Mike Cline: 'Little Rascals' were characters for a lifetime

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Besides the ceremonial Saturday night bath and going to church on Sunday, there was, at least, one other weekend occurrence for baby boomers growing up.
That was watching “The Little Rascals” on television.
In this television-viewing era, the Rascals reached our homes via a rooftop aerial or rabbit ears (probably wrapped in aluminum foil for better reception) protruding from the back of the black-and-white TV set.
The folks at WBTV in Charlotte provided us with this wonderful programing as far back as 1955, when the comedies were first made available to that intrusive little box popping up in people’s living rooms all across the United States.
Though at the time I first saw them, I thought these comedies were brand new, they were actually produced for the movie theaters, starting way back in 1922, before the movies could talk. Starting out as “Hal Roach’s Rascals” (named for the producer who developed the series), the name evolved into “Our Gang” comedies. It was 1929 before the gang’s voices were heard coming from the movie screen, and by this time, the series was an enormous hit with audiences.
Patrons often attended the theatres to see Our Gang as much as the featured movie.
The series thrived until 1938, when Roach decided to sell it to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. By this time, double features were cutting into the short-subject market, and Roach wanted to make more feature-length films. When MGM bought the series, they also acquired the Our Gang name, though they did not receive the comedies already filmed.
For the next 15 or so years, the older shorts returned to theaters, but they could no longer be called Our Gang comedies, so the shorts were dubbed “The Little Rascals.” In the mid 1950s, when sold to local television stations, the name stuck.
My family bought its first television set in 1954. Two stations (WBTV in Charlotte and WSJS in Winston-Salem) served our needs for three years. That’s all we could bring in from our roof signal. But it was enough. I watched “Superman,” “Lassie,” “Captain Kangaroo,” “Arthur Smith,” “Romper Room,” “Wild Bill Hickok,” “Sky King,” “Roy Rogers,” “Hopalong Cassidy” and those “Little Rascals.”
It was all the entertainment a kid could want.
For us Charlotte-area kids, along with the Rascals, we also got the wonderful Fred Kirby as our host. He soon became like family.
Kirby had already been a WBT radio celebrity for nearly 20 years when he jumped to television. He would continue for 30 more.
Whether he was singing about “Atomic Power,” “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” or Tweetsie Railroad, folks of all ages loved Kirby (his horse, Calico, too).
Fred even wrote a theme song for his Little Rascals Club program. It became as well known with local kids as “Hound Dog” or the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Song.”
A one and a two — “How we love the Little Rascals, Little Rascals, Little Rascals, how we love the Little Rascals, Little Rascals are they, there’s Spanky and Buckwheat, Alfalfa and Porky, how we love the Little Rascals, Little Rascals are they.”
Maybe not a masterpiece like “Rhapsody in Blue,” but it worked for us.
Weekdays at school, we all talked about the Rascals shorts we had just seen that weekend, whether it was when the kids were golf course caddies, or had their own fire department, or appeared on a radio talent show as the “International Silver String Submarine Band.”
But far and away the most popular of them all was the 1932 comedy entitled “The Kid From Borneo,” usually referred to as “Uncle George” or “Yum, yum, eat ‘em up!”
George Billings, uncle to several of the kids, is in town with his carnival sideshow, and never having met their uncle previously, the youngsters believe the wild man attraction of the carnival is their Uncle George.
The poor guy, simply wanting some of the kids’ candy, follows them home, and things for him go from bad to worse.
Nearly every day in elementary school, on our way to the lunchroom to eat, somebody would shout “Yum, yum, eat ‘em up!”
Little Rascals dialogue became a part of every kid’s vocabulary. If I had a buck for every time (to this day) I have heard in regular conversations, people using phrases from the Little Rascals, I could buy Microsoft.
Some of the lines I still hear are “I wish Cotton was a monkey,” “He’ll never learn,” “Time to take your medicine oil,” “Re-mar-ka-ble!” and “We want the Florey-Doreys.”
And no Little Rascals lover can forget the surprise history pop quiz that Miss Crabtree gave her class. The poor teacher ended up the one surprised when her questions were answered.
What did George Washington say as he crossed the Delaware? “Boop-boop-be-doop, Boop-boop-be-doop.”
What was Nero doing while Rome burned? “I don’t know, Teacher, but he should have been hauling water to the fire.”
Who was the Hunchback of Notre Dame? “Lon Chaney.”
What did Nathan Hale say right before he was hanged? “Brother, this sure is gonna be a lesson to me.”
And the clincher — What was Lincoln’s Gettysburg address? “1644 S. Main St.”
I can’t imagine specific dialogue from many of today’s television programs being remembered and used 50 to 80 years from now.
I’ll predict citizens in 2060 will have never heard of “Two and A Half Men” or “The Big Bang Theory.”
By that time, the Rascals may be totally forgotten, as well, but what a track record they have had until now.
Fred was right — we do love The Little Rascals.
Yum, yum, eat ‘em up!
Mike Cline lives near Salisbury. His website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing.” documents every movie played in Rowan County from 1920 through 1979.