How A Jewish Dwarf From NJ Became The First Celebrity Photobomber


Before snapchat and selfie sticks made celebrity photobombing a cultural phenomenon there was Mace Bugen.

Moishe Morris Bugen, known to most as "Mace", was born in 1915 in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, an area in the Lehigh Valley about an hour from Philadelphia and New York City. From the 1930s to 1960s, Bugen made a habit — or hobby really — of “crashing the gate” at major events and snapping photos with celebrities.

According to the “Little Gate-Crasher,” a new biography about Bugen’s life, he was the ‘first practitioner of the celebrity selfie.’ Bugen was also an observant Jew, a pillar of his Jewish community and a shrewd businessman — he ran a successful real estate and insurance firm. One thing Bugen never let define him was his height. At 3-foot-7, Bugen was a dwarf.

Mace Bugen with Muhammad Ali, 1970. Photo from "Little Gate-Crasher"

“Mace wanted to be special,” wrote Gabby Kaplan-Mayer, Bugen’s great-niece, in her new biography of Mace “The Little Gate-Crasher” (Sager Group). “Only not for the reasons most people found so obvious.”

At the age of two, Bugen was diagnosed with achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism and likely caused by a genetic mutation. All of 43 inches tall (around the size of a 4 year-old boy), he made every one of those inches count with his larger-than-life persona, according to Kaplan-Mayer, who curates The Jewish Week’s blog on living with disabilities, The New Normal.

“He had a huge, outgoing personality,” Kaplan-Mayer told The Jewish week in a telephone interview from her home in Philadelphia.

“Mace was aware of always appearing different, so he wanted to say: ‘Look at me! Look at what I can do!’”

Bugen shamelessly used his charm, and even his height, to his advantage in both his professional life (no one wanted to haggle prices with a dwarf) and his gate-crashing escapades.

The first of such adventures took place in 1934. Aged 19, Bugen boarded a Chicago-bound Greyhound bus from the nearby town of Easton, Pennsylvania and, using his guile, got away with paying only a child’s fare for the 10-plus hour ride. (Always self-aware, Mace believed that during the Great Depression, if you could use your size to save some bucks, you did). In the Windy City to catch a young Joe Louis in his first professional boxing match, something compelled Bugen to, in his own words, “show the world I’m me.” He rushed the ring, shook Louis’ hands and wished him some “Jewish luck,” according to the “Little Gate-Crasher.”

After Louis won the fight, Mace rushed to the locker room, and upon seeing him again, the future heavyweight champion looked around and said “maybe he really is my good luck charm.”

Two convention-defying careers were launched that night: Louis went on to be considered one of the world’s greatest boxers before African-American baseball players were even allowed in the major leagues, and Bugen began his lifelong tradition of meeting, and sometimes even befriending, celebrities during an era when being a dwarf, a Jewish dwarf no less, made you a ‘social pariah,’ said Mike Sager, a distant cousin of the author and the publisher of the book.

Mace Bugen with Joe Louis, his first celebrity acquaintance. Photo from "Little Gate-Crasher"

And this was before TMZ too.

“Back in that age, no one messed with celebrities,” said Sager during a telephone interview from his home in La Jolla, California. “There were no paparazzi.”

That didn’t affect Bugen, though. Over the years, his exploits yielded an impressive collection of photos and stories. He won himself photos with sports legends the likes of Bill Russell, Joe Dimaggio and Muhammad Ali, and politicians such as Nixon, La Guardia and Goldwater. He met celebrities like Jackie Mason, Art Carney and Tom Jones, and even the scientist Jonas Salk.

Like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” Bugen's gallery of photos serves as a creative reminder, if not comprehensive review, of pop-culture in the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s.

While most of Burgen's photos appear in “The Little Gate-Crasher,” a few remain elusive, like the celluloid image of him with Marilyn Monroe. Sager is still hoping someone “comes out of the woodwork with the Marilyn photo … that would be the holy grail [of Bugen photos].”

Of all of Bugen’s photographs in the book, it’s the Salk photo that hold the place as Kaplan-Mayer and Sager’s favorite. Salk, who invented the cure for polio kneeled down to Bugen’s height to pose for the photo with him.

“Jonas Salk was like ‘let me make sure Mace felt comfortable' while he was stealing a picture with him. If that’s not the ultimate Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn moment, I don’t know what it is,” Sager said. “I love that picture.”

Mace Bugen with Dr. Jonas Salk (kneeling in front). Photo from "Little Gate-Crasher"

Bugen’s ability to overcome the challenges of dwarfism at a time when “children who were different in any way were sent away,” is a product of the support he received from his family, Kaplan-Mayer said.

“There was never a question [that, in the Bugen family,] you see people for who they are, not for their disability,” she added.

Sager, a writer for Esquire who penned the foreword to Little Gate-Crasher, echoed this sentiment. “Mace’s family loved him and instilled in him a sense of self that is lacking in so much of humanity,” he said.

When Bugen needed a place to stay, his sister Minerva, Kaplan-Mayer’s grandmother, worked with designers to build an apartment equipped with low counters and small furniture, all to make his life easier.

And it was Judaism that provided Bugen with a true sense of community and identity.

“Mace was like a one-man Jewish pride parade,” writes Kaplan-Mayer in the book. He never missed a Jewish event at his shul in Easton, where he attended weekly services. On the rare occasion Bugen did miss a wedding or bar mitzvah, his absence was noted in a collective “where’s Mace?”

An early Zionist, Bugen drove an Israeli flag-decorated Jeep wherever he went, helped out at Israeli Bonds fundraisers, scored a picture with Israeli politician Abba Eban, and, in 1950, made a trip to the Holy Land just two years after Israel’s establishment. There, Bugen did what he did best and ended up on many an Israeli newspaper’s front page. A story in Maariv, headlined “Midget invades the Knesset,” recounted what readers should now understand to be a familiar Bugen tale. There was a “flash-bulb camera,” a “miraculous” escape “between the legs of the ushers,” and a “wise-guy” wink at the end of it all.

Mace Bugen deplaning in Israel in 1950. Photo from "Little Gate-Crasher"

By the 1970s, Bugen’s gate-crashing days came to an end. In 1980 he had a stroke and moved to a nursing home, and two years later, he died at the age of 66.

The photo collection he left behind was passed on from his sister Minerva to his niece Lynn who, in turn, gave it to her daughter Gabby Kaplan-Mayer to work on the biography.

For a man whose penchant for being in the spotlight was rivaled only by his love for his family (he never forgot to send a birthday card to his nieces and nephews), it is fitting to have to have his biography written by his great-niece, who called him the “coolest uncle of all time.”

Sager got involved with the book when, preparing for an interview with actor Peter Dinklage (the "Game Of Thrones" actor who is also a dwarf), he remembered seeing an old family photo of Bugen. He eventually reached out to Kaplan-Mayer and the project was born.

Sager found similarities between the two. “Having met Dinklage I could project a bit onto Mace,” he said, explaining they shared a similar “sense of self.”

Sager, whose works have inspired Hollywood films in the past (including 1997’s Boogie Nights,) said that if there is a Mace Bugen film to be made, he already has an actor in mind — “I’d be glad to approach Dinklage,” he told The Jewish Week.

For now, Bugen’s story lives on in the pages of “The Little Gate-Crasher.” Telling stories like Bugen’s, Sager says, was his impetus to enter the publishing business.

“Being able to put Mace’s life in between covers and have it be entertaining and fun and informative at the same time does justice to his life,” Sager said.