When Ryan Steven Green was growing up, he would hear the most amazing stories from his Uncle Larry and Aunt Lydia, actors whose diminutive height helped them to land roles in “Return of the Jedi.”
“When I would go over to their house, I would put on his ewok mask,” recalls Green. “I would run around the house in his ewok mask. My Aunt Lydia still has her gloves and her club [from the film]. She’s the lucky lady who snagged the California cosmetic license plate that says “EWOK.” Apparently, the producers of the film tried to buy her out of the license plate and she wouldn’t give it up.”
It wasn’t until years later that Green would find out, at least in greater detail, that his Uncle Larry and Aunt Lydia were a part of something else that was special – the Hollywood Shorties, the basketball team formed by the Little People of America that originated during the 1950s and grew in prominence to play – no joke – alongside the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers team during the 1980s at their halftime shows. With the showbiz ethic instilled in the dwarf community that flocked to Tinseltown to star in “The Wizard of Oz” and turned film and television into a family business for generations, the Shorties put on the most entertaining game on the hardwood this side of the Harlem Globetrotters, featuring many beloved actors such as “Bad Santa” star (and surprisingly deadly 3-point shooter) Tony Cox on the court.
Yet their decades-long history remained largely confined to the attics and storage closets of the team’s players and staff until Green decided to follow up his debut feature “Circle the Wagen,” a spirited history of the Volkswagen Bus and the true fraternity of collectors around the U.S. that have sprung up around it, by digging a little deeper into his family history. The charming result, which premieres at SXSW this week, is a sports story unlike you’ve seen before, one that has the familiar pleasures of an underdog tale where a team that struggles to be taken seriously steadily finds success, eventually coming to question their identity, but evolves here into a fascinating portrait of people – in this case, quite literally, born entertainers – marginalized by society who turn their perceived weakness into one of their biggest strengths.
Told with great sensitivity — Green was careful never to condescend, having to remind his cameraman to light and frame the interviews just as he would anybody else, “The Hollywood Shorties” still manages to capture all that made the Shorties unique, celebrating the wild adventures only a team like this could have, especially during the wild excess of their ‘80s heyday. Just before the film’s premiere in Austin, Green spoke about how he first learned of the Shorties, turning a treasure trove of archival material into a compelling narrative and treating his subject with respect, with a cameo in here from the film’s jack-of-all-trades associate producer Charlie Pecoraro who made this interview possible.
How did this come about?
Ryan Steven Green: “Circle The Wagen” was finishing up and I’m looking for my next film. I had boiled down my slate of projects down to 13, and in the midst of that process of weighing the pros and cons and moving forward with this one or that one, Christmas time came. This was 2012. I was sitting down to dinner with my family and the topic of the Hollywood Shorties came up at dinner. One of my uncles, Larry, was a longtime Hollywood Shorty during the early ‘70s to the late ‘80s. My other uncle, Scott, whose house we were eating dinner at for Christmas, promoted and refereed their games throughout early mid-‘80s, so I’ve known of the story for a long time. I’ve seen the photos. But as we started to talk about the Shorties again, it struck me like a rock right in the forehead, like, no family has stories like this. Maybe this has some legs.
I started asking questions and this new story starts coming out. One thing led to another. In terms of getting in contact with folks, I went up the ladder, which led to George Rositto, the manager of the team who was with them from eight years old to the bitter end. He took some wooing, that’s another story. Momentum carried me forward on this.
Was it different to make a film about the past where you’re making it come alive again?
Ryan Steven Green: It was my biggest fear because I have never done a historical film of any type, so [there was the question of] how do you make what’s already written feel as if it’s fresh and it’s happening now? As I went on, that topic became even more pressing because almost the entire Shorties photographic record is in black-and-white. I had plenty of VHS video tape, but even the video tape was stuck on a wide angle lens, sitting at the top of the stands [during games], just panning back-and-forth. So the footage itself is not all that compelling, except, of course, for the subject matter and the fact that this is a story that is completely unknown and very unusual.
I trusted that the story itself would be unknown or new enough that that would make up for whatever lack of excitement there was in the photos or the video. What ended up happening was there was more story there than I was anticipating. That started to really ease my conscience in terms of people’s willingness to give the film a chance or stay tuned to find out what happened. When I started off, I did not know if there was a story at all. All I knew was that this team existed and people should know about it. My feeling was, let’s start rolling the camera and find out what happens.
You really did seem to collect a treasure trove of archival footage, however – every game you mention, you actually see. Was this history as well-preserved as it looked?
Ryan Steven Green: George [Rositto] deserves that full credit. Starting off, I knew that there was something there — at least something weird — so that was enough for me to get started, but in my immediate family, my uncle Scott only had a couple photos. What I didn’t know was he was also in possession of photo albums of my uncle Larry, who was the team member, [which] contained a lot of Hollywood Shorties material and a lot of very candid stuff, [like photos of] parties and things like that. But I didn’t realize what a challenge I had in coming up with archival material. It takes an enormous amount of archival material to tell a feature-length documentary. The more research I did and the more people I got in contact with the more material started to surface.
But far and away, George Rositto made the biggest contribution of materials. Literally, I left his house with his life story in the trunk of my car. He kept everything. He kept receipts. He kept ticket stubs. He kept programs. He kept flyers. He kept posters. He kept camera negatives. Every VHS tape they ever created — I had some that came from eight millimeter. He has their jerseys and props that they used for gags. He has their complete financial records. I photoraphed the entire financial record from start to finish, every canceled check, every deposit slip, every statement and read ever slip of paper and who were the checks going to, how much was it for. He kept meticulous notes in the memo fields. That was highly revealing, so George Rositto’s collection of Hollywood Shorties ephemera, [which] speaks to how much this meant to him as an individual, made the film possible.
One of the most remarkable moments in the film comes when you hear the recording of a team meeting where they debate the kind of identity they want to have, whether they want to take the game seriously or add more gags to make it more silly. You can feel the tension and you can’t believe such a intimate discussion is on tape – were you surprised when you uncovered that?
Ryan Steven Green: Among the haul from George Rositto, there were a lot of items that didn’t have to anything do with the Shorties necessarily. It might be like the program from a Doobie Brothers’ concert that they went to, just as friends, not as a team — in fact, there is a photo of some of the Shorties with the Doobie Brothers and Elton John was playing the same concert, so I have a photo of them with him too. But there were also maybe six audio cassettes that were among those things. I listened to all of them start to finish and at least half were all song collections. If you look through the gag list, during their game they’d say, “At this point when Jimmy comes on to the floor, play, ‘The Heat Is On,’” so somebody on the tape machine would play “The Heat Is On” and that’s the song they would come out and do their little circle at mid-court. That was most of the tapes.
But one of [the tapes] was this team meeting that you’ve mentioned. It took me a second to realize what was going on. I [thought], “Wait a minute, why would they record the team meeting?” and as I listened to it, it became so evident how crucial this was to the story I was telling and it’s as if you were sitting with the Shorties, talking about their inner-thought process. The very story I am trying to tell with the film, they are expressing with their mouth and they kind of see it at the time, but they don’t realize the implications. That was the amazing part to me. This isn’t something I am putting onto the team in my examination of their history. They knew it. There were other junctures where a similar circumstance happened like that, but this was one of the primary ones and the only one that resulted in a artifact.
Because of your personal connection to it, was there a natural sensitivity to the subject matter or did you find yourself have to resist making an easy joke in an effort to be more entertaining?
Ryan Steven Green: I pray that you would resist the temptation that nearly every writer throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s fell into, which is to make the headline of their article some low hanging pun on height. “No shortage of talent,” “Tall on talent”… every single headline has to do with height. It’s fine if you look at a singular instance of it, but when it’s every article that you read or every role that they can get is some other freak, some other leprechaun, some other elf, then you butt those things all up against one another, it reveals itself. [You realize] this isn’t a one-off joke. This is the box that we as a society have put them into and apparently plan on keeping them there.
You actually have quite the montage of all the films that Hollywood Shorties appeared in individually to show that. Was that difficult to compile?
Ryan Steven Green: I’ll let Charlie [my producer] take that one.
Charlie Pecoraro: I didn’t watch every film in its entirety, but it was fun. It’s very evident that 99 percent of the roles are only about their height. It’s like a prop, not a person. No one says [when casting], “Get me a white, average height, heterosexual man,” they say, “Get me a guy,” so mainstream actors don’t ever have to be subject to, “Oh, you just hired me because I’m average build, straight, and white”. But these guys only ever got cast because they were looking for a dwarf or a freak, so it’s not just a professional burden, but a personal burden.
Ryan Steven Green: The montage was practically a production in and of itself and it wasn’t just Charlie looking for clips. It was my cousin Matthew looking for clips. It was me looking for clips. I had an intern looking for clips. With our powers combined, we were able to [came up with] around 66 clips for that montage of the Shorties, — not every little person whose working in Hollywood — just during the years that they were an active team. This theme is bigger than what is presented in the film.
While I don’t want to spoil the film, it’s safe to say the good times didn’t last forever and there was a split that led to the creation of another team called the Breakers. Was this an easy interview process?
Ryan Steven Green: It wasn’t easy for anybody to talk about. What made it a little bit easier for me and, I think, for the guys to talk about it as well is that I really did not know the story of the Breakers at all. Maybe I heard their name in my distant past, but I knew nothing of that whole situation, so because I wasn’t coming from a pro-Shorty camp or a pro-Breaker camp, I earnestly wanted to know what are the facts here. How did this come about and what were the implications for the Shorties as a team? Because I was able to approach that in a very earnest way, I think that helped. Nevertheless, some guys didn’t want to talk about that at all.
To this day, there still remains some hard feelings and my hope would be that this film can be a catalyst to some reconciliation taking place because not all the Shorties are with us anymore. The reason you don’t see more Shorties in the film is [many] are no longer living, my uncle Larry included, so I hope that’s one of the benefits of this film is that that would reopen that conversation and hopefully shed new light on it.