Today, all over the world, people of all faiths and cultures are observing Yom Hashoah, the annual Day of Remembrance for those who perished in the Holocaust. Yom is Hebrew for “Day” and Hashoah means “of Catasrophe” or “of Destruction.” At the United States Holocaust Museum people sign up to read aloud the names of those who were killed.
All families should pass on to the children an understanding of the Holocaust and the painful realization that our hopes that the sickening inhumanity of what transpired, the systemic effort to exterminate groups based on religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, would itself be enough to prevent future genocide, have not been realized. Good films to begin these discussions include Defiance, the story of a partisan and resistance movement led by three brothers; Conspiracy, a chilling depiction of the meeting of Nazi officers to plan the death camps, and Paper Clips, the story of a small-town school system whose meaningful curriculum transforms the lives of the teachers as well as the students. And don’t forget to watch the new version of The Diary of Anne Frank, premiering tonight on PBS.
Matt Roloff is a businessman, entrepreneur, farmer, husband, and father of four, including teen-age twins. He and his family star on the TLC series Little People, Big World. Matt, his wife Amy, and one of the twins are little people, with genetic disorders that affect their height and limbs. The other three children are not. I spoke with Matt, former head of Little People of America, about the show and about what it is like to be a part of a reality series and let the world see the ups and downs of their family’s life. He is the author with Tracy Summer of Against Tall Odds: Being a David in a Goliath World and Little Family, Big Values: Lessons in Love, Respect, and Understanding for Families of Any Size.
In an especially touching episode of the series, Matt goes to Iraq to visit a family whose children need surgery for dwarfism-related health problems. I began by asking him about that trip.
How did you come to meet with the family in Iraq?
I made three trips all in all. It was mid-2008 and a friend of mine who had a little person daughter was stationed in Iraq as a helicopter pilot and called me from Iraq to say one of their street patrols had stumbled across a family with several children with dwarfism or what we call skeletal dysplasia, that’s the most technical term to describe it. And they are in dire need of medical help. I said, “What can I do over here?” We needed permission from the officials in Washington to bring them to the US and that was going to be a tough road because they are trying to build the medical community over there and not bring people over here.
I got permission to go over there and the military escorted me. We brought the families to a facility to get x-rayed and brought them back over to the states. We were actually able to convince a doctor and an anesthesiologist to go back there with us and perform operations on a couple of the different children. But they needed more serious operations that cannot be done in a tent in a war zone. They needed really sophisticated spinal monitoring equipment. So on the third trip over I was able to bring the kids back. I use the term loosely — there was really an army of people involved, the military, the State Department, I was just an observer of a lot of this, a facilitator, but there was a lot of people really intensely dedicate to these children and this family.
The oldest gal who had the most dire need went first and there was complications and unfortunately we lost her. We knew that was a strong possibility, but it was very sad and disappointing to have made all that headway getting them over here. The reality was heartbreaking.
Is there much of a little people community in Iraq?
There is an active community. They don’t have the kind of organizational structure we have here, with by-laws and everything. The second trip, when I went over with the doctors to do the operation and it turned into a clinic. They announced it and they came out of the woodwork, little people did, parents holding their children, adults, the same variety and a larger percentage than you would get here in the states!
How has the show affected the way Americans see little people?
It has affected us and it has been positive. People see us as real people. Even people that hate our show and dis on us about keeping a messy house and not raising our children right, and that’s fine, that’s what makes our show popular, to have not polarizing but different opinions about us — I think our show has positively affected society’s view of little people. And now, with the other shows, Jen and Bill, The Little Couple, The Little Chocolatiers, we had known all of these people for years and we’re all high-fiving because it gives a more rounded view, other little people who have interesting lives, too. The only thing that’s the same about us is our size.
How did you meet your wife, Amy?
I met her at a little people’s conference in Michigan, that’s where she’s from, in 1986. It was not exactly love at first sight but we stayed in touch by mail. We were both interested in each other. And then about six months later she said she was coming to visit a friend in California. I don’t think she ever actually saw her friend! We ended up spending all of our time together and hit it off pretty heavy that week. I visited her a month later, and she came back to see me. Our total courtship time was three visits in six months. I popped the question, and of course I wanted to elope. But she was a nice conservative Christian girl and she wanted a big wedding. So we compromised and she cooked up a wedding in short order and a couple of months later we were married, in September of 1987.
How has raising your children so publicly made it harder or easier to be a parent?
It has made it harder, absolutely. There’s a lot more influences in their lives, producers and people dragging them around. But one advantage is that I didn’t realize Jacob was hanging out on the roof as much as he was, but I saw it on film and was able to tell him not to. There’s a lot of filming that does not make it to television, and I see things I might not have seen. Or the producers will tell me what they’re up to. But it is harder in a sense because I don’t want to scold them on camera. No one wants that. Some people think what they see is all there is. The bloggers don’t have a clue that it’s quite a bit more balanced that what they’re shown. That is frustrating for us. It seems like a big window on our lives but it’s not everything.
What’s unique about our show compared to other reality shows is that we spend a lot of time hanging out and waiting for something to happen. A lot of shows are much more produced. They’re focused on the activity. There’s hours and hours of just sitting around watching us do nothing in the hopes of a five-minute interaction and then they zone in on how that comes to a conclusion over the next few months, whether a conflict or a triumph. But that means that they will catch one part of an interaction, like maybe some angry words, and not necessarily have or show the other part, kissing and making up. That’s the nature of television.
What is coming up on the show that we should look forward to?
We have a trip to Europe where the boys go off and do their own thing. They backpack through Germany and Amsterdam. Despite what you may think, the producers do not interfere and if they get lost, they get lost. Then I meet up with them in Paris and we have all of the logistics of travel and who wants to go where and the evolution of the family, what everyone wants to do, Molly’s birthday, and our everyday on the farm stuff happening!
Dixie Carter, the lovely and elegant star of Designing Women, died yesterday at age 70. I am a huge fan of the show and its portrayal of successful, independent, outspoken women who shared a deep and loyal friendship as well as a thriving business. The show addressed many controversial topics during its run including one of the first sympathetic depictions of a gay man with AIDS as well as many variations of the ups and downs of male-female relationships, aging, loss, family, and racism. It was a rare program set in the urban South. Its theme song was “Georgia on My Mind.”
Carter played the oldest of the group, Julia Sugerbaker, sister of the self-involved beauty queen played by Delta Burke as Suzanne. Carter was known for her outspoken rants on liberal subjects, though Carter herself was quiet and conservative. Her real-life husband, the distinguished actor Hal Holbrook, played her boyfriend in many episodes. Here is one of my favorite moments on the show, where Julia, despite her misgivings about the superficial and undignified aspects of beauty competitions, comes to her sister’s defense.
Some of my other favorites included the women’s impulsive trip to Graceland and the time they came up with an exceptionally clever way to stop the local construction workers from taunting and insulting them as they walked by. And I quote this line quite often:
Carter was also a cabaret performer and appeared on stage. I was privileged to meet her once at a Broadcast Film Critics Association event and it was an honor to be able to tell her how much her performance on “Designing Women” meant to me. She was every bit as gracious and kind as I could have hoped.
A new book by Susannah Gora takes a look at the group of young actors who appeared in the John Hughes films that seemed to define a generation — and certainly changed the way teenagers were portrayed on screen. You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation is the story of Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, John Cryer, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estavez, and Anthony Michael Hall and the movies they made with Hughes and others. It was New York Magazine that termed them “The Brat Pack,” a nod to Frank Sinatra’s famous “Rat Pack” of performers who played Vegas and made movies together in between drinks and parties. Hughes’ movies include The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink (I still want Andie to get together with Duckie!), Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Gora quotes Roger Ebert’s description of writer-director Hughes as “the philosopher of adolescence” and talks about the impact the movies and their music had on the culture and on the teenagers who appeared in them. The highlight of this year’s Oscar ceremony was the tribute to Hughes from his favorite performers, concluding with Matthew Broderick’s just-right thank you: “Danke Schoen.”
You can listen to Scott Simon’s interview with Gora and the brat pack actors she covers in the book on NPR.