Friday, April 20, 2018

Our Gang/The Little Rascals

I grew up watching this old black and white TV show called The Little Rascals.  Years later, I discovered it had been created as a series of movie shorts way back in the 1920s under a different name - Our Gang.  Why the name change?  As with all decisions in Hollywood, it had to do with money, and just exactly who owned the property - its creator, Hal Roach, or the studio that produced it, MGM.

But whatever you call the show, you certainly know the names.  Spanky, Buckwheat and Alfalfa, just to name a few.  Between 1922 and 1944, more than 100 child stars would appear in the series, some of whom would find great success in Hollywood, like Perry White himself, Jackie Cooper, or TV's Baretta, aka Robert Blake.  Ok, bad example.

Tragedy befell most of the former Rascals, who had a tendency to pass under less than honorable circumstances.  While they've been laid to rest across the country, I've encountered five in my travels, presented here for the first time.

Alfalfa, aka Carl Switzer, was a member of Our Gang from 1935 to 1940.  Like many child stars, he had trouble transitioning to adult roles, and accepted parts in a variety of B movies.  His best post-Rascals part however, was in the 1946 film classic It's A Wonderful Life.  Look for him at the 0:43 mark in this clip.  Yes, he's Mary's dance partner.  He'd move around the country and try a variety of occupations before returning to Hollywood and settling down as a dog trainer. 

He had a number of famous clients, including Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.  Another client was a man named Moses Samuel Stiltz.  In January 1959, Stiltz hired Switzer to train his hunting dog.  While doing just that, the dog chased after a bear, and much like Switzer's career in Hollywood, it completely disappeared.  Switzer offered a reward of $35 for the dog's return, and he was only too happy to pay up when a good Samaritan found the pooch.  Switzer even threw in $15 worth of drinks from the tavern where he also tended bar.  And where apparently, he was also a regular himself. 

On the night of January 21, Switzer had had a few, and got to thinking about the $50 he had spent.  Why should he be out of pocket because of another man's dog?  The more he thought about it, he decided that Stiltz owed him that $50, which he then set out to reclaim.

OK, I didn't mean for this to be a how did they die blog.  But let's be honest, this story has meat.

Switzer showed up at Stiltz's house in a drunken rage.  He demanded that Stiltz reimburse him, which Stiltz promptly refused.  The two began to fight, and Switzer smashed a dome clock over Stiltz's head, causing him to bleed from his left eye.  Stiltz retreated to his bedroom where he retrieved his .38-caliber revolver.  Enraged, Switzer produced a knife and threatened to kill Stiltz, who promptly shot him in the groin.  Alfalfa died en route to the hospital.

Location: Hollywood Forever, Hollywood, California
Plot: Garden of Memory, Grave 6, Lot 26
GPS: 34.08917, -118.31954

Trivia: Alfalfa died on the same day as legendary Hollywood producer Cecil B. DeMille.  As a result, his death received little media attention at the time, even given its extraordinary circumstances.  In a final indignity, the two were both buried at Hollywood Forever, though DeMille's final resting place is infinitely more grandiose.

People often wonder if the dog featured on Switzer's marker is supposed to be Petey, the Our Gang pooch.  According to his family, it is not.  Rather, it is a nod to his chosen profession as a dog trainer.

Buckwheat, aka William Thomas, led a very different life.  Although he had a successful ten-year run as the character, he became increasingly disinterested in continuing his Hollywood career.  At the age of 23, he enlisted in the Army, serving for three years and earning two of our Nation's highest medals.  After he was discharged, he returned to Hollywood, though not as an actor.  He learned the craft of film editing and cutting, becoming a lab technician at Technicolor.  He died on October 10, 1980.

Location: Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California
Plot: Acacia Slope, Lot 773, Grave D
GPS: 33.964, -118.3371

Trivia: In 1990, anchorman Hugh Downs delivered a "where are they now" segment on the TV news program 20/20, and presented Bill English, a grocery clerk from Arizona, as the real Buckwheat.  One viewer that night was former Rascal George "Spanky" McFarland, who couldn't believe what he was seeing.  McFarland had known William Thomas and his family, and more importantly, had known that he had died.  A few days later, McFarland confronted English on another news program, A Current Affair.  Watch it here.  As a result, a producer of 20/20 was fired and the network was sued by Thomas's family.  Fake news!

Darla Hood continued to enjoy success as an entertainer after ending her run with Our Gang, organizing a vocal group called "The Enchanters."  Later, she went solo, touring night clubs and landing guest spots on TV.  Then in 1979, while helping to prepare a reunion of the surviving Our Gang cast members, Hood checked herself into Canoga Park Hospital for a simple appendectomy.  While there, she contracted hepatitis from a blood transfusion, which led to her death of heart failure on June 13, 1979.
Location:  Hollywood Forever, Hollywood, California
Plot: Abbey of the Psalms, Sanctuary of Light, Top Row, Corridor G-4, Crypt 7213
GPS: 34.0892906, -118.3211975 (hddd.dddd)

Trivia:  In 1962, Darla reprised her Our Gang role on The Jack Benny Program, with Jack himself appearing as Alfalfa.  See the show in its entirety here.  She comes in at about the 4:20 mark.

Chubby, aka Norm Myers Chaney, was a Maryland native who responded to a nationwide casting call for new Rascals as the pictures entered the dawn of talkies.  He spent three years in the role before returning to his native Baltimore.  Not long after, his excessive girth was diagnosed as the result of a glandular ailment, one that would lead to his death from myocarditis on May 29, 1936.  He was only 21 years old, and he was the first Our Gang alumni to pass away.

Location: Baltimore Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland
Plot: Section E, immediately on your right as you enter the front gate.
Traveler's advisory:  This cemetery is in a really rough neighborhood

Trivia: Chaney's mother was unable to afford a headstone for her son, who's grave remained unmarked for 76 years.  In 2012, a Detroit musician launched an online fundraising drive, raising $4,500 for the stone you see here.

Farina, aka Allen Hoskins, enjoyed a solid ten years with Our Gang, which started when he was just one year old.  Like other members of the company, he served his country during World War 2, then settled into a new life in the world of physical rehabilitation in the San Francisco area.  In July 1980, he fell into a coma, and was admitted to a local hospital, where he passed on the 26th.  The cause of death was listed as cancer. 

Location: Evergreen Cemetery, Oakland, California
Plot: Serenity A, Base 19, Row 3 (just north of the Hell's Angels)
GPS: 37.7733612, -122.1801987 (hddd.dddd)

Trivia: The character of Farina was written to be played by either gender, and was often portrayed as both a boy and a girl, sometimes in the same short!

As noted above, Hoskins has some pretty famous neighbors, as Evergreen is the official cemetery of the Hell's Angels biker gang.  They own a wide section of the park, which is relatively close to Hoskins. 

Evergreen is also the final resting place of hundreds of members of the Jim Jones cult, all of whom committed mass suicide in 1978. 

No comments:

Post a Comment