The Rise and Fall of the Hollywood Shorties

In the 1980s, a team of Hollywood actors who happened to be little people rose to prominence as a touring basketball team. Now they are all but forgotten.

by Daniel Dylan Wray
15 September 2016, 9:57pm

Courtesy: "The Hollywood Shorties."

One would think that the tale of a group of Hollywood actors in the 1980s—actors who starred in some of the decade's biggest films, such as Star Wars, Blade Runner, Beetlejuice, This is Spinal Tap, Willow and Weird Science —who were also part of a nationwide touring basketball team that played everywhere from L.A Lakers games to the Playboy Mansion, would by now be a story cemented in pop culture history.

However, the story of the Hollywood Shorties, a basketball team comprised entirely from Little People (people with Dwarfism), has largely faded from public memory. Until now that is. A brand-new documentary which premiered at SXSW earlier this year, The Hollywood Shorties, is lifting the lid on a forgotten team that were once labelled "The world's smallest basketball team".

"At no other time in my twenty years of filmmaking can I recall having the sensation that I was literally born to make a film," said the film's director, Ryan Steven Green, who has a personal link to the story of the Shorties—his uncle Larry. It was initially this personal connection that motivated Green to making the film.

Read More: The Continuing Education of Larry Sanders

"Larry has been deceased for over ten years now and his legacy in the Green family is not exactly a glowing one: drug addiction, divorce, prison, homelessness, all this amounted to his being one more of those family stories that have sort of been swept under ye-olde familial rug."

And swept under the rug alongside Larry was the unique story and history of the Shorties.

The story begins back in 1939 when the The Wizard of Oz required a large number of Little People to fill the roles of Munchkins. Given the relative rarity of the condition of Dwarfism at the time, this meant people were brought in from all over the world for the production in Los Angeles, with many then remaining in the area afterwards. In the 1940s, California was left with one of the most densely inhabited Little People populations in the world.

In 1948 Billy Barty (who would go on to form the Little People of America) formed a softball team called the Hollywood Shorties, a team made up entirely of Little People – a world first for sports. By the late 70s the team expanded into basketball.

One of the players states in the documentary that growing up it felt like there was only two options for Little People to be involved in the athletic world: the circus or "midget wrestling" (a term now considered both offensive and banned by the Little People community).

"I felt I had options but not in sport," said five-time paralympian and ex-Shortie, Scott Danberg. "Prior to the Shorties my experiences in sport, in both Jr. and High School, were being the last one picked, which caused me to shy away from organized sport."

Kevin Thompson was involved in the Shorties from the softball days and played their first ever basketball game, which was set-up in a prison, playing against the inmates. "I was very nervous but the prisoners had a blast. They all were very nice.," he recalled.

The games themselves were an amalgamation of straight-up basketball and a constructed comedy routine. The setup being that the Shorties would grab your attention by displaying genuine basketball skills in the first quarter and then turn it into a more show-orientated display after that as the game would unravel into planned chaos.

They took both the sport and the comedy seriously. The team had both determined athletes and trained circus performers on it.

"Basketball practice with the Shorties could get very competitive," said Thompson. "When we played Shorty games in front of people they would laugh not knowing how good we were, they laughed at our size. Then were amazed when we started shooting the ball in the hoop. By the end of the game they would be cheering us."

One player in particular, Tony Cox, would shoot Rick Barry-style underhand free throws, but watching him during the documentary you could easily be mistaken for thinking you were watching Stephen Curry hitting a constant stream of 3 pointers, often from as far as half court.

The Shorties raised both money and awareness. The team toured more and more, usually at schools – playing the faculty – before advancing to playing half-time shows at big games for the Lakers, Clippers, Sonics, Warriors and more.

It was a long road from Downey High to the Great Western Forum. Courtesy: "The Hollywood Shorties."

"We would always tell the ticket booth at Shorty games, 'All LPs get in for free,'" Thompson said. "We played many charity games where we received no allowance. It all went to charity. Sometimes for an ill LP. We met a lot of average size parents of Little People. We showed that if LPs can play a big man's game, we can do anything. The impact on playing was always positive."

Danberg recalls it being an education opportunity for the kids too. "The kids were inquisitive. Outside of Shorties games, kids would often stare and point because they didn't see people who look different or understand how to react, but at games they knew what they were going to see. Their behaviors changed from staring and pointing to asking questions like 'why are you so small?' or 'how old are you?' I would answer all questions, upbeat and willing, and always end by stressing people are different in appearance, like color, race, and size, as a way to educate."

It was the Lakers games that the team remembers most fondly, playing to tens of thousands of fans, playing against the Laker Girls. "The LA Laker games were incredible. Just the crowd, the buzz. It was the hardest ticket in town to get." Thompson remembers, with Danberg echoing, "The thing I remember the most is walking around the Forum and concessions after the half-time game and being treated like a rock-star from the fans. I felt like a very big deal signing autographs, having requests for pictures and all the attention."

The team's popularity spiked during the 80s, with a succession of TV reports, news articles and bookings coming streaming in. They appeared in the TV show The Fall Guy, with an episode named after them; the team were also cast for a scene in Chevy Chase's Fletch. A tour of the Far East with the Harlem Globetrotters was even on the table.

The good old days. Courtesy: "The Hollywood Shorties."

However, as success grew - Danberg admits in the film "egos got big" - a division in the team arose with some wanting to play straight up competitive basketball without the comedy and those wishing to keep the theatrics and showmanship in tact.

A rival team was set-up, The L.A Breakers, and soon they were competing for the same half-time shows they were once playing together on for the same team. Although they went on for some years after this point, this was ultimately the beginning of the unravelling of the Shorties.

As more professional Little People basketball teams got set up across the country in the wake of the Shorties success and awareness-spreading, their members got older and their popularity waned, then one day they just stopped.

"The sad thing is, the Shorties were not only forgotten by the average height world but by the LP community as well," said Green, the director. "My hope is that as the story of the Hollywood Shorties spreads, it sparks a new level of understanding particularly within the dwarf athletic world."

Both Danberg and Thompson are thrilled for the story to be surfacing.

"We started it all," Thompson said. "We showed the world that size does not matter. Put your mind to it and you can conquer the world.