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Wisconsin Tourism


Organization for short people blasts restaurant featuring dwarf server

By Dennis R. Getto and Gemma Tarlach
of the Journal Sentinel staff
January 15, 1999

A new Milwaukee restaurant that features a dwarf serving nachos and salsa from amodified sombrero on his head has met with outrage from a spokesman for shorter people.

The restaurant, Nacho Mama's, 775 N. Jackson St., held its grand opening Wednesday. Itfeatures 4-foot-4 Steve Vento as an entertainer and server.

Vento, a car salesman at Greenfield Pontiac and Buick, also has worked as a comic. He'spreviously appeared live portraying characters such as Marc's Big Boy and the McDonald'sHamburglar.

Said Vento:

"We've only had one person . . . saying that it was degrading. I told her, 'Idon't remember anyone putting you in charge.' We're nothing more than a handful of peoplehaving a good time."

Anthony Soares disagreed. "I think that it's barbaric," said Soares, vicepresident of public relations for Little People of America, a non-profit supportorganization for people of short stature. "It's humiliating and it's exploiting adisability. It's disgusting."

Soares, speaking from his offices in New York City, added: "It's horrifying torealize that people are still being exploited for their size. You couldn't do that with,say, an Asian pulling a rickshaw. People would say that's racist.

"Short-statured people are often forced into entertainment, and this kind of thingis only going to promote those stereotypes," Soares added.

But Ed Lump, of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, says: "Frankly, it may turnout to be a boon for people with height problems. They might be able to make a lot ofmoney doing this."

The restaurant's owner, Johnny Vassallo, confirmed that the restaurant has had only onecomplaint so far. Vassallo said he has hired two other short entertainers to fill in whenVento's not available.

The 150-seat restaurant features Mexican food and is located in space that formerlyhoused the Gas-Lite East tavern. It is not affiliated with any of the other Nacho Mama'srestaurants around the country, Vassallo said.

The idea to feature dwarves with chips and salsa on their heads came from a 1988 moviecalled "Johnny Be Good," Vassallo said.

Vento has already proven to be a hit with the patrons who came to Nacho Mama's for itsgrand opening and for two preview parties, Vassallo said. In addition to nacho rounds,Vento also does magic tricks and makes balloon animals. He works the dinner shift Tuesday,Wednesday and Saturday, and after 9:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

"We handed out comment sheets to everyone, and one-third of them mentioned Steveby name," Vassallo said.

"He's the center of attention, he's making money, and I don't see how that's a badthing."

Vento wears a black pantsuit with ruffles in tortilla yellow, queso orange and salsared on his arms and legs. He said he is paid $20 an hour, and makes about $40 to $60 anight in tips.

The straw sombrero is nearly three feet wide, and he sometimes bumps into the wall ashe navigates the narrow walkway behind a row of bar stools. Tortilla chips are piledaround the rim of his sombrero. A stainless steel bowl filled with salsa is set in the topof his hat.

"One couple brought in their three-year-old, who grabbed my hat," Vento said."Chips went flying and there was salsa all over the walls. The worst part is, Johnny(Vassallo) had just painted."

Vento walks from bar stool to bar stool and table to table inviting people to dig in ashe makes balloon animals. People greet him with a smile.

"I don't see anything degrading at all about this. As for people who think it'sdegrading, they should get a life," said Vento.

There were several dozen patrons at the restaurant Thursday night. Most seemedsupportive of Vento's performance.

"Look, no one's forcing him to do it," said Mike Bolger, a 21-year-oldMarquette student at the restaurant with three friends. "He's here because he wantsto be here."

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