Photo of the Day

(L to R) George “Spanky” McFarland, Harold Switzer, William “Buckwheat” Thomas, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Eugene “Porky” Lee.

The Little Rascals

One day in 1921, a Hollywood producer named Hal Roach spent a frustrating morning auditioning girls for a part in one of his movies. It wasn’t going well-the kids sounded too rehearsed and their stage makeup made them look like little grown-ups. In those days child actors were supposed to act like adults, not like normal kids. They were usually well scrubbed and well behaved, and because the adult characters were almost always the center of the story, the kids interacted with the grown-ups more than they did with each other. They were often little more than props.

That afternoon when the auditions ended, Roach sat in his office and stared at the lumberyard across the street. He noticed a group of kids that had snatched a few sticks to play with, and were now arguing over them-the smallest kid had grabbed the largest stick, and the biggest kid wanted it.
Roach was fascinated. “I knew they would probably throw away the sticks as soon as they walked around the block,” he recalled more than 60 years later, “but the most important thing in the world right then was who would have which stick. All of a sudden I realized I had been watching this silly argument for over fifteen minutes because they were real kids.”

Roach thought movies about “kids doing the things that kids do” might make interesting viewing. As he told Leonard Maltin in The Life and Times of the Little Rascals: Our Gang, “I thought if I could find some clever street kids to just play themselves in films and show life from a kid’s angle, maybe I could make a dozen of these things before I wear out the idea.”

Roach started putting together a cast of archetypical kids that audiences would be able to relate to: the leader of the pack, the pretty girl who gets teased by the boys, the tomboy, the nerdy smart kid, the chubby kid, the spoiled rich kid, etc.

Roach also decided to cast black kids in some of the parts. That may not sound like a big deal, but in the 1920s it was unheard of. In fact, he was the first Hollywood filmmaker to depict black kids and white kids playing together, treating each other as equals, even going to the same schools. (The integrated school scenes were cut whenever the films played in the South.)

Characters like Farina, Stymie, and Buckwheat have since been criticized for perpetuating ethnic stereotypes, and ethnic humour was common in the series, especially in the early days. But the fact that the cast was integrated at all was a milestone. Hollywood films of the 1920s never portrayed blacks and whites as social peers, and wouldn’t for years to come. But Roach was determined that his kids would be peers.

Casting that first group of little kids was a snap-Roach just asked around the studio lot. Everybody, it seemed, either had a kid or knew one that would be good for a part. An eight-year-old black child actor named Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison was already appearing in Roach comedies, and his family knew of a one-year-old named Allen Hoskins. (Allen, better known as “Farina”, would go on to appear in 105 Our Gang comedies-more than any other kid) Photographer Gene Kornman’s five-year-old daughter Mary was interested; so was her friend Mickey Daniels. Roach also hired a six-year-old child actor named Jack Davis, a three-year-old named Jackie Condon, a chubby four-year-old named Joe Cobb, and a few other kids as well.

Little Rascals/Our Gang

The very first film, titled Our Gang, was shot twice with a different director each time because Roach didn’t think the first version was funny enough. The second film, a 20-minute silent short, directed by an ex-fireman named Bob McGowan, was a hit with test audiences, critics, and movie exhibitors alike. When Roach received repeated requests for more of those “Our Gang comedies,” he decide that would be the name for his series. The kids themselves were billed as “Hal Roach’s Rascals”; the name “Little Rascals” came much later.

The fourth Our Gang movie to be filmed, One Terrible Day, was actually the first one released to the public; it hit theaters in September 1922. Our Gang (the first film) was released two months later.
These films were unlike any that audiences had seen before. Kids were the stars, but the films were designed to appeal to people of all ages. And they were a hit from the start-kid actors were acting like real kids, arguing, getting dirty, and getting into all kinds of mischief. The acting was so natural that audiences forgot they were watching a movie.

*A kid could be cast in an Our Gang film as young as two or three years of age (infants and toddlers were sometimes used as extras), and the average age was around seven. Most started out as supporting players and were promoted to more central roles as they got older. Spanky was a notable exception-he was cast in starring roles from the very beginning.

* The youngest actors weren’t allowed to be on the lot more than six hours a day, and they spent at least half that time playing off camera, not working on the films. Once actors reached the age of six, however, they were expected to put in a full nine-hour shift (five hours of acting, three hours of school, and one for lunch).
* By the time most of the actors hit 11 or 12, they were starting to look too old for the series, so they were phased out. Kids who matured early had to leave sooner than that.

The Little Rascals

According to Hal Roach, 176 kids played in the 221 Our Gang films made between 1922 and 1944. Only a few of these became major stars in the series.
It’s not unusual for child stars to have a difficult time as they move into adulthood, and if anything life in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s was even tougher. Children who worked in the series typically started out earning less than $100 a week, and they never earned residuals-when the Our Gang films made their way to television in the early 1950s, the kids didn’t get a penny. Result: when their fame ended, they didn’t have any money to fall back on like child stars do today.
When you consider how many kids cycled through the Our Gang series, it stands to reason that quite a few of them would have problems later in life. Even so, the number of kids who suffered misfortune over the years is startling. You can’t help but wonder: Are the Little Rascals cursed?

*William “Buckwheat” Thomas: When his career in front of the camera ended, Thomas became a film technician with the Technicolor Corporation. In October 1980, a neighbour who hadn’t seen Thomas in several days entered his home and found him dead in bed. Cause of death: heart attack. Thomas was 49.

*Robert “Wheezer” Hitchins: A cadet in the Army Air Corps, Hitchins was killed in 1945 while trying to land his plane during a training exercise. He died a few days shy of his 20th birthday.

*Matthew “Stymie” Beard: A high school dropout, Beard fought a heroin addiction for more than 20 years and was frequently in and out of prison. He beat the habit in the 1970s, but passed away in 1981, at age 56. Cause of death: pneumonia, following a stroke.

*”Darla” Hood Granson: Contracted hepatitis while in the hospital for minor surgery and died in 1979 at the age of 47.

*Norman “Chubby” Chaney: Chaney’s weight was due to a glandular problem; by the time he was 17 he weighed more than 300 pounds. In 1935 he had surgery to treat his condition; that dropped his weight down to 130 pounds, but he never regained his health. He passed away in 1936 at the age of 18.

*”Scotty” Beckett: Scotty was the kid who wore a cap turned to the side of his head. A classic case of troubled former child star, Beckett slid into alcohol and drug abuse when his acting career petered out. He had two failed marriages, a history of violence, and numerous run-ins with the law. In 1968 he checked into a Hollywood nursing home after someone beat him up; two days later he was dead.  Investigators found a bottle of pills and a suicide note by his bed, but the coroner never ruled on whether it was the beating or the barbiturates that killed him. He was 38.

*William “Froggy” Laughlin: Rear-ended and killed by a truck while delivering newspapers on his motor scooter in 1948. He was 16.

*Richard “Mickey” Daniels: Long estranged from his wife and children, Daniels died alone in a San Diego hotel room in 1970. Cause of death: cirrhosis of the liver. Years passed before his remains were identified and claimed by his family. Daniels was 55 when he died; he is buried in an unmarked grave.

*Bobby Blake: (He used his real name, Mickey Gubitosi, in the Our Gang films until 1942.) If you’re charged with murdering your wife and you beat the rap, does that count as being cursed or beating the curse? In the 1990s, Blake took up with a woman named Bonnie Lee Bakley. He didn’t know it at the time, but she was a celebrity-obsessed con artist who wanted to have a baby with a Hollywood star. Blake took the bait, and in 2000 Bakley gave birth to Blake’s daughter. Five months later they were married.

On May 4, 2001, Bakley was shot in the head and killed while sitting in her car outside a restaurant where she and Blake had just eaten dinner. In April 2002, Blake was arrested and charged with Bakley’s murder; in March 2005, a jury found him not guilty. He beat the rap, but the media continues to doubt his innocence. Blake says that as a result of the ordeal, he’s now destitute.

Carl and Harold Switzer

*Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer: was the most famous and popular member of the Little Rascals comedy shorts series. Several generations grew up watching these funny, talented kids in dozens of short subjects in the 1930s. These black-and-white films enjoyed a whole new life in television in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and even now the classic shorts are seen by countless new generations on video and DVD.

Like Curly of the Three Stooges, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer quickly rose above his young co-stars in terms of popularity. Alfalfa received fan mail from kids all over the world. According to one “Hollywood legend,” Alfalfa was once mobbed by a big group of fans, while nearby, Clark Gable stood by unnoticed.

Alfalfa, the lovable little kid with the unfortunate cows’lick (that weird hair thing) hit his stride as a kid. Carl Switzer’s his real name. His childhood was adventuresome but in later years took a downward spiral.

The Switzers, like most families of the era, were victims of the Great Depression. Money was short, and Fred Switzer had difficulty finding work because of an accident that left him with only one foot. The Switzers often came up with innovative ways to make ends meet, which included having Harold, Carl’s brother and Carl perform popular songs at local agricultural fairs. In 1934, the Switzers travelled to California to visit with family members. The family took in the sights and wound up at Hal Roach Studios, where they paid a visit to the studio cafeteria.

Eight-year-old Harold and six-year-old Carl Switzer jumped up on one of the tables and began singing. Wouldn’t you know old Roach happened to be in the  cafeteria himself. Their act caught his attention and the boys were offered a role in an episode of Our GangI guess some careers are just made that way. Following his first episode, the show directors bestowed the name “Alfalfa” upon Carl. Harold also remained on the show, playing the part of “Deadpan” or “Slim,” but he was eventually relegated to occasional appearances. Hal Roach was forced to rename his series The Little Rascals because MGM owned the Our Gang name after the studio took over the series in 1938. Before running it on television the renamed series had their original titles and credits removed and replaced with updated ones, with The Little Rascals printed on all of them.

Alfalfa. 1935.

With his too-tight suit, freckles, and slicked-down haircut (complete with high cowlick), Alfalfa became a true Hollywood icon. Although he played an immensely likable character in the comedy shorts, in real life Alfalfa Switzer was no angel.

As a kid, he was creepy, pulling pranks on other little rascals cast members; He once put fishing hooks in Spanky’s pants, resulting in cuts so bad that poor Spanky needed stitches. Another time, “Alfie put an open switchblade in his pocket and tricked Darla into into putting her hand in his pocket on the pretense that he had a ring for her from a Crackerjack box. She almost lost her fingers.” On one occasion, to get back at a rude cameraman, Alfalfa had the kids all chew big wads of gum. Then he took the combined wads and put them inside the man’s camera.

According to other kids in the Our Gang cast: “Alfie would not pay attention to his school lessons in Mrs. Fern carter’s class. He’d be kept after school often and kept everyone waiting on the set of the films.”
Spanky told of Alfalfa’s most dangerous prank: “We were filming one day and the scene called for the kids to show their own movie on a process screen. The rear projection system and the lights (with a thousand watts per bulb) were taking a long time to set up, so Alfie decided to use his time by going behind the screen and peeing on the bulbs. This is extremely hazardous, for even spitting on those bulbs is tantamount to setting off a series of bombs. The lights exploded and filled the studio with a tremendous stench. Everyone had to be taken off the set as the crew and director fixed the bulbs and cleaned up the mess Alfalfa created that day.”

Over the next six years, Carl Switzer acted in more than 60 episodes of Our Gang. He also appeared in a dozen or so unrelated films before leaving the series in 1940, at the age of 13. Switzer then appeared in several films. Most notable were his roles in It’s A Wonderful Life and Going My Way. As Carl Switzer got older his money began to dwindle. Film contracts in the 1930s and ’40s were not generous and he wasn’t entitled to the residuals for his many appearances as the character Alfalfa. Switzer never saw any of the millions the Our Gang series earned from endless syndication. In between acting jobs, he found work as a bartender, dog trainer and fishing and hunting guide.

During 1954, Switzer married a woman named Dian Collingwood. The couple had one child together, a boy, whose name remains well guarded to this day. In 1956, with his money running out and Diantha pregnant, his mother-in-law offered them a farm near Pretty Prairie, Kansas, west of Wichita. Few details are known about the couple but the marriage quickly came to an end and the couple divorced within four months.

In 1987, former Our Gang co-star Spanky McFarland recalled a meeting with Switzer when they spoke about the farm:

The last time I saw Carl was 1957. It was a tough time for me—and him. I was starting a tour of theme parks and county fairs in the Midwest. Carl had married this girl whose father owned a pretty good size farm near Wichita. When I came through town, he heard about it and called. He told me he was helping to run the farm, but he finally had to put a radio on the tractor while he was out there ploughing. Knowing Carl, I knew that wasn’t going to last. He may have come from Paris, Illinois, but he wasn’t a farmer! We hadn’t seen each other since we left the ‘Gang.’ So we had lunch. We talked about all the things you’d expect. And then I never saw him again. He looked pretty much the same. He was just Carl Switzer—kind of cocky, a little antsy—and I thought to myself he hadn’t changed that much. He still talked big. He just grew up.

— George McFarland

Not exactly a fairytale. Switzer’s luck did not get better with time. He had difficulty securing meaningful acting jobs. In January 1958, some idiot shot poor Switzer in the arm while he was getting into his car. The assailant was never identified.

He also cut down 15 trees in Sequoia National Park. About national parks, they say, “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.” Alfalfa said Stuff you, I’m taking 15 trees.” That was his brief foray into the lumber industry. He was sentenced to a year’s probation and ordered to pay a $225 fine.

Switzer had agreed to train a hunting dog for Moses Samuel Stiltz. The dog was lost, having run after a bear, and Switzer offered a $35 reward for its return. A few days later, a man found the dog and brought it to the Studio City bar where Switzer then worked. Switzer paid the man $35 and bought him $15 worth of drinks. Several days later, Switzer and his friend Jack Piott, a 37-year-old unit still photographer, decided that Moses Stiltz should repay Switzer the reward money for the dog. Shortly before 7:00 that evening, January 21, 1959, Switzer and Piott went to Rita Corrigan’s home in Mission Hills, where Stiltz was staying, to collect the money they felt he owed Switzer.

Stiltz later testified before the coroner’s jury that Switzer had banged on the front door, saying, “Let me in, or I’ll kick in the door.” Once inside, he and Stiltz began to argue. Switzer said, “I want that 50 bucks you owe me now, and I mean now.” When Stiltz refused to give it to him, the men began to fight. Switzer allegedly struck Stiltz with a glass-domed clock, which caused him to bleed from his left eye. Stiltz retreated to his bedroom and returned with a .38-caliber revolver. Switzer grabbed the gun, resulting in a shot being fired that struck the ceiling. Switzer forced Stiltz into a closet, although Stiltz had regained his revolver. Switzer allegedly pulled a switchblade knife and screamed, “I’m going to kill you!” Fearing Switzer was about to attack, Stiltz shot him in the groin. Switzer suffered massive internal bleeding and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Since Switzer had pulled a knife, the shooting was judged to be self-defense. During the inquest regarding Switzer’s death, it was revealed that what was reported as a “hunting knife” was in fact a penknife. It had been found by crime scene investigators under his body.

On January 25, 2001, a third witness came forward and gave his version. Tom Corrigan, 56-year-old son of Western movie star Ray “Crash” Corrigan and stepson of Moses Stiltz, was present the night Switzer was killed. “It was more like murder,” Corrigan told reporters. He said he heard the knock on the front door, and Switzer said “Western Union for Bud Stiltz.” Corrigan’s mother, Rita Corrigan, opened the door to find a drunk and demanding Switzer complaining about a perceived, month-old debt.

Switzer entered the house followed by Jack Piott and stated he was going to beat up Stiltz. Stiltz confronted Switzer with a .38-caliber revolver in his hand. Corrigan said that Switzer grabbed the revolver and Stiltz and Switzer struggled over it. Piott broke a glass-domed clock over Stiltz’s head, causing Stiltz’s eye to swell shut. During the struggle, a shot was fired into the ceiling and Corrigan was struck in the leg by a fragment. Corrigan’s two younger sisters ran to a neighbour’s house to call for help. “Well, we shot Tommy, enough of this,” he remembers Switzer saying, just before Switzer and Piott started to leave the house.

Corrigan had just stepped out the front door when he heard a second shot behind him. He turned and saw Switzer sliding down the wall with a surprised look on his face. Stiltz had shot him. Corrigan said he saw a closed penknife at Switzer’s side, which he presumed fell out of his pocket or his hand. He then saw his stepfather shove Piott against the kitchen counter and threaten to kill him too. As Piott begged for his life, they heard emergency sirens. Corrigan thought this was the only reason Stiltz did not kill Piott. Corrigan said his stepfather lied in his account of the event before the coroner’s jury.

Corrigan says a Los Angeles Police Department detective interviewed him and asked if he would testify before the judge. Corrigan agreed to, but he was never called before the court. “He didn’t have to kill him,” Corrigan says. Moses Stiltz died in 1983 at the age of 62.

(Carl’s older brother, Harold, also appeared in the Our Gang series; in April 1967 he murdered his girlfriend and then killed himself. He was 42.)

Many suffered problems with alcohol, drugs, arrests and severe health problems. That’s Hollywood child stars as grown-ups for you. Norman “Chubby” Chaney died at the age of 21 of an ailment at his lowest weight, 110 lbs. Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins died at the age of 20 during a training exercise, trying to land a North American Texan, at Mercey Army Airfield. Billy “Froggy” Laughlin was the youngest Rascal to die at the age of 16 when a bus hit him while he was delivering newspapers. Clifton “Bonedust” Young died at the age of 33 in a hotel fire he started with a lit cigarette as he slept.

Carl’s brother Harold committed suicide at the age of 42, after killing a customer over a dispute involving his business Speed Queen Company Franchise. Scott Hastings “Scotty” Beckett died at the age of 38 after a serious beating. Oddly, it is speculated that he too committed suicide.

Kendall McCormas “Breezy Brisbane” committed suicide at age 64. Mickey Daniels died of liver disease at55. Matthew ‘Stymie” Bear led a life of drugs and crime. He died of a stroke at 56. Pete the Pup was allegedly known to have been poisoned by an unknown stranger. William Buckwheat Thomas died of a heart attack at age 49. Darla Hood contracted meningitis and died at the age of 47.  Carl is the only known member of Our Gang to have been murdered in a dispute over 50 bucks.

Hal Roach, who outlived many of his child stars and died in 1992 at the age of 100, never believed that the kids were cursed. “Naturally, some got into trouble or had bad luck,” he told an interviewer in 1973. “They’re the ones who made the headlines. But if you took 176 other kids and followed them through their lives, I believe you would find the same percentage of them having trouble later in life.”

The Strange Death of Alfalfa – Neatorama

The Death of Our Gang’s Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer – Frank’s Reel Reviews

Little Rascal Became a Big Loser | Killers Without Conscience

Carl Switzer Death – famously-dead.com

Crime History: Actor who played Alfalfa killed in fight over $50 …

Indiana Memory: Carl Alfalfa Switzer

Our Gang/Little Rascals – Wikipedia

The unhappy lives of the cast of the “Our Gang” comedies-Truth …

The Catacomb – Our Gang

Historical Survey of Our Gang

Little Rascals/Our Gang Webring

Mary Kornman

Our Gang Biographies

Our Gang Ladies

Vaiden Net – More Rascals

 

 


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