Iowa native's heartbroken 'hobbits' mourn loss of their patron

Jim Turner, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Cedar Rapids, leaves generations of Philippine dwarfs bereft

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Washington Post

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

Jim Turner, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Cedar Rapids who established the renowned Hobbit House, died last week 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 them 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.

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 Turner — and his employees — 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. The Lonely Planet guide book once rated it among “the world’s trippiest bars.”

Turner came to the Philippines from Iowa 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.

He graduated from Immaculate Conception High School, which has since been torn down, in Cedar Rapids before studying political science at Notre Dame.

He found a job teaching that subject at the Ateneo de Manila, a Jesuit university, and 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 for work.

During the martial-law years, 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.

Years ago, Turner relinquished ownership, turning it over to employees. On Oct. 4, when he would have turned 78, Hobbit staffers had been planning a “birthday concert” for him.

They had long known 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.”

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