Small in Stature, Great in Heart:
The Billy Barty Story
by Terry Bohle Montague
All Rights Reserved
For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7
Billy Barty hefted his parent’s huge family Bible up three flights of stairs to Shirley Bolingbroke’s apartment. He’d met Shirley at the second Little People of America’s convention and knew immediately this was the girl he wanted to marry. Shirley, however, did not return his interest.
From an LDS family in Malad, Idaho, Shirley wanted an LDS family for herself. Though she enjoyed Billy’s company, Shirley told him she wouldn’t pursue a serious relationship with someone outside her faith.
Undaunted, Billy agreed to meet with the missionaries in Shirley’s apartment. He came armed with his parent’s Bible, ready to set the Elders straight.
By the end of the meeting, Billy Barty was praying with them.
On October 25, 1924, William John Bertanzetti was born to average-sized Albert and Ellen Bertanzetti in the coal mining town of Millsboro, Pennsylvania. The baby had a rare form of dwarfism later identified as Cartilage-Hair Hypoplasia Syndrome. Since Billy suffered from hay fever, the family decided to move west, to the then pure air of southern California. The Bertanzetti family, which also included Billy’s older sister, Evelyn, and younger sister, Dede, rented a small house in Hollywood.
At three, Billy developed a trick of standing on his head and spinning around. That trick determined Billy’s future when, one day, he and his father went for a walk and joined a crowd of spectators watching a movie under production near Santa Monica and Gower. At the suggestion of his father, Billy trotted up to the director, Jules White, and tugged on his pant leg. When he had White’s attention, the toddler flipped over and went into a head spin. The delighted White put Billy into Wedded Blisters, a two-reel movie released in 1927.
Through the late ’20s and early ’30s, Billy played kid brother to Mickey Rooney’s Mickey MacGuire in the Toonerville comedy shorts. He also had parts in three Busby Berkeley musicals. During the filming of Nothing Sacred, it was Billy Barty’s role to bite the leg of Fredric March.
In 1935, Albert Bertanzetti packed up his family and headed for the Vaudeville circuit. Their musical act was billed as Billy and Sisters. Billy played the drums, Dede, the violin, and Evelyn accompanied on the accordion and piano. All the children sang and Billy and Evelyn danced the jitterbug. Billy also did impersonations.
Later, Billy said, “By the time I was twelve, I’d been all over the United States and Canada.”
Vaudeville had played itself out by the beginning of World War II and 18-year old Billy enrolled in Los Angeles City College and, on the same campus, Los Angeles State College. Journalism was his declared major.
Weighing 80 pounds and standing 3′ 9″, Billy also participated in sports. He said, “I lettered in basketball and football, and not only wasn’t I ever seriously injured, the football coach, Don Neumeyer, designed seven plays around me. My position was left halfback, and I once played in the L.A. Coliseum.”
In that game, Billy caught a 17-yard pass in a play designed for him, and received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Billy also played semi-pro baseball as second baseman and pitcher. He batted .500, one for two, and had 45 walks.
Of his size, Billy said, “I didn’t think about it. It never bothered me. The main barrier to conquer is the one between your ears.”
With ambitions toward sports journalism, he announced football games for L.A. City College and did the first game ever televised at the Rose Bowl.
Billy made himself a legend among entertainment personalities when, in 1946, he showed up at James Stewart’s bachelor party wearing a diaper and calling Stewart, “Daddy.”
By 1947, Billy had drifted back into entertainment, with performances in films as well as the Spike Jones Band and Comedy Troupe. He regularly brought down the house with his impersonation of Liberace complete with silver wig, satin suit, and a candelabra that foamed shaving cream all over the stage.
In an interview about Billy’s association with Spike Jones, Billy was asked why he and Jones had not signed a contract. Billy explained, “I was too independent. I didn’t want to be legally tied down to one person.”
Though Billy had begun a television career with appearances starting in 1946, he became a regular on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951.
In 1957, Billy emceed a “midgets’ convention” in Las Vegas. His experience at the convention lead him to found Little People of America, an advocacy group for those with dwarfism.
Though Billy never considered his condition a limitation, he knew other Little People faced a variety of challenges in job discrimination, reduced social opportunities, ridicule and physical abuse, and a lack of proper medical care. He wanted Little People of America to become a support community for those who needed help.
Billy’s goal was educational. “Little People aren’t just in circuses and sideshows. They have legitimate professions, anything from doctors to lawyers to geneticists, you name it,” he said.
In the early 1960s, Shirley Bolingbroke had moved to Southern California to attend California Institute of the Arts, majoring in commercial art. She had been seeing Billy, who wanted to marry her. But, Shirley was reluctant. She dreamed of marrying an LDS man.
When he was 38 years old, the stubbornly independent Billy approached Shirley’s Uncle Cleve Bolingbroke and asked permission to marry his niece.
Impressed with Billy, Cleve encouraged the match and advised Shirley to accept.
On February 24, 1962, Shirley’s uncle, Ferd Nelson, married Billy Barty and Shirley Bolingbroke in the Relief Society room of the Studio City Ward, North Hollywood, California. From that time, Billy, though not a member, was active in the ward.
Member Stephanie Peterson Abney said Billy was thrilled with his new daughter, Lori, born in November 1962. He delighted the ward while emceeing their annual Christmas party by announcing the baby was so strong and healthy, she carried him home from the hospital.
As a toddler, Lori was diagnosed with a form of dwarfism known as Turner’s Syndrome.
From 1963 to 1967, Billy hosted his own children’s program, “Billy Barty’s Big Show”, then moved to other roles in children’s programming, H.R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.
Through the 1960s and 1970’s he also performed in movies, including Jumbo with Doris Day and Harum Scarum with Elvis Presley. He even played a Bible salesman who hefted his samples up to Goldie Hawn’s apartment in Foul Play.
Not until Lori was about to turn eight did she discover her father was not a member. “I was very confused,” she said. “I didn’t know my dad wasn’t a member. He was always very involved in the ward, always respectful. He enjoyed bearing his testimony. He was so impressed with the Book of Mormon.”
Lori supposed it was her upcoming baptism that prompted Billy to commit to baptism himself. “I think he wanted to baptize me,” she said.
In early 1970, Billy Barty willingly put aside his strong sense of independence to make a commitment to the Lord by being baptized. The same year brought an additional blessing with the arrival of the Barty’s second child, Braden, who later proved to be without the condition of dwarfism.
Once, while speaking about the various forms of dwarfism, Billy was asked about his family. He replied, “As far as our physical descriptions go, Braden is average, I’m a Cartilage-Hair Syndrome, Shirley is a Multiple Epiphyseal Displasia, Lori is a Turner’s Syndrome, and our dog is a Maltese.”
Stephanie Abney recalled that the family always attended their church meetings. “I remember seeing them every Sunday,” she said. “Billy and Shirley were very friendly. I watched him get into his car one Sunday when I was a girl of about 11 or 12. I was so amazed that he got into a regular-sized car. I went up to him and asked how he could drive it. He showed me the pedals that were extended up much higher so he could reach them.
“He was such a darling man and had such a sweet wife.”
In 1975, Billy established the Billy Barty Foundation.
In writing about the Foundation, Billy said, “Our main humanitarian work is our scholarship fund, but we try so hard to help out in any way we can. We have helped people pay for accommodations when loved ones needed surgery far from home. We have provided job training. We have been hours on the phone, soothing anguished parents and grandparents of newborn LP’s. Once, we provided a special bed for a terminally ill LP who kept falling out of his standard hospital bed. And I remember a beautiful little boy whose fingers were too short to hold a pencil. All the kids at school laughed at him. We acquired a second-hand computer for him and soon he was turning in the neatest homework in class.
“The Foundation strives to assist people of short stature to live more independently and productively, and is committed to develop unique and necessary accommodations and services.”
In an interview, Billy said, “A lot of people helped and encouraged me over the years. So, I try to extend a hand as well.”
In 1981, Billy received a well-earned star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame, and, at a time when other men thought about slowing down, Billy was busier than ever. His work in the 1980s included directing the television series, Short Ribs, and appearances in series such as The Golden Girls and Moonlighting. Masters of the Universe, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Willow were a few of his movie credits during the ’80s. In Under the Rainbow, he played a tongue-in-cheek German spy.
“My condition is Hair-Cartilage Syndrome,
but you can call me Billy.”
Billy’s career kept him on the road much of the time, but when he could take his family with him, the Barty family went along happily.
Lori remembered being in England during the filming of the movie, Legend. The family attended the Hyde Park Branch in London and, one Sunday, when they went into Sunday School, there were a lot of Americans in the class. “The Osmonds were there,” she explained.
“The teacher said, ‘Who of you are Americans?’
“More than 80% of the class raised their hands,” Lori laughed.
In 1982, the ever-patient Shirley saw her dream fulfilled when Billy took her and their two children to the Los Angeles Temple.
Lori remembered it as a great time for her family, though, she added with a laugh, they lost Braden just before the sealing. The ceremony was held up while the attendants searched for the 12-year old who had, somehow, been misplaced after he changed his clothes. The problem was solved when Braden, tired of waiting, found his own way. With the family together, they were sealed for time and eternity.
Billy campaigned for George Bush and, later, was appointed an honorary chairman of President Bush’s Access to Opportunity Program, which helped pass the American’s With Disabilities Act in 1990.
He served on many boards and committees to promote the welfare of the handicapped and was a tireless lobbyist for the rights of all disabled people. In recognition, he received honors and awards for his efforts in charitable work, including the California Governor’s Trophy. In 1995, he received an Honorary Doctorate from his Alma Mater, now California State University. Billy was inducted into the Governor’s Hall of Fame in 1999. At the same time, he continued to oversee and promote activities, conferences, and fund-raisers for Little People of America and the Billy Barty Foundation. The Billy Barty Celebrity Golf Classic was held yearly in the Palm Springs area.
During the ’90s, he appeared in several television series including Frasier and L.A. Heat, did a voice-over for Rescuers Down Under, and worked in eleven movies, while also doing a one-man show and preparing an autobiography.
In 1998, Billy’s 70th anniversary in entertainment was celebrated in Universal City with a Celebrity Roast. That night, he said, “I have a feeling that we have been placed on this earth for a special reason and though I have not fulfilled all of my missions, I am trying. I have been truly blessed by the Man Upstairs.”
In the year 2000, Billy was 76 when he received the first of the annual Billy Barty Humanitarian Awards given by the Long Beach International Film Festival. Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters also recognized Billy that year.
He managed a television appearance and a movie before he was hospitalized in November with heart problems.
Billy passed away just two days before Christmas, 2000.
In a eulogy delivered on December 27, Billy’s brother-in-law, Wesley Morse said, “Billy appeared in over 200 films in the 70 years of his career. A remarkable body of work. In addition, his vaudeville years, his television credits, commercials, stage roles, and nightclub appearances, made him among the most prolific of all performance artists.
“We are here today to remember and to honor a giant.
“Small in stature, great in heart, Billy epitomized the best of American virtues: strong, self-reliant, compassionate of others. He was an icon, not just to the film industry, but among all people.”
There are more than 1.5 million people in the United States with more than 100 types of dwarfism. They are born to families with no history of dwarfism.
Today, the Little People of America has a membership of more than 6,000 people with affiliated organizations in 20 foreign countries.
Shirley Barty continues to live in the home where she and Billy raised their children.
Lori married David Neilson. They have a daughter, Tina.
Braden served a mission in Brazil, graduated from the University of Utah Film School, and works as a director and film editor in California.
Evelyn Barty, Billy’s elder sister, has passed away.
Dede Barty Morse, Billy’s younger sister, lives in Montecito, California.
The A&E Network series, Biography, will be featuring Billy Barty on December 12, 2002.
To learn more about dwarfism, The Little People of America, or the Billy Barty Foundation go to:
Interviews and letters, Lori Neilson, October and November 2002
Letters, Mike and Debra Copeland, November 2002
Letters, Stephanie Peterson Abney, October and November 2002
Eulogy, Wesley Moore, 27 December 2000
Photos courtesy of Billy and Friends at www.billybarty.com , and A Minor Consideration at www.minorcon.org,
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.