Friday, September 21, 2012

Biography of a Pituitary Dwarf

"... she noticed coming down toward her a group of the queerest people she had ever seen. They were not as big as the grown folk she had always been used to; but neither were they very small. In fact, they seemed about as tall as Dorothy, who was a well-grown child for her age, although they were, so far as looks go, many years older.” – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum,1900)

There were 124 adult actors who played Munchkins in the "The Wizard of Oz". Because the story line called for proportional dwarfs as opposed to achondroplasic dwarfs, all of those actors were afflicted with pituitary dwarfism (hypopituitarism), but perhaps the most well known Munchkin actor was Karl Slover.

Slover was born Karl Kosiczky on September 21, 1918 in Prakovce, Slovakia to a 6’6” father and a 6’3” mother. He was of normal size for the first few years of his life, after which his growth slowed to a crawl and he was diagnosed in early childhood with pituitary dwarfism, which means that his pituitary gland stopped functioning properly resulting in a growth hormone deficiency. None of his sisters were affected. At 8 years old Slover stood barely over 2’ tall. His father, a gendarme, wished that his only son would follow in his footsteps and thus was unaccepting of his son’s diagnosis. In desperation Slover’s father came up with a multitude of “bright ideas and brainstorms” and tried “witch doctor treatments”, as Slover has put it, to increase the height of his son. 

"He got a big wooden barrel and filled it with coconut leaves and boiled them, and then put me in it. I was as red as a lobster when they took me out." Slover remembered. 

He also recalled the time eight doctors came in and put him on a medieval style stretching rack in hopes that he would gain coveted inches. Slover said after his bones began popping that “one of the doctors thought they were doing it all wrong”.

Further describing a “treatment” in which they would bury the young boy up to his head in sand, Slover said "They would put me in a sand pile. I would wear a pair of long underwear. We had a maid. My mother would tell the maid, who came in around 2:00 p.m. one day, to get me out around 4:00 while she went to the grocery store. The maid went inside and it began to rain. I cried out for the maid, but she didn’t hear me. I called to our dog, a Doberman Pinscher. She came over and picked me up and drug me over to the dog’s house. Our dog loved us. My mother got home and asked where I was. The maid shrieked, ‘I forgot about Karl. He’s still out in the yard.’ My mother looked at the sand pile, and I wasn’t there where I was supposed to be. My mother called to me. I told her, ‘I’m here in the dog’s house.”.

Shortly thereafter a letter came in the mail from a circus agent with the attempt of recruiting Slover to join the world’s largest dwarf show, Singer’s Midget Show in Vienna, Austria. Slover’s father then decided to sell his son to the traveling circus where he was billed as the “World’s Smallest Midget”.

"Dad and I went to the train station. He told Mr. Singer that he was glad to get rid of me and that I would do him no good in following in his footsteps," Slover said. He would never see his father again.

Singer exhibited Slover in Liliputstadt, a "midget city" at the Venice in Vienna amusement park. While Slover was saddened by the loss of his family, he found acceptance in his new world. "I was with little people more my size. It was like a new family," said Slover. 

After World War I broke out, Singer’s Midget Show relocated to the United States, performing in vaudeville theaters across the nation. It was under Singer’s U.S. contracts that Karl went big time. He played in “Jumbo Show” in New York’s Hippodrome Theater. He played several different roles in one of my personal favorites, the all midget western “Terror of Tiny Town”. Other roles include: Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend”, Laurel and Hardy’s “Blockheads”, “They Gave Him a Gun” with Spencer Tracy, “Bringing Up Baby” with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and he even appeared later in life on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. However, Slover is most well-known for his multiple parts in the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz”.

He was a mere 21 when he auditioned for the "The Wizard of Oz". At 4’4” tall Slover was the smallest midget on set. His biggest part in the movie was that of the trumpeter, but he played a total of five roles. The four other roles being: a Munchkin soldier, the sleepyhead boy in the nest of Munchkin eggs, a singer who led Dorothy down the yellow brick road, and a female villager to offset the predominantly male Munchkin cast. It was a grueling 2 month schedule with little pay (the dog Toto made more money than the Munchkin actors) but he loved it. Slover has stated that amazingly neither one of his parents or his sisters ever saw “The Wizard of Oz”.

The owner of Singer’s Midgets, Leopold “Leo” von Singer, was a controversial man. Actor Billy Curtis once said that Singer “had a reputation for cheating his midgets”. Singer had, in fact, kept most of the money for each of the Munchkins in the “The Wizard of Oz”, giving them each a mere $50 per week for their work. While some troupe members spoke fondly of him and a number of them affectionately referred to him as “Papa”, the troupe disbanded soon after the start of World War II because his actors were angry over being robbed of pay. This put Slover out of work.  It was at this time that he went to work for B.A. and Ada Slover in Tampa, Florida, gained his citizenship, and changed his surname to Slover in honor of his new managers.  There he worked as a barker, a ticket taker, and a bookkeeper in their carnival. 

After the Slover’s carnival closed he worked mainly as a dog trainer and animal performer until midget sideshows went out of fashion. “I first started training Daschunds and all small breeds of dogs and even some police dogs as guard dogs. Then, I mostly trained poodles. I didn’t believe in hitting dogs. Once you hit them they won’t obey you. I tried to give them a snack when they did what I told them. I also trained horses for a time. I used to train dogs and perform them at nursing homes, schools, birthday parties and even churches. But you can’t get any more jobs like that, so I gave it up.", Slover said. Long after he retired, he continued to appear around the country at festivals and events related to the “The Wizard of Oz”. He was one of seven Munchkins at the 2007 unveiling of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame dedicated to the little people in the movie.

During his career in America, World War II raged across Europe and it was ultimately due to his father’s abandonment that he had come to the States, and thus his life was spared from the Nazis who routinely killed people with disabilities. Slover was made all the more aware of this blessing when he received a letter from a sister confined to a concentration camp in Germany. His advice to her was to try to contact their father to get her out and then go to the American Zone for safe harbor.  Thirty seven years after being sold to the circus, Karl Slover returned to his birthplace and found his mother in the American Sector of Berlin. She had been mentally damaged from the horrors of war and had almost no memory of her son and his early childhood.

Hypopituitarism causes many other adverse health conditions than just dwarfism; however, Slover did not speak publically on what other problems he may have been afflicted with during his life. One side effect of severe hypopituitarism is a failure to complete puberty. While it has never been confirmed whether or not Karl Slover went through puberty, as such information would have been considered too personal in nature, especially during his time, it is known that he grew several inches during his middle aged years. This would indicate that he most likely did not, as a person’s bone plates fuse after the completion of puberty and later growth would have not been possible. Slover had said that he always wanted very badly to be of normal height and was happy with the extra few inches of growth he achieved, but that he didn’t regret being a midget performer either. "I got to be in the Wizard of Oz and got to meet some movie stars and a lot of nice people." Slover said.

After staying positive and making the best of life as he could in a time where his disability was highly shunned, Karl Slover passed away on November 15, 2011 in Dublin, Georgia of cardiopulmonary arrest. He was 93 years old. 

Now, nearly 100 years after the birth of Karl Slover, there is a safe and largely effective cure for the disorder that caused his form of dwarfism. Slover has stated many times that he just wanted to be normal sized and had he been born today, he likely would have. This cure is recombinant human growth hormone (rHGH) injections made synthetically from human DNA. As the media runs articles on this treatment being abused by doping celebrities and people desiring “designer children”, it’s important to remember that this is a much needed cure to a potentially devastating disorder which causes many more adverse health effects than just short stature and dwarfism.  In addition to increasing height in children and adolescence, growth hormone has many other effects on the body:
  • Increases calcium retention, and strengthens and increases the mineralization of bone
  • Increases muscle mass through sarcomere hyperplasia
  • Promotes lipolysis
  • Increases protein synthesis
  • Stimulates the growth of all body parts and internal organs except the brain
  • Plays a role in homeostasis
  • Reduces liver uptake of glucose
  • Promotes gluconeogenesis in the liver
  • Contributes to the maintenance and function of pancreatic islets
  • Stimulates the immune system

So today, on the 94th birthday of Karl Slover, I find it fitting to post his biography as my first blog post on Up The Beanstalk in tribute to a man who lived, suffered, and overcame life's obstacles with pituitary dwarfism before a cure was available.

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