Stars of Vaudeville #251: Billy Barty
Originally posted in 2010
America’s most famous and respected little person (of the twentieth century) began his career as an even littler person. William John Bertanzetti was only three years old when a Hollywood talent scout spotted him standing on his head, a favorite tricks of his as a child. The fact that he was smart and agile, but resembled an infant, made him the perfect person to play certain specialty parts, particularly in comedies. He was like a special effect. That moment in an old black and white comedy when the baby reaches out of the carriage to beat someone over the head with a rattle – that was usually Billy Barty. His first role was in the 1927 silent Wedded Blisters. He was in a scene that was cut out of the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1933), he played the baby that turns into a pig in Alice in Wonderland (1934), played Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals (1934) after Eddie shrinks when staying in the steam room too long, and was also in Gold Diggers of 1933, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Midsummer Nights Dream (1935), wherein he played Mustard Seed).
Perhaps because he was getting older, his father decided to put Billy into vaudeville. The year was 1935—hardly an auspicious time to do so. The act was called “Billy Barty and Sisters”, and featured Billy’s two average-sized sisters playing piano and violin ,while Billy played drums and did impressions. The family travelled around to gigs by car, and did so until Billy was old enough to go to college—1942.
Barty majored in journalism at school, got the degree and was even offered a job as a reporter, but the call (and probably the money) of show business was too great. The 3’9”, 80 lbs adult Barty began working night clubs. In 1952 he joined Spike Jones and His City Slickers, the comic novelty band for such records as “Der Fuehrer’s Face” and “Cocktails for Two”. Billy’s schtick with the band was similar to what he had done with his sisters, but now he had a wide audience on television, on records, and in live performances.
He stayed with Jones for about ten years, and for the rest of his career concentred in acting in film and television. In the 60s, he was in films like Jumbo (1962) and the Elvis pictures Roustabout (64) and Harum Scarum (1965). In the 70s, he worked for Sid and Marty Krofft, on the popular children’s programs Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and Dr. Shrinker.
In the mid 70s, he went from playing bit parts to actual acting roles, in movies like Day of the Locust (1975) W.C. Fields and Me (1976) Foul Play (1978) Hardly Working (1981), to name just a few. He was very mindful of his position of responsibility as America’s best known little person, and did what he could to educate people about midgets and dwarves by founding The Little People of America in 1957, and The Billy Barty Foundation in 1975. He passed away in 2000.
To find out more about show business past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. To learn about silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc