The Seven Headless Dwarfs by Matthew Wolfe

The outdoors, "backstage" area of Disney World stood as a boundary between the organized chaos of family entertainment and the natural order of a wetlands. Alligators to the north. Peter Pan land to the south. I was a teenager in limbo. My own family for this trek to the Magic Kingdom was the roughly 100 members and supporters of The Barboursville High School Invincible Marching Band. I was a snare drummer running on little sleep. Actually, we were all a bit groggy. An over-night, 800-mile bus trip meant an all-night party of card games, pranks, silly songs, and serious make-out sessions on tour buses.

Now we were a bleary-eyed mob caught in the brilliant Florida sun, ready for Space Mountain and the Pirates of the Caribbean. There was just one little obligation we had to meet first: march in a parade through the lame “Main Street, USA” section of the park.   

After warm-ups and inspection, we waited in our hot uniforms and listened to people laughing and enjoying life on other side of a tall wooden fence. It was the eternal musicians’ madness of “Hurry up and wait”, and we were missing out on precious minutes in the “Happiest Place on Earth”. 

Suddenly a nearby gate in the fence burst open and the Seven Dwarfs marched in. They were in single file, Doc leading the way, of course, and Dopey at the rear. It was a glorious moment for me and my band mates, and we hailed them with “ohs” and “ahs.” Then things went south in a hurry.

When the gate slammed shut behind Dopey, the Dwarfs broke stride and soon resembled a small herd of staggering drunken elves. These chaotic and colorful creatures were all headed for the one bit of shade to be found, an arthritic maple tree with a picnic table beneath. There a large water cooler and a stack of paper cups waited on the table.

Just as they closed in on this diminished oasis, Grumpy decapitated himself.  

Which is to say the man in the costume removed his head. Well not his head. The head of Grumpy. 

I had always assumed Grumpy had a violent bent, but I figured he'd do in Doc first. Self-beheading is a rather desperate call for help.

Sleepy and Happy also removed their noggins. 

And there was nothing bashful about Bashful when he popped his top.

One might hope that Sneezy would at least sneeze his head off, but no, he removed it with his hands just like the others. Damned conformist.

Slowly (much slower than I care to admit) I realized these were real men in costumes, men who looked nothing like the lovable Dwarfs. One was, I am sure, an escaped convict from a Georgia chain gang. He and two others were white. The other four appeared to be Hispanic. All seven wore sweat like cheap make-up. Even now they could not wipe away the sweat, for their fingers were lost in fake-hand gloves.

As the shock began to ease, I looked at the thin and sweaty men inside. They were of average height and wore T-shirts and wife beaters as well as bandanas around their (real) heads to keep the sweat out of their eyes -- a scruffy lot to be sure. The Dwarf trousers came up to their armpits and were held in place by wide suspenders, contrasting their youthful faces with outlines resembling old men with their pants hiked up to their chins.   

Sleepy carried his head up-side-down by a bottom edge, near the neck. The white beard fell across Sleepy's half-moon eyes like a bad comb-over on an elderly stoner.

Dopey meanwhile carried his head in front of him, clutching it by the huge ears. Far from stupid, Dopey’s inner dude looked like William Shakespeare, complete with a goatee and a little earing.

Sleepy's inner man sported a three-day growth of dark whiskers, not the virgin white beard of his outer-narcoleptic.  

Once they reached the picnic table, the man-dwarfs placed their heads on the grass in a nice, straight row. It looked like a headhunter's wet dream. Then they removed their gloves and tossed them beside the freakish heads. The hand-gloves held their shape. This created the bloodless crime scene of a mass murderer with OCD tendencies. All the hard-boiled detective needed to do now was look for the “nice guy next door” with seven headless and handless bodies stuffed into his freezers. 

Then, horror of horrors: Happy produced a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from somewhere inside his oversized Dwarf pants -- I try not to imagine -- and soon five of the lot were puffing away, including Dopey, whom I am sure caved into peer pressure. Shame on you, Happy! 

Obviously it was break time for the crew, their state mandated 10 minutes per four hours of work. The little-tall-men worked for hourly wages, a weekly paycheck. “I owe. I owe. It’s off to work I go!” So much for our carefree diamond miners.

And there we were, a group of high schoolers quietly watching – amused, bewildered, and disillusioned. It was like discovering Santa was really just your parents, only somehow a little worse. A part of the Magic Kingdom lost its magic just as we stood at its threshold. Adulthood nipped at our imaginations, and the scent of melancholy, sweat, and smoke permeated the humid air.

Suddenly we were called to attention. There were four short blasts of the Drum Major’s whistle and my brothers in drums and I began playing a cadence. Then BOOM! The gates opened, and we marched out onto the stage of Disney World, leaving the seven half-dwarfs behind.

As we made our way down Main Street playing some tune from a Disney movie, I wondered something. Where was Snow White? What was her deal? Was she too good for the backstage likes of Dwarfs and drummers? I summoned a vision of Snow White and Cinderella sitting half-dressed in an air-conditioned dressing room and trash-talking Minnie Mouse while they smoked a joint.  It turns out adult fantasies can be damn good, too. 

Hi ho!


Matthew Wolfe’s writing has appeared in Newsweek, Writer’s Digest, Reader’s Digest, Yellow Medicine Review, Animus, and Motif, among others. Wolfe is completing work on a user-friendly composition textbook.  He teaches unconventionally at Marshall University and Ohio University.   He’s also a free-lance Time Traveler.

Judge's Comment: Backstage in Disney World. Which of us has ever bothered to wonder what the 'unmasked' Disney characters do, think or feel when they're taking a break?  Have we ever imagined them as 'real people'? With quirky humour and absolute consistency in style, we are introduced to each dwarf in turn as they 'behead' themselves. Vivid descriptions:  'The white beard fell across Sleepy's half-moon eyes like a bad combover.'


  1. Having been to Disney World several times and seeing all the "characters" up close, I had wondered what they were really like as "people." Thank you, Matthew Wolfe, for the insights you have provided! After reading this article, I can almost smell the smoke from the Dwarves' cigarettes, feel the AC from Cinderella and Snow White's dressing room, and hear the "trash talk" they engaged in about Minnie Mouse! Entertaining and thought provoking!

  2. Vivid descriptions. Lovely to stop and notice one of the losses of innocence we suffer in life.

  3. Always great to see your work getting around. Another awesome piece.

  4. Fun read! And....I don't remember seeing any of this! Fun, Fun!

  5. You are my spirt animal

  6. Wow. As a former band geek who also marched at Disney, and the former teacher of several theme park employees, I feel that you captured that scene perfectly.I especially loved the pondering about the princesses (face characters, as they are called, generally are luckier in regards to issues incoming hot costumes, and because of makeup and hair, are likely whisked away to cooler spots to take their breaks). Great story--lots of fun!!!

  7. Thanks for the giggle. Love it!

  8. I felt as if I were there witnessing The Shakespearean Dopey firsthand. Being a band mom I guess I have yet to realize my child will be witnessing these things "from the inside".

  9. One of my favorite Matt pieces. And I happen to know that Mickey Mouse in Disneyland was a cross-dresser. At least in the late 90s. I knew the woman who regularly donned that costume, duping the little kiddies. Things just often aren't what they seem.

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  11. I marched my sousaphone in a Disney World parade in the early seventies. And I, too, saw the backstage characters in various stages of Kafka-esque dishabille. But I never let witnessing Mickey Mouse taking a smoke brake, break the illusion of the character's purpose as a performing artist -- or mine -- to give a few minutes of wonder and possibility to the kids lining Main Street.

    You're a funny guy; but are you having fun?

  12. I have only one statement to make after reading this brilliantly hilarious piece: I sure wish Ii had written it!!!!!

  13. Ahhh, Matthew, you have shattered my fanciful illusion of these hardworking little guys forever going off to work. I, too, was a snare drummer in another band, but I never got to see what you saw. Fun and funny story.

  14. I was with you there and remember the gate, but somehow I missed the Dwarf adventure. Other things to worry about the time I suppose...

  15. What an experience! You described it with such clarity and wit. Super enjoyable. I especially chuckled when Grumpy decapitated himself. It just seemed fitting he was the first to go!

  16. Good story Matt. That was an interesting trip.

  17. I so enjoyed this!!! Thx for the dose of memory!!!

  18. Funny and entertaining! I enjoyed reading this.

  19. Entertaining throughout! Loved it!

  20. I love the image you create of the sweet little dwarf men turning cranky. So funny!

  21. I love the image you create of the sweet little dwarf men turning cranky. So funny!

  22. Great story! Wonderful memories.

  23. Hah! This is great, just great. Ready for another!

  24. Takes me back to my own Disney experience with the band :)


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