Hometown Legend

Mike and Ike Matina

The Matina siblings were born in Hungary to a tailor, John Matina, and his wife, Maria. Twins Bela and Matjus, who came to be known as Mike and Ike, respectively, were born on March 15. Some sources say 1901, and some say 1902. They had an older brother, Lajos, who came to be known as Leo, who was born September 12, 1892, or 1893. They also had other siblings, Ellan, Johan, and Albert, some of whom were little people and some who were not.

Reportedly, the three got their start in show business when the twins were 12 years old. Carl Shaffer, a German showman, was traveling through Budapest, Hungary, according to the rare book “Life of Mike and Ike: Only Twin Midgets in the World.” Shaffer heard about the family and offered to take three of the boys and train them for show business.

It was understood that he was not to take them out of that part of the country, but the troupe soon was traveling the world — into all parts of Europe and even to Australia, China, the Philippines, and eventually to the United States.

The Matina brothers joined the Phylises Circus in Texas, then in 1916 joined the Johnny Jones exposition shows in Florida, according to the book “Life of Mike and Ike,” which it’s believed was sold at shows as a souvenir. Only one copy remains known in existence, and Parker-Butler was able to acquire pictures of its pages from the owner during her research.

It was with the Jones show that the twins were given the nicknames of Mike and Ike.

(The twins are just one of several of the urban legends surrounding the etymology of the name of Mike & Ike candy. The candy company JustBorn states on its website that the true origin of the name of its fruity, colorful boxed confection, which has been manufactured since 1940, “remains a mystery.”)

In 1917, the twins, recorded in the book as 32 inches tall, joined the Ringling Brothers Circus, performing at such notable venues as Madison Square Garden, and also sold war bonds on Broadway in soldiers’ uniforms.

In 1936, the three brothers were chosen by Walt Disney Studios to be the models for “Doc,” “Grumpy,” and “Happy” in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” In 1938, they were among the little people, joined by some children, who played the Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz.”

They took a chartered bus labeled, on the side, “We are the Little People of Munchkinland on our way to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayers (sic) Studios, Hollywood, California, to Appear as the Little Stars (of) The Wizard of Oz,” according to photos captured at the time.

Along with their co-stars, the Matina brothers worked for eight weeks to record the Munchkinland segment. The trio didn’t have any of the speaking roles among the Munchkins; in fact, the vast majority of the Munchkins’ speaking roles were dubbed. They were instead among the crowd.

In 1943, the brothers joined Virginia Greater Shows, which usually spent the offseason in Suffolk, making them Suffolkians. They lived on Charles Street.

The brothers were popular figures around town. Mike and Ike would portray Santa’s helpers in a local store window during the Christmas season. Leo was a chef and children’s ride supervisor with the carnival and took the role of Santa Claus, once again teaming up with his twin brothers to delight younger audiences. They had a photo op in the Suffolk News-Herald on March 3, 1949, with Gilbert Reichert, a man more than 8 feet in height, on the front steps of the old post office. Leo Matina was given a surprise birthday party at the A&P grocery store on his 75th birthday in 1967, an occasion also memorialized with a photo in the Suffolk News-Herald.

The first of the brothers to pass away — and the only one of the three not buried at Bethlehem Church — was Mike. He was on tour in Suffern, New York, when a Virginia Greater Shows truck overturned in a collision with a car driven by a local man. He died June 1, 1954, at the Good Samaritan Hospital and was buried at the Brick Church Cemetery in New Hempstead.

Ike Matina died on September 14, 1965, of a heart attack. Leo Matina followed in like manner on December 14, 1975.

Records from I.O. Hill & Company and obituaries from the Suffolk News-Herald confirm Ike and Leo are buried at Bethlehem Christian Church Cemetery in Suffolk.

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