in every 25,000 babies is born with achondroplasia. It is a fluke of nature that occurs more often when the father is older. If a dwarf couple has children, they can pass along the dwarfing gene, but there is a 25 percent chance that the child will grow to a normal size.