We have several reasons (four, to be precise) for being enthusiastic about little person Herbert Henry Rice (1887-1938), who was born on this day (January 21). The first is that he was born two towns over from my hometown, in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, which also happens to be the town where my mom spent her final years. Local Boy Makes Good! And when I say, boy, I mean boy, for that was what Rice often played on stage and screen well into adulthood, due to his diminutive height, which was 50 inches at its maximum. He was often billed as “Master Rice”, even as a grown-up. Hey, after all, Rhode Island is the smallest state!
Reason number two for my enthusiasm is that Master Rice was one of the handful of individuals who portrayed comic strip character Buster Brown in public appearances at stores but also in stage productions and vaudeville. We’ve written at length here about our close connection to Buster Brown, and the character’s many stage, screen and print incarnations.
From 1912 through 1916, Rice starred in nearly two dozen silent films. Initially he was in one-reel shorts for the Punch Film Company, but he was also in movies at Vitagraph and other studios. His last films are among his most interesting. He played the White Rabbit in a 1915 version of Alice in Wonderland. This was followed by A Lilliputian Courtship (1915) starring famous little people Lavinia Warren and her second husband Count Magri (her first husband had been General Tom Thumb). Rice then had a supporting role in The Rainbow Princess (1916) starring Ann Pennington. His last screen appearance was a part as one of the seven dwarfs in a 1916 version of Snow White with Dorothy Cumming and Creighton Hale. After his film career, Rice resumed live performance. At the time of his death at age 50, he was engaged as an emcee at a Chicago nightclub.
Rice’s younger sister Anna May was also a performing little person, whose most enduring credit is a role as a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Reason number three for our enthusiasm is that our good friends at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum have several items documenting the life and career of Master Rice, including a cane and many photos and clippings. See a bunch of this material, a short documentary, and a couple of his films here (scroll down the page). ALSO: while you’re at it, this weekend (January 23 and 24), please check out some great new online events about illustrated songs in nickelodeons and vaudeville, being presented by the museum by Sean Sharp, Russell Merrit and Frederick Hodges. Access it here.
The fourth reason for our interest? We’ve just co-authored a book on performing little people! Please check out Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People in Vaudeville.