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Walking tall 

Let's talk about empowerment for a minute. Some people think it means monitoring the English language to prevent the denigration of any demographic group. Other say it's the imposition of economic checks and balances that enable an individual to rise to the pinnacle of his or her ambition.

To me, empowerment is the sound of 4-foot-4-inch brawler Puppet explaining why his participation in "hardcore midget wrestling" -- which comes to The Back Booth Aug. 9 -- is the American dream made flesh and (often) blood.

"Midgets are the true stars of this country," Puppet says. "When we came out of our mothers, everybody stopped and stared. When we were little children walking down the street, everybody stopped and stared. And what is the goal of every star? To have people stop and stare."

Staring is inevitable when Puppet and his crew come to town. As seen in the home video "Midgets Gone Mad" and on the website, the participants in the never-ending Rok'Um Sok'Um Tour (which has logged between 150 and 200 matches this year alone, Puppet estimates) can be counted on to box, grapple and flail themselves silly, shedding blood and even lighting each other on fire if the host venue permits.

It's a far cry from the days when folks of Puppet's size were comic relief in wrestling matches, their antics limited to "biting each other on the ass." Expect action of a more intense variety from the 45-minute Back Booth bout, which pits Puppet against the 3-foot-8-inch TEO (Total E Outstanding), "the most extreme athlete alive."

"This guy can do anything a big guy can do," Puppet lauds. "He does flips off the bar, balconies, tables ... "Those surfaces will take the place of a proper ring at the Back Booth, lending the proceedings an extra layer of barroom-blitz immediacy.

Puppet has been in the wrestling game for about four years. Once a stuntman, his second career in so-called sports entertainment "kind of fell into my lap," he says, thanks in part to the help of established tussler Randy "the Macho Man" Savage. Now Puppet is not only a sought-after performer, but the owner/founder/creator of BloodyMidgets, which employs 18 wrestlers (some of "normal" size) and entertains audiences that can range from 350 to 18,000 people within a given week. Everybody's happy ... except for the Little People of America, which Puppet says is feuding with him over the supposedly exploitative nature of his business.

"They say they're doing good for the little people, but they're trying to put `the wrestlers` out of work," he accuses. As trained athletes, he counters, his miniature militia has nothing to be ashamed of.

"We're not degrading each other," he says. "We're the stars of the night, and a midget owns the company."

Almost: Puppet is actually a dwarf who happily uses the notorious "m-word" for marketing purposes, reasoning that it's better understood by the paying customers. And those fans, he believes, look upon his extravaganzas with envy, not smug superiority.

"At our shows, every guy wants to be

a midget," he summarizes. "And every girl wants to have a midget."

I guess size matters after all.

Reptile thermometer

Say what you will about last year's LizArt campaign -- that it made Orlando look like even more of a character-happy kids' camp than it already is, perhaps -- but the oversized lizards did undeniable good for some worthy beneficiaries. Just look at the two top vote-getters in the "Best Local Theater Production" category of this newspaper's recent "Best of Orlando" poll -- Mad Cow Theatre and Temenos Ensemble Theater -- both of whom received monies from the January 2002 auction of fiberglass critters.

Brenda Robinson, the city's executive director of arts and cultural affairs, therefore has no reason to apologize for the campaign. But she does admit that the new public-sculpture campaign that is LizArt's successor constitutes art of "a little higher level." Two works by sculptor Cynthia Christy Jiminez that went up last week in front of Orlando City Hall are the first in a new series of al fresco statements that will be seen downtown over the next year. Forty works will be in place by the end of August, and Robinson may issue another call for artists in three or four months. "This is intended to be an ongoing program," she says.

The sculptures were worked up entirely according to their creators' imagination, with no conceptual criteria preordained. Expect that wider latitude to invest this program with more of the "c" word -- credibility. Artists didn't even have to be locally based to be considered; in another deviation, the sculptures won't be auctioned but sold outright, with 30 percent of each sale going to the downtown arts district and the remaining 70 to the sculptor. Pieces will range from $80 to $65,000, though Robinson laughs that the artist who set the high price tag has other works as low as $40,000. It pays to haggle.

Making a big production

While we're on the subject of "Best of Orlando," I know that some folks have been wondering why the three finalists for the title "Best Local Theater Production" -- Mad Cow, Temenos and Theatre Downtown -- were all theater groups, not individual plays, as the phraseology would seem to have mandated. The answer, simply, is that's how the results came in this year: Every ballot received was for a troupe's entire body of work. Me, I'm just relieved that nobody voted for Jimmy Buffet.

Milking the cowl?

While doing a bit of Internet surfing recently (and, yes, my superiors do know I spend my time this way, Captain Horatio Whistleblower), I came across an interesting blind item that had some interesting implications for the cause of local film production. An anonymous correspondent claiming ties to the Florida film industry stated that Orlando was among the locations being scouted for a Warner Bros. project titled "Asylum." What is "Asylum," you ask? According to industry scuttlebutt, it's the code name for "Batman vs. Superman," Warners' big tent-pole picture for 2004.

The trouble is, none of the local agencies that would be involved in such an outreach claims to have heard anything about "BvS" coming here. However, sources in the film office of the Economic Development Commission say that several other feature-film projects are now being courted. Watch this column for details, and hold onto that pocketful of Kryptonite, just in case.

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