Jim Turner’s heartbroken ‘hobbits’ mourn his death by William Branigin

All over Metro Manila, the “little people” are in mourning.

September 13. Jim Turner, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Iowa who established the Hobbit House, died at 77 of heart and lung ailments, leaving generations of Philippine dwarfs bereft.

Founded in 1973 as a theme bar and restaurant, The Hobbit House — a tribute of sorts to Turner’s favourite author, J.R.R. Tolkien — soon became a haven for the dwarfs he rescued from the capital’s streets and from carnivals and variety shows that demeaned them. He hired 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 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. 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.

Updated: 2016-10-05 — 19:18:33