Saturday, December 4, 2010

Roloffs say end of "Little People, Big World" is bittersweet

From The Vancouver Sun in Canada:

You would think that after six seasons and 230 episodes, after all those on-air spats with your wife and all those awkward moments provided by your four not-always-perfect children, after all those emails and articles about your messy house and that embarrassing drunk-driving charge, you think you'd be glad to close your front door, shut out the world and watch the invasive camera crews pack up their gear and move along.

And you would be right. Sort of.

Matt Roloff, entrepreneur, pumpkin farmer and patriarch of the Roloff family of Little People, Big World fame, will be the first to tell you that, although he's glad his groundbreaking reality show is over -- the series finale airs Monday on TLC -- there are others in the family who will miss it.

Such as, ironically, his wife Amy.

But that's getting ahead of the story.

Little People, Big World caused a buzz when it debuted in 2006, mostly for shining a rare light on what it's like to go through life as a dwarf, a physical condition that affects thousands of North Americans, including Matt, 49, and his wife Amy, 48. Their 20-year-old son Zachary is also a dwarf, though not his twin brother Jeremy, or siblings Molly, 17, and Jacob, 13.

So when the Roloffs invited us into their home nearly five years ago, back before the big expansion of the little farmhouse, back when their annual pumpkin sale attracted a few hundred people instead of the 35,000 who showed up last October, back when the kids were much younger, we came to know them like they were our own neighbours.

We learned that Matt is the dreamer and Amy is the practical one, that Zach loves soccer but is shy, that Jeremy is a lot like his dad, and that Molly is a brainiac and Jacob is just a regular kid.

And we came to understand that before Little People, Big World began changing ingrained perceptions about dwarfism, little people were derided as midgets, and that dwarf-tossing was thought to be amusing, and that Hollywood looked to dwarfs to portray oddballs, such as Munchkins and Mini-Me.

If doing a reality show was a sacrifice -- of privacy, especially -- it was well worth it, says Matt, on the phone this week from the Roloff farm in Oregon.

"On balance, it was the right decision. Were there tough patches for the family? Absolutely. I likened it to being called to a mission in life, like those who take their families to Africa. It was our lot in life and we accepted it as our mission."

At first, he says, the show was about educating society.

"Almost every other word out of our mouths was 'as a little person.' . . . We saw ourselves as missionaries, if you will, to encourage parents not to abort their little person, to encourage little people to understand what they could do with their lives."

It worked. Parents of little people wrote emails thanking the Roloffs for giving their children confidence and pride. Little people wrote letters saying the show had turned them into "stars" in their communities (the legacy, too, of subsequent shows such as The Little Couple and The Little Chocolatiers), and more and more people began to see dwarfs simply as people of short stature and not freaks to be mocked or feared or avoided.

The Roloffs wrote a book, Little Family, Big Values: Lessons in Love, Respect and Understanding for Families of Any Size, and went on speaking tours, and started charities. Matt, something of a computer geek, found an even wider market for his business, which sells accessibility kits to the hospitality industry.

When the show first began filming in 2006, it was Matt and son Jeremy who were the self-professed hams of the clan, who loved the attention and didn't mind the intrusive cameras and crews that filmed five days a week, 11 months a year. Amy and Zach? Not so much, and when you watch old clips, you can sense their discomfort.

But as the family went about its mission, the dynamic gradually changed, both for the show's focus and its stars.

After the first two seasons, the Roloffs convinced TLC to turn the spotlight on the family's growing pains, and cameras followed the huge renovation of the farmhouse and the parents' efforts to become more financially secure, especially regarding the kids' education.

But these past two seasons, or the "giving back phase," as Matt calls it, has seen the biggest change in Amy. The twins were off to college, and Molly and Jacob were thriving. Amy, the homemaker who held it all together, came out of her shell, touring on speaking engagements and promoting the Amy Roloff Charity Foundation, which helps children and families in the U.S. and around the world.

And then came the irony.

"After five seasons, I was pretty well done," says Matt. "I wanted to move on, but Amy was more like, 'Hey, I still want to work my charities and do some things."'

So they agreed to one more season of filming, much of which has seen Matt take a background role.

Even though the series finale is nigh, cameras were still rolling as recently as a week ago, and although (spoiler alert!) the last show hints that the 36-acre Roloff Farms, with its Disney-like outbuildings and its statues as a tourist attraction in Helvetia, Oregon, is up for sale and the twins are moving out, Matt says all the Roloffs are still happily living down on the farm.

And while he thinks the kids will have mixed feeling about the show ending, "we were ready."