Just as apparitions, cadavers and oozing slime threaten to gobble up the cast of Poltergeist, producer Steven Spielberg’s spook-show companion piece to his smash E.T., diminutive Zelda Rubinstein cuts them down to size. At 4’3″ and 96 pounds, the child-voiced Zelda, 45ish, plays Tangina, the psychic come to “cleanse” the suburban haunted house, and she keeps the angriest ghosts on their toes. Even traditionally scrappy critics have snapped to attention. “She’s so fresh a performer that you want to applaud,” raved the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael.
Rubinstein is thrilled by her reviews, the film’s success ($38 million to date) and especially Spielberg. “One area of me has a small-to-large crush on him,” she says. “I hope he’ll always be in my life as a friend.” She also prays Poltergeist will heighten awareness of the little people in showbiz. “Because I was born mouth first,” she laughs, “it’s natural for me to be a spokesperson.”
“Midget” is simply not in Zelda’s vocabulary. “It divides you from others, like calling a gay man a fag. I prefer little person,” she says. Her activism started with her first screen role in last year’s Under the Rainbow, a Chevy Chase farce that used little people as comic relief. “It was absolutely despicable,” she snaps. “You’re not an actor if you’re just a person that fits into a cute costume. You’re a prop.”
To improve matters, 18 months ago Rubinstein formed the Michael Dunn Memorial Repertory Theater, named after the late actor (he played the dwarf in Ship of Fools) who showed that large talent could come in small sizes. “Become an actor and your world will get much bigger” is Zelda’s message to the 16 actors, ranging in height from 3’8″ to 4’6″, who make up the company. Based in L.A., the nonprofit group will mount its first production, a play about the status of little people, in late autumn.
Rubinstein’s other goal is to spare others the pain caused by the insensitivity that she has known since childhood. Schoolmates called her Pigeon. “There was something attached to the nickname that froze me,” she recalls. Zelda was 20 before she even met another little person. She was devastated. “I knew I was little, but when I saw him I was blown away, terrified. It made me introspective for a very long time.”
Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., the youngest of three children of an insurance agent, Zelda is the only little person in the family. “I’m the pioneer,” she says without rancor. After attending public high school in Pittsburgh with actors-to-be Charles Grodin and Fritz Weaver, Zelda won a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, earned a degree in bacteriology, worked as a lab technician in Berkeley, and then hitched around Europe in the early 1960s. She supported herself by waitressing in England, working on a shrimp boat in Scandinavia, and doing bilingual steno work (she speaks Italian and German fluently) in Rome.
Returning to San Francisco in 1969, she met Ray Tatar, a 6’2″ Berkeley theater administrator who is “a few” years younger. “For the first time in my life I was seriously in love,” says Zelda. Both first-generation Poles (he’s Catholic, she’s Jewish), they share a love of travel, classical music and Zelda’s gourmet cooking. “Unlike many women twice her size,” Ray says, “Zelda is a whole woman, complete with determination and femininity.”
Their home is a simple, airy, four-room apartment in Silverlake, but they have no plans for marriage or family. “It’s more romantic this way,” Zelda explains. Ray commutes to his job with the California Arts Council in Sacramento, leaving Zelda alone most weekdays. She misses him, but insists, “I don’t moan when he’s not here.”
Though Rubinstein had studied drama in grad school, acting didn’t become a passion until 1978, when she gave up her lab work. “I had to do something creative,” she says. “It was an internal feeling that I was sabotaging myself.” In short order, she did the voice of Atrocia Frankenstone on The Flintstones, a bank commercial with George Burns, then Under the Rainbow and the Spielberg film. Her small Poltergeist salary doesn’t rankle. “Money is not a serious criterion to measure worth,” she insists. Putting little people in the Hollywood spotlight clearly is. “Very beautiful people are the exception, and frequently their talent doesn’t match their beauty,” says Zelda. “I would like to see an industry that prides itself on talent back up that talent.”