Nielsen Media Research ranks Kansas City as the country's 31st-largest television market. The entertainment production industry here is small but self-sufficient, kept afloat by ad campaigns for local businesses. An actor may land a role in a Hallmark commercial one week and be hawking snack cakes outside a grocery store. An actress may rely on her agent to get reputable gigs but moonlight as a stripper. Kansas City is a town where most would-be actors keep their day -- or night -- jobs.
In a knockoff tinsel town like this, making it big is less about being famous and more about earning enough money to survive. And when you're less than 5 feet tall, chances are, the effort becomes a do-anything hustle not to get overlooked.
Know Your Competition
Wearing slacks and a shirt and tie, Jeffrey White stepped in front of a gray backdrop surrounded by hot lights and TV monitors. The Wright/Laird Casting studio, occupying a film-noir-style suite in the crumbling Congress Building at 36th Street and Broadway, was otherwise sparsely furnished with a video camera and a round, wooden table circled by dark-suited executives, including a casting agent, a director and a costume designer, whose assistants flitted purposefully about. White was in his midforties, but his strong build and bright gaze made him appear much younger. His jaw line cut a sharp angle beneath the lights.
On this day in October 2002, the Missouri Lottery was holding an open casting call for its holiday "Luckytown" commercial. White tried to get into his character. Think: cheerful elf.
White stood 4-feet-7-inches tall. He was both the tallest -- a point of pride -- and the best-known dwarf working in showbiz in the metro.
This particular call had drawn dwarf wanna-be actors from across Missouri, Iowa and Kansas. Less than an hour earlier, in a similarly drab, appreciably hotter room across the hall from the audition studio, White had met some of his competition: a leather-clad biker; a tattooed rocker accompanied by his leggy, blond-haired girlfriend; a thick-limbed bouncer; and a surprisingly old man. He'd talked briefly with a rambunctious kid in his twenties named Chad Alpers, who worked full time as a slot technician at the Ameristar Casino.
Alpers had shown up without a résumé, head shot or illusions of grandeur. He'd done a few gigs himself -- dancing on bars, riding in the St. Patrick's Day parade, working a bachelor party for a couple hundred bucks.
White didn't have much to say to him. Neither dwarf seemed interested in making friends.
"I don't know how they get ahold of these people," White says of local casting agents, recalling the other actors that day. "I don't see them walking around unless we're doing some kind of shtick or spoof."
Having been in the business for more than twenty years, White was already established. He'd started his film career after college at the University of Kansas, sitting inside a giant robot and operating it Power Ranger-style for an industrial film. After college, he'd spent time working behind the scenes for Nick Vedros, a well-known commercial photographer; White later appeared in Vedros' promotional materials as a jockey on a carousel and as a red-suited bellhop in front of a wall of luggage.
In the '80s, White had been a high roller, partying with the suit-and-tie crowd at Skies. Back then, his wife had given him a nickname -- Bean -- that he'd used as a stage name on a few occasions. In the '90s, he'd broken into TV ads playing elves and leprechauns in local commercials. White also accepted rote parts in student films. He'd earned as much as $1,000 a day making cameo appearances in B-movies -- in one, he played a drunk in an oversized sombrero opposite a Penthouse model for a dustup scene at Dave's Stagecoach Inn. "It was called Cabaret-something," he says of that gig. His other movies were "T-and-A flicks," he says. "Skin flicks. I try to forget them when they're done."
On St. Patrick's Day, White would contract to show up at Kelly's and O'Dowd's, then run a side business offering photos of himself posing with partiers for ten bucks a pop. He had a cocky air. He kept his hair cropped short but not too short, his frame muscled but not too thick. He wanted to be able to mold himself to any role. Then, in 1999, White landed a role as an elf in a commercial shoot for Hallmark -- a gig that made him feel as if he'd finally arrived.
Auditioning for the Luckytown commercial at Wright-Laird was a homecoming. Two years earlier, he'd earned his first statewide job, a spot in another lottery commercial. Filmed at the Ward Parkway mall, the ad featured White in three separate scenes: as an elf offering Santa presents, as a short-statured police captain getting mobbed by officers wanting to volunteer as Santa in Luckytown, and as a gift-schlepping extra. White's commercial had run in prime-time slots on multiple stations, giving him big exposure. More important, he started earning residuals -- about $25 each time the commercial aired. His ka-ching factor doubled when the commercial started running back-to-back during all-night movie marathons. White hired an agent, Kathy Hanis with Entertainment Plus Talent. He had banked more than $10,000 from acting work over the previous two years.
White took his mark beneath the lights, opposite a man in the puffy, red Santa suit.
Action! He began to whistle and skip toward the mock Santa. Cut! The director traded one Santa for another Santa to test onscreen chemistry.
Action! White repeated his act. Cut!
Action! White knew the drill and began to kick up his heels merrily.
The director called for five takes. For White, it was the same song and dance he'd been performing in various forms in front of audiences for years.
Hanis called him a few days after the shoot. The agent said the director had narrowed the field to two candidates: White and Chad Alpers. With prior experience and a proven track record, White got the part. Because it was his second union job, White signed a contract with the Screen Actors Guild, reinforcing his professional status.
"I got my SAG card," White said later. "I don't have to do anything for free anymore. If you want to hire me, you're going to have to pay. I've got an hourly rate, a manager. I can pick and choose. Every time I do something, I want to go bigger."
Be Ready for Anything
Despite his degree in commercial art and photography from KU, White had made a career out of hourly wage jobs -- building bikes, serving drinks at Buzzard Beach, printing copies at Kinko's -- while he pursued acting on the side. He was making ends meet checking groceries at the Hen House on 83rd Street and Mission Road in Prairie Village. He needed the benefits. He had a five-year-old girl to support.
White also knew how hard it was to make a profit in the entertainment business -- he'd grown up with a backstage pass. White was one of four children and the only little person in his family. As a kid, White didn't consider himself a dwarf, in part because he was never around other little people. He dated taller girls and played basketball with his two 6-foot-tall older brothers.
In the '60s, White's father abandoned a job designing window displays at Macy's to join a set-design firm called Calvin Movie Production; among its projects were the sets for Laugh-In and Paper Moon. When White hit high school, the company started representing talent. White scouted prospects in his high school classes at Bishop Miege. He saw how picky directors could be. The message resonated.
"Even we have competition," White says. "Just because you're an elf doesn't mean you're going to get an elf position."
At age eighteen, White attended his first meeting of the Little People of America, a national group, in Kansas City. He didn't join, though. He says club meetings were pity parties, often catering just to younger children. "I just have a complex. I don't feel short," he says. "I feel talented even without drawing a crowd, taking care of what I take care of on my own."
White's work ethic was simple: Take every gig you can get.
This January, he found himself inside a small recording studio in the Entercom complex in Westwood. Sipping coffee in the half-lit hours, he sat opposite Kenny and Afentra, morning-show hosts for KRBZ 96.5 the Buzz. A week earlier, an intern from the station had stopped White at Hen House and recruited him for the show, saying that they were looking for unusual people to interview. Later, White found out that was just a line to get him on the air.
Sitting in a swiveling chair, facing the mechanical arm of the microphone, White lied his ass off. He told unseen commuters that he'd been in movies such as Star Wars and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Studio protocol dictated that he use a pseudonym, and White already had one. Calling himself Bean was a shrewd move, considering that most of the people he'd worked with already knew the nickname. On the air, Afentra probed him for information. Was he into taller women? Yes. Did he troll the bars, looking to get laid? No. Was he well-hung? Yes.
Though he was an unreliable narrator, Bean's gravelly voice was perfect for telling radio stories. He became a regular, and Afentra assigned him the on-air moniker Bean the Horny Dwarf. When someone would refer to him as a midget, Bean would scream back: "I'm not a midget! I'm a dwarf!"
Bean reveled in his celebrity. He had cause to celebrate, too. Though he kept his job at Hen House, the Buzz was now giving him full-time work. Afentra and fellow morning-show personality Scoops recall that Bean would arrive late for work those first few months, sometimes hungover, sometimes still drunk. One morning he came in missing three teeth, his face swollen. Someone outside a bar had picked him up, yelling, "I got the Bean! I got the Bean!" and then tripped, dropping him on the sidewalk. White's misfortunes only added to his allure. Bean became the station's mascot.
Dressed in a tutu and a beret, Bean "The Ticket Fairy" would hand out concert tickets on street corners. Clad in a pair of red boxers and a "Cupid" muscle shirt, he did a Valentine's Day broadcast from Aqua, a club near Armour Road and Broadway. To celebrate the release of the Dave Matthews Band's single "Gravedigger," the radio station put Bean in a trench and buried him. Once, when Afentra got mad at Bean, she made him canvas Kansas City wearing a diaper and carrying a plastic bottle. On Cinco de Mayo, executives reimagined him as a "Beanyatta"; they attached prizes to his body with Velcro, hung him from a tree near the J.C. Nichols Fountain, and let listeners whack him with plastic noodles. Bars wanted Bean to do radio remotes. His driver's license had been revoked, so listeners chauffeured him to and from work. On the side, Bean rented himself out for kiddy parties or adult galas, billing clients at least $100 an hour.
"People wonder why I won't do a bachelor party for free beer," White says. "It's $100 an hour. Just like if you wanted to get a limo service. You get what you pay for. It's an act to go around and make people laugh."
In fact, entrepreneurs all over the country are banking on little people's entertainment value -- from MTV's Jackass, a prank show starring a 4-foot-7-inch dwarf named Weeman, to Internet services proffering dwarf talent. "There's a handful of guys that are making a living ... in the entertainment industry," says Danny Black, the 4-foot-2-inch owner of ShortDwarf.com, a national Web site that books four or five dwarf events across the country each week.
"We get calls for stripping, whether it be a male or female stripper, requests for dwarf tossing, dwarf bowling -- all the way up to delivering a marriage proposal," Black says. The self-proclaimed "major player" in the market says he brokers dwarves for $100 to $1,000 an hour, depending on where they're asked to travel and what they're asked to do.
"I'm laughing all the way to the bank," he says. "I'm charging an employer two to three times what I'd need to show up in a three-piece suit and hand out applications."
White sent a few head shots to ShortD warf.com but later abandoned the idea of going national. "I couldn't get straight answers," he says. "You have to be careful. There's guys out there who will send your stuff to porn sites. That's not what I do."
Besides, White already had the Kansas City market cornered. Without him, local talent execs would have to rent out-of-town dwarves' services for as much as $1,000 an hour, says Paul Craig at Weplaywithpeople.com, an agency that provides unique acts for public events and corporate parties.
Ultimately, White aspires to be a serious actor. He'd like to do comedy work as himself, without having to wear a costume. "My goal is to really land a career -- to be in movies, to be in commercials. I just want to be more consistent to where I have more freedom. I think it can happen. I think this year will be good for me."
Get a Stage Name
The crowd arrived early. On a Monday night at the Quaff at 10th Street and Broadway, people are pressed three-deep into the narrow space in front of the bar. TVs at opposite ends of the room flash pictures from the Monday Night Football game -- St. Louis against Atlanta -- while a separate group of speakers blasts "Macho Man."
A short man vaults from his stool onto the bar. He sidesteps pint glasses and raises his palms toward the ceiling as he moves across the makeshift stage. The audience is a mix of blue- and white-collar -- men in khakis stand behind their blue-jean counterparts parked at the bar. Because of the potential to get picked up or thrown, the entertainer has brought backup: A large friend in a Hawaiian shirt is sitting close by.
The short man points to a blond-haired woman, who boosts herself onto the bar to dance beside him. Backlit by beer signs, he has two discerning features -- a shaved head and a horseshoe-shaped mustache. Wearing a red-and-blue jersey with the number "1/2" stitched across it, the man implores the crowd to cheer louder. For him. The stenciled white lettering across his back reads "Mini-Quaff."
About the time White took over the morning airwaves as Bean, Chad Alpers launched a late-night publicity tour, making scattered appearances at more than ten bars across the metro. For Alpers, missing the Luckytown commercial wasn't a huge upset -- he'd just moved too fast. Still a blip on the entertainment radar, he soon realized that to crack into the industry, he needed a reputation. So with the club owners' permission, he'd climb atop the bar at America's Pub or Denim and Diamonds. Patrons responded.
When Alpers danced, the occupancy rate at some bars doubled or tripled. This fall, Alpers decided he needed a home base, a place where he could be the main attraction. So he booked his services for Monday Night Football games at the Quaff. The terms of negotiation were simple: face time for booze.
"It's been great to do for fun," Alpers says. "I get my name in the door. I know a lot of good-quality people come in there. I started the gig downtown, where people who are agents can see me."
Alpers speaks in a slight country drawl. He was raised in Higginsville, population 4,680, an agricultural town 50 miles east of Kansas City.
"There was no animosity growing up," Alpers says of being different in a small town. "Everyone was strong and supportive. It didn't affect me."
Alpers' father was 4-feet-3-inches tall, a mechanic who later moved the family to Odessa, where Alpers went to high school with a crowd of guys who drove pickup trucks. They always kept an eye on him, making sure no one made fun of him.
After he graduated, Alpers went to trade school at the Lex La-Ray Technical Center in Lexington. Settling in Independence in the late '90s, he got into the entertainment business as a joke, agreeing to work a buddy's bachelor party for $200. The next year, he rode the Ameristar float to a fifth-place finish in the St. Patrick's Day parade. In addition to the gig at the Quaff, Alpers still works at the casino. Lately, he's been rewiring old slot machines to accommodate the new, multicolored $20 bills.
"I'm happy until my entertainment business picks up," Alpers says. "Right now, I'm just [performing] for a little on the side."
At the Quaff, the bartender cues the William Tell overture as Mini-Quaff grabs a giant Chiefs flag and rushes through the adjoining, cavernous rooms while the cloth unfurls behind him like a mainsail. The entire Quaff becomes an obstacle course as he dodges patrons, slaps high fives, jumps into an already-filled booth and bumps into a few big men seated in metal chairs at foldout tables. A few minutes later, when the bartender plays "YMCA," Mini-Quaff stands on the bar, leading the dance like an overenthusiastic aerobics instructor. At halftime, he runs contests, pitching T-shirts and other freebies into the audience. Someone hands Mini-Quaff a fuzzy Rams helmet. Ad-libbing, he dons the gear and charges headlong into the crowd.
Since the Monday Night Football performances started, the crowd at the Quaff has grown exponentially. Women entering the bar for the first time yell, "He's here! He's here!" The Mini-Quaff groupies make it official: Alpers has become a bona fide sensation.
A couple of months ago, White's agent, Kathy Hanis, spotted Alpers partying front-row center at a Martina McBride concert celebrating the Ameristar's grand opening. Hanis had spent time in Los Angeles as a publicist for Delta Burke, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Valerie Harper, Lou Ferrigno and Dee Wallace Stone. After returning to Kansas City, she founded her own talent agency, fronting regular performers as well as niche acts, such as White and an obese, redheaded kid now visible on Pointroll.com. A few nights before the St. Louis-Atlanta game, Hanis offered Alpers the opportunity to do a shoot for Rushwade2, a commercial photography and digital-imaging studio that was making a calendar promoting itself.
The terms of the photo shoot were simple: free work for free publicity. Rushwade2 would be distributing its calendar to current and potential clients, including other ad agencies, art buyers, record labels and movie promoters on the East and West Coasts. The calendar would give Alpers first-time exposure to industry insiders who could provide paying work. When Alpers agreed to the gig, Hanis told him that he'd be working alongside one of the best in the industry, another man who understood the importance of marketing his image: Jeffrey White.
Don't Do Anything for Free
On the second level of the Rushwade2 studio lofts near 20th Street and McGee, a mock hotel room is complete with full-sized bed, a small closet and wall adorned with a framed sailboat-and-palm-tree watercolor.
The premise of the shoot is to catalog the myriad events occurring in a hotel room over the course of a year, explains agency owner and photographer Lyndon Wade. The set has been reconfigured numerous times to accommodate scenes from an Asian bachelor party, an after-hours prom celebration, a man bound in a chair for a mobster interrogation, and a low-budget porn flick.
On this day in mid-October, the hotel room has been redecorated again: A keg squats near the far end of the bed, champagne bottles loll on the floor, two 3-foot-high light-up candy canes stand near a chair.
Just off the set are two blond women from another talent agency and two volunteer Santas (one of whom smells strongly of booze). One of the blondes wears a slinky, purple dress. The other sports a short, blue dress and heels. Costumers surround the group, trying to coordinate the Santas' disheveled look and working to make the striking women look cheap.
Like Alpers, the women have traded free work for exposure. But White has apparently struck a side deal. Unbeknownst to the other actors, he says he bartered with Wade for bust shots to fill out White's portfolio.
"I don't understand how [people] can do things for free," White says. "You can't do work constantly for free -- it's not lucrative. I'd give up."
Hanis reintroduces the two, but other than a perfunctory greeting, Alpers and White say little to each other.
Wade wanted both men to come dressed in clubbing shirts, but because they didn't get the message, he has to rework their image with in-house props.
"We wanted flashy shirts, and Lyndon's not getting that, so he's trying to do something over the top," Wade's assistant says.
Wade, a spiky-haired 24-year-old in wire-rimmed glasses, approaches Alpers. "Do you have boxers on?"
"You going commando?"
"Would you be willing to take your jeans off for us?"
"Sure ... I guess," Alpers says. "It's always a party. Wish I would have worn boxers."
But Alpers soon rethinks his decision to pose in his underwear. He winds up sporting a rose-embossed shirt and a pair of blue shorts.
For his part, White is shirtless, wearing only a pair of pants and a string of Mardi Gras beads.
"You guys have been working at the mall, and now you've rented this hotel room and you are just freaking fucked up," the assistant explains.
Wade echoes her statement enthusiastically: "Everybody's hammered!"
The actors take their marks. Santa 1 lies passed out behind the bed. Santa 2 leans in a chair with a bottle of tequila. Blonde 1 mounts the chairbound Santa. Alpers is given a beer bottle and told to jump on the bed. With his back to the camera, White faces Blonde 2, who is sprawled on an end table, stage left, legs akimbo.
"Why did I get a different visual on this?" White complains.
Wade takes nearly 100 shots. Recorded on a nearby computer, the photos document each actor's actions over the next few hours. Santa 1 remains stationary. Santa 2 moves robotically, lifting the liquor bottle back and forth toward his lips. For the most part, Alpers bounces up and down on the bed, mimicking his Mini-Quaff dance moves. At one point, he fastens a pink bra around his head. Then he places a colonial-style wig on top of it and continues jumping.
White's pose changes dramatically, though. Starting the shoot with his back to the camera negated his chance for free exposure. Through the sequence of pictures, he pirouettes around Blonde 2 to finish the shoot facing forward, his arms locked around Blonde 2's leg, mugging for the camera.
While doing all of that, White keeps an eye on Alpers, too. Other than taking stock of other actors in cramped audition rooms, this is the most time he's spent in the presence of another dwarf in the past fifteen years. The kid's a loose cannon. He hams up shots, suggests his own ideas, has trouble following direction.
"You missed a shot," Alpers yells at Wade when he's done something cool. He moves around props, gathering underwear and bras in a pile at his feet.
"I think it's all good," Alpers says later. "I think it'll hit big."
"I think he's more of a sideshow than he's really wanting to get into it," White says later. "He's no threat to me. I want to act. Acting like you don't know what you are doing, that's just a shtick. Now, can Chad do [more than] that? In my opinion, no. I feel like I'm more professional. You've got to be more professional to go where I want to go."
Always Sign a Contract
It's an hour before midnight on October 18, and White rides shotgun in a compact car, on his way to another "midget wrestling" match at the Palladium, a warehouse-sized bar in the West Bottoms. He's spent most of the night at a Buzz-promoted show at the Beaumont Club in Westport, swilling beer and posing for pictures with fans. Now, his neck hurts. Things got a bit out of hand when the event staff tossed him into the crowd.
Two weeks ago, White headlined at the Winslow's City Market Barbecue "White Trash Party," where he wrestled a stripper on a plastic tarp slicked down with Crisco. Promoted by the Buzz and various media outlets (including the Pitch) across the metro, the event paid him $150.
"For under-the-table cash, and I'm not doing anything except rolling around with a naked chick in KY?" White says.
He spent that Saturday night covered in goo, slipping and sliding for the masses. It was easy money, another chance to grab the spotlight.
Earlier today, though, White learned that Alpers would be appearing in tonight's bout. Lighted signs for haunted houses wink back at him through the passenger-side window while he fumes.
"I thought it was going to be like the thing at Winslow's," White says. "Why don't they tell people in the freaking beginning what's going on? Now it's going to be an exploitative thing."
"We just needed another midget," explains Stacy, the stripper White went to the mat with at Winslow's. Stacy had caught Alpers' act at the Quaff and recruited him. "Chad is a really nice guy. We just saw him at the bar, doing the chicken dance."
The fight card could be set up two ways: dwarves versus strippers, or Bean versus Mini-Quaff with stripper tag teams. At this point, though, the terms of the tournament are still unknown.
White has seemed jovial all night, but now he's edgy. This will be his second gig beside Alpers in a week. White prefers to work alone. But if he's pitted against the other entertainer, he's sure of one thing: "I'm just going to kick his ass."
A line of parked cars rims the curb in front of the Palladium. Streetlights cast soft halos above nearby warehouses. Shouldering a duffel bag filled with clothes, White marches unsteadily past the bouncer at the door.
Scattered throughout the room are black-and-white pamphlets promoting tonight's event: "The Impure Circus Side Show Extravaganza." Talent includes a snake dancer, a burlesque dancer, a glass walker and a human pincushion on the main stage, and a fire breather and a bug eater on the stage outdoors. "Midget wrestling" will be the finale. The place is packed to a near-capacity crowd of 500.
White heads to the back room to change. Sitting on a sprawling leather couch, he pulls off his jeans, shirt and socks and puts on a pair of red-checkered boxers and a top hat. Then, lighting a cigarette, he surveys the scene. Piles of stale hors d'oeuvres top the pool tables. The other entertainers' props -- feathers, clothespins, a pair of buccaneer swords -- litter the floor.
"This is a freaking freak show," White says. "What have I gotten myself into? Oh, well, I'll pull it off. But this is like a goddamn circus."
Alpers has been at the Palladium for more than an hour, drinking coffee and mingling with goth women and decked-out men. He boasts that he's working on plans to be a seasonal frontman for Little Debbie's Snack Cakes at Northland Price Choppers. Wearing a plush, velvet robe, purple fedora and red sunglasses, Alpers poses for pictures beneath a string of black lights near the bar.
Backstage, White watches the action, slugging his beer. Empty bottles pile up behind him. When Alpers appears, their exchange is brief.
"You're, like, the Quaff man," White shouts to him.
"You're, like, the Buzz man," Alpers shouts back.
Dressed in a schoolgirl outfit, Stacy the stripper frowns. White has put her in an awkward position. "Bean is shit-faced," Stacy says. "We have a contract, but he's too drunk to look at it, too drunk to sign it.
"I know he had an event with the Buzz earlier, but I didn't think he'd come here drunk," she continues. In the world of fetish performing, being able to trust the other talent is important. "Professionally, with the stuff we do, we don't show up drunk."
On the main stage, two women -- a brunette dressed as a virginal angel and a blonde wearing black wings and tight, red vinyl -- approach the Human Pincushion. The angel attaches clothespins strung with feathers to his arms while her counterpart sinks metal pins into his left pec, winding a strand of red ribbon through them. The Human Pincushion rises from a stool and is pulled by his accessories back and forth across the stage. Below the stage, the members of the crowd stand shoulder-to-shoulder, murmuring uneasily.
An hour later, when Alpers ducks backstage to ditch his robe for a pair of shorts, White hasn't moved from the couch. Drinking beside his Buzz driver, he lounges quietly, occasionally breaking into a rant about what a fucked-up gig this is, waiting for his cue.
Stacy strides toward the stage, Alpers following. Someone from the event staff approaches White to break the news. He's been disqualified.
"This is a freak show," White says. "I don't want to do this anyway -- I should have signed something, a contract. I'm glad, because I might have hurt him. This is not my style anyway. This is not what I expected. If I had known what was going on, I wouldn't have done it. This is a freak show. I'm not a freak. I'm a professional. It's not my gig. Not my style. I'm not in a carnival act. This is a carnival, and I'm not doing it. I have respect."
Onstage, Alpers takes his position stage right. Two women -- one in a schoolgirl outfit, the other in a polka-dot '50s dress -- stand stage left. They square off at opposite ends of an empty, inflatable kiddy pool. This will be Alpers' first wrestling match. A year ago -- a month ago, even -- he never would have believed he'd wind up in this situation.
Midget wrestling isn't supposed to be the right-place, right-time turning point in someone's career.
But Alpers stands, waiting for the spotlight. The announcer introduces him as Mini-Quaff, and then the curtain swings open to a chorus of cheers. He is the main event.