No matter how old I get, I doubt I will ever lose my sense of humor. I love clean, funny jokes and will yearn for the cartoons and comedy shows I watched as a youngster and young adult.
Whenever I channel-surf and come across the likes of Tweety Bird, the Roadrunner, Popeye or any of the ’50s cartoons, I must stop and watch. The same applies to shows with real characters such as the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy and the Bowery Boys. Several weeks ago, I received an email from a fraternity brother containing photographs of little kids, both Black and white, that I loved to watch on television as a child. The children formed an integrated cast filmed and widely shown in the movies and on television before integration became a part of our real-life experiences. While you may not know all their names, I suspect that if the name Alfalfa is mentioned, it will immediately conjure memories of this show. Besides being funny, the show contained many positive messages. It was called “Our Gang” (sometimes called “The Little Rascals”).
Hal Roach, the show’s creator, focused on poor neighborhood children and how they interacted with one another. My peers will readily recall these short films. The children behaved in a very natural manner; Roach simply described the scenes to them, told them what he wanted them to do and they role-played themselves. Reading scripts and memorizing lines were not options because the performers were so young. Their interactions were so incredible because these 1920s silent films and later refinements with sound included four Black youngsters from their inception until they ended in 1944.
A total 221 short films were made during this period and one full-length movie in 1936. The Black youngsters not only held main roles, but were portrayed as equal to the white children. Now, I need not remind you of the nature of race relations back then. But we saw Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Matthew “Stymie” Beard and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas behaving in a way that all human beings should emulate. In the book “The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang” by Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann, Maltin, a film historian, notes, “‘Our Gang’ notably put boys, girls, whites and Blacks together in a group as equals, something that broke new ground.” I was a keen observer of the world of “Our Gang,” and have many of its related items in my Black memorabilia collection. While race relations are something many of us have ignored, “Our Gang” totally ignored the reality of segregated life of Blacks and whites back in the day.
It is clear that Roach was ahead of his time. He was the first Hollywood filmmaker to depict Black and white youngsters treating each other as equals; they played together, ate together, and even attended the same schools. In spite of the era, they were peers. What Roach did was so out of the mainstream of society back then that the integrated school scenes were cut whenever the films were played in the South.
How many of you who grew up with “Our Gang” recall the names of all its characters? They represented three different periods: the silent film, the talking film and the MGM film episodes. Other than Alfalfa and Spanky and the four Black youngsters mentioned earlier, what other cast members can’t you recall? Well, let me help you! They were Mickey Daniels, Mary Kornman, Jackie Condon, Joe Cobb, Eugene “Pineapple” Jackson, Jay R. Smith, Jean Darling, Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, Mary Ann Jackson, Norman “Chubby” Chaney, Jackie Cooper, Donald Haines, Dorothy DeBorba, Jerry Tucker, Kendal McComas, Tommy Bond, Scotty Beckett, Darla Hood, Eugene “Porky” Lee, Darwood “Waldo” Kaye, Billy “Froggy” Laughlin, Janet Burston and, Mickey Gubitosi. Of course, we cannot forget the dog Petey (Pete the Pup), with the black circle around his eye. Now, here is a tidbit that may surprise you: Mickey Gubitosi was played by Robert Blake. In light of their eventual accomplishments and fame, it may surprise you to know that both Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple auditioned for “Our Gang” and failed to make the cut.
I know those who recall watching “Our Gang” films have a favorite episode or two. I doubt many can go back to those from 1920s, but perhaps some of you can visualize scenes from films of the ’30s and ’40s. It was not until the mid-’50s that “Our Gang” was distributed for television viewing. Do you recall the film where “Our Gang” members went camping near a bootlegger’s distillery? What about the episode where Brisbane attempts to be expelled from school in order to become a street-car conductor? Other interesting episodes included the time the gang started its own fire station and did a pretty good job by putting out a real fire; when gang members thought their teacher was going away after she got married and so they frightened off her fiancé; when Spanky and Alfalfa sought the attention of the new truant officer’s daughter; Alfalfa having to step in and sing at a local radio show talent contest when Darla did not make it on time; when gang members wanted all their teeth pulled so the tooth fairy would leave them money; when they left a note in school saying they were sick, but attempted to sneak into the school at night to retrieve it after learning that the teacher was taking the class to the circus the next day; or the episode where Stepin Fetchit appeared and helped the gang clean up a house full of taffy. In 1936, “Our Gang” won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject in a film in which Alfalfa pretends to have a toothache in order to get out of school. He learns the new teacher has planned an ice cream party, but he cannot return until he sings.
While I was a fan of “Our Gang,” many viewed it as racist. Their views continue to this day. Some of us, however, saw it not as racist, but as a Hollywood production ahead of its time. I admit there were stereotypes, but these were not limited to the Black children; they applied to all members of the cast. The upside far outweighed the downside. Hal Roach did all he could do to knock down racial barriers and build bridges. I share the views in an Internet Web posting by T.J. Davis on July 1, 2010. It said in part: “I am always saddened when I hear or read that ‘The Little Rascals’ (‘Our Gang’) was racist, when clearly it was quite the contrary on screen and behind the scenes as well. The kids were always portrayed more or less as equals and treated as such. There were stereotypes, sure enough, but it was applied to everyone Black, white, or whatever, equally ... Everyone was portrayed as goofy or oddball. Stymie was always my favorite and in my book, he was a comedic genius. … The ‘Little Rascals’ have brought considerable joy and mirth into this tired old world and at times when we needed it the most (the Great Depression and World War II). God bless Hal Roach and all the ‘Little Rascals’ wherever they are.”
I invite those wishing to share in the fun that many from my generation enjoyed by watching “Our Gang” to visit the following website: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Our+Gang&. This will give you a glimpse of the laughter as well as the interpersonal relationships among a diverse group of children, an experience many of us shared while watching “Our Gang” in the movies and on television, back in the day.