He has the face of a wrinkled cherub, his laugh is a fusillade of hiccups, and he chugs vodka from a glass clutched in two hands. Yet he isn’t even tall enough to reach a doorknob. Mihaly “Michu” Mezaros is 42 years old and 33 inches tall. He is a star in the world’s biggest circus—Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey—which recently kicked off its 112th season at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
It is the Hungarian-born Michu’s ninth year with Ringling Bros, and his 27th year under the big top. “Michu is a marvelous tiny creature,” observes Ringling Bros, owner Irvin Feld. “He is a handsome, perfectly formed man—not a dwarf, not a midget, not a freak.” For his part, Michu prefers to be known as a “Lilli,” for Lilliputian. “I’m not like most people,” he admits in halting English. “But I want to be treated like a grown person, not like a kid or a pet. I’m human. My brain is just like other ones. Not like in a fun house.”
But if Michu doesn’t always have fun, he has flash. For his Wild West number, he makes a glittering entrance, squeezed like a sausage into a $300 gold-and-silver cowboy outfit and perched aboard a sparkling stagecoach. Later he returns for his pony act, looking doll-like as he cracks a pair of whips 12 times longer than he is. Though he is fascinated by dangerous acts involving tigers and elephants (he was scratched last summer by a leopard), he works with Shetland ponies and poodles.
In one routine, he is carried onstage in a doctor’s black bag, pops out, and begins operating on a clown. Wielding a giant scalpel, he extracts a huge safety pin, an apple core and a frog from his incredulous patient. “The circus is a dream,” he says. “It is color and costumes. It is beautiful, beautiful and more beautiful. If I didn’t enjoy it, I couldn’t be here.”
More than his home, the circus is also his sanctuary. He rarely ventures out in public without a friend to protect him from crowds that might inadvertently trample him. “Sometimes I am lonely,” Michu concedes. “And sometimes I have personal problems, but we must show people we are happy. In my heart it’s a little bit different, but in the ring I must show lots of energy. If not, I’m not professional.” Offstage he can be as courtly as a Hapsburg, planting kisses on a lady’s hand, or as temperamental as a diva, irritably brushing off autograph hunters. “Michu only gets angry when people ask him about the problems he has because he is short,” says his friend Trolle Rhodin, the show’s talent director. “Nobody here really thinks of him as being smaller than others. He lives a normal circus life.”
He has, in fact, never lived anything but. Back in Hungary, Michu was raised by his 41-inch-tall parents, who performed in Budapest’s Lilliputian Theatre. His grandparents were under four feet tall, as are his older brother and sister, who work in a Budapest factory. After graduating from Hungary’s state-run circus high school, Michu joined the Liebel Family Circus and toured Eastern Europe as an acrobat, clown, cook and advance man. Irvin Feld caught up with him after a two-year search that brought him to Michu’s door on the outskirts of Budapest one frosty night in 1973. Signed to a contract, in the presence of three ferocious dogs, a bear leashed to the back porch and an eight-foot boa constrictor, Michu made his U.S. debut five weeks later.
Michu and two other Hungarian Lilliputians, Sandor Raski and his wife, Elisabeth (both 40 inches), will tour 90 cities during the next two years with the Ringling Bros. Michu has never been married, though he went through the motions in 1977 when he was “united,” in an elaborate circus number, with a Lilli named Juliana, who returned to Budapest when her contract expired. Today Michu lives alone in a trailer fitted with stepladders reaching to his sink, stove and bed. Fans who flock backstage to get a glimpse of the star have included Fantasy Island’s Hervé Villechaize, who at 47 inches towered over him, and Muhammad Ali. When the champ scooped Michu up like a toy, the little man stared him in the eye and warned, “I’ll destroy you.” For once the startled Ali was mute.