June 9, 2003 --
TODD Robbins is looking for a few good midgets.
Or even a single shrimp. At this point, he'll take whomever he can get.
Robbins stars in "Carnival Knowledge," a new off-Broadway show that lifts the tent flap on the carny life - and opening night is just a month away. As a longtime sideshow performer, Robbins knows that a show about sideshows is nothing without a little person.
But it's not so easy to find one.
"I've reached out to dozens of groups, agencies and advocacy groups, but nothing!" Robbins says. "I'm even stopping little people on the street!" You can imagine the reactions he gets. "Usually, negative," Robbins says.
Some little people believe sideshows exploit dwarfs by presenting them as "freaks" or "wonders of human curiosity" rather than thinking, breathing people just like you or me (only a lot shorter).
But that is the very notion that "Carnival Knowledge" seeks to dispel. "In the old sideshows, when the dwarf did his act, all the wisecracks stopped and people were forced to see that there was real humanity there," says Robbins, whose own act involves swallowing swords, devouring glass and eating fire. "So if people are going to stare at dwarfs anyway, might as well make them pay, right?"
Robbins is not the only sideshow performer getting short shrift from the short. Coney Island USA - where Robbins often performs - has had trouble finding talented Thumbelinas.
"I've stopped little people on the street, just like Todd," says Coney Island USA's founder, Dick Zigun. "You do it because you have to. It's like asking 50 women to sleep with you. Forty-eight are going to slap your face and two will consider it." (Is that the famously single Zigun's real failure rate with women? His response: "No comment.")
"Not to sound flip, but dwarfs are in short supply," says Danny Black, a little person ("Call me a midget!") who runs a Michigan talent agency called Short Dwarf. "The reason is simple: There is only one midget in every 26,000 live births. We're not making them as fast as show business needs 'em."
Still, there must be hundreds of little people in New York with big ambitions. "Maybe some dwarf out there is a lawyer or doctor by day, but wants to get the thrill of being in a show by night," Robbins says. "And this show has dignity. Yeah, that's what I'm doing: Dwarfs with dignity."
Interested little people should e-mail Todd Robbins at Carnivaltodd@aol.com. Tickets to "Carnival Knowledge," opening July 10 at the SoHo Playhouse, can be purchased at (212) 239-6200.