(Thanks to the ‘heads up’ from Barry Hillenbrand (Ethiopia 1963-65)
In the Philippines, Jim Turner’s heartbroken ‘hobbits’ mourn the loss of their patron
All over Manila, the “little people” are in mourning.
Jim Turner (Philippines 1961-63), a former Peace Corps volunteer from Iowa who established the renowned Hobbit House, died on Steptember 8, 2016, at 77 of heart and lung ailments, leaving generations of Philippine dwarfs bereft.
The Hobbit House was founded in 1973 as a theme bar and restaurant – a tribute of sorts to Turner’s favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien – and it soon became a haven for the dwarfs he rescued from the capital’s streets and from carnivals and variety shows that demeaned them. He employed dwarfs as waiters, bartenders, cashiers, entertainers, even bouncers. Eventually, they became managers and owners.
Over the years, children and grandchildren of the original staff found employment at the Hobbit, one of the few places in the Philippines where dwarfs could earn a decent living and not be shunned as outcasts, or even feared as the embodiments of evil spirits.
At first glance, after being greeted by a dwarf doorman and entering an establishment where practically all the waiters and waitresses were barely the height of the tabletops, one might get the impression that the staff was being exploited. It was a criticism that Turner – and his employees – emphatically rejected.
“We took many from the worst slums in Manila, where they were mocked and ridiculed,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. “Now they’re no longer carnival freaks. They’re respected entertainers and businesspeople.”
Pidoy Fetalino, who started as a cashier in the 1970s and rose to become the Hobbit’s general manager, recalled that “most of us lived off the streets then, and were resigned to being made fun of always,” according to a “Hobbituary” of Turner published on the Philippine news website Interaksyon. But Turner changed all that, Fetalino said. “He gave us jobs for a lifetime, but he also gave us hope and dignity.”
As its reputation grew, the Hobbit House became known for its live entertainment as well as its pint-sized staff. The Lonely Planet guide book once rated the place among “the world’s trippiest bars.”
Turner came to the Philippines in 1961 with the first batch of Peace Corps volunteers. He taught English in a rural province for two years, then stayed behind – for more than five decades.
A Notre Dame graduate who had studied political science, he found a job teaching that subject at the Ateneo de Manila, a Jesuit university. He subsequently managed a television station, but it closed after Ferdinand Marcos, then the Philippine president, declared martial law in 1972.
As Turner cast about for something else to do, the idea for the Hobbit House was born. He set up the place in Manila’s Malate neighborhood near a church were Columban missionaries had been serving since 1929. He began by hiring two dwarfs as doormen. Soon, the word spread, and little people from all over the Philippines were beating a path to his door and asking for work.
Members of the Columban Fathers, a Catholic missionary society that shared Turner’s Irish heritage, were among his patrons. “Some of the small people have been married in the [Malate] church,” the society wrote on its website in 2012. And one of the missionaries became the first “chaplain” of the Hobbit House, blessing the establishment every year on Saint Patrick’s Day (always a big day at the Hobbit).
During the martial-law years, the Hobbit House also became a sanctuary for musicians, artists, anti-Marcos activists, students and intellectuals, some of whom would seek refuge there when they couldn’t make it home before curfew.
Among the musicians who gained a following at the Hobbit was the renowned Filipino folksinger-songwriter Freddie Aguilar, whose rousing “Bayan Ko” and haunting “Anak” could often be heard during his regular appearances there over the years.
But dwarf entertainers themselves also got into the act. They have included singers, dancers, comedians, jugglers, fire eaters and impersonators. One dwarf Elvis impersonator with a sleek pompadour and tiny guitar was so popular that he was eventually poached by Japanese talent scouts to perform at a club in Tokyo.
A particularly unscrupulous foreigner some years ago pretended to be a regular customer but quietly hired away several staffers, promising to double their pay at a posh resort, Interaksyon reported. “Several months later, the prodigal hobbits were back, mostly bruised and chastened,” reporter Lourdes Fernandez wrote.
At the resort, “they were turned into ‘human duckpins’ at a rowdy bar for ugly foreigners with a cruel sense of ‘fun,'” she reported.
Employees also recounted the time that Turner intervened when two drunken Australians began playing a version of dwarf-tossing with his terrified employees. He “stepped between two ruffians nearly twice his size and threw them out of the bar,” according to the L.A. Times.
As the Hobbit House flourished, Turner opened a branch on the resort island of Boracay. But in 2007 he was forced to relocate the main establishment when the landlord sold the building. Now it can be found in Manila’s Ermita district, behind a round door flanked by a leprechaun and figures from the “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” movies.
Years ago, Turner relinquished ownership, structuring the business as a cooperative and turning it over to his employees. On Oct. 4, when he would have turned 78, Hobbit staffers had been planning a “birthday concert” for him – in part to boost his spirits as his health deteriorated.
They had long known that he smoked and drank too much. As one waiter told the L.A. Times years before his Sept. 8 death: “It won’t be the same place without him – just a bunch of little people with broken hearts.”