Cline column: Readers loved Our Gang

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 15, 2011

By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
I have to be honest. Some of my submissions to this newspaper have been met with underwhelming response. But not so with my recent entry concerning The Little Rascals.
Between emails and Facebook messages, I was assured that I am not alone in my love for these kids of an era long past.
Most of what I write today will consist of facts of history instead of personal recollections. For many years in Hollywoodland and beyond, many folks have claimed there existed a Little Rascals curse. Whether or not you believe in curses or omens or karma, that’s up to you.
But, sadly, history has proven that many of the Our Gang/Little Rascals kids had more than their share of misfortune. Child actors have always had their problems after the stage lights went dim. They all commit the ultimate professional sin — they grow up, and suddenly, the business that once pampered them no longer has any use for them.
Some do survive to have normal adult lives, but it seems those are in the minority.
Here’s a look at what became of some of the more prominent Rascals.
Norman Chaney, “Chubby” in the series, made 19 “Our Gang” comedies from 1929-1931. Because of a glandular ailment, he was always heavy for his age. After leaving the gang, his weight ballooned to 300-plus pounds, despite his 4-foot, 7-inch height.
Under medical treatment, his weight plunged to 110 pounds. Chaney died in 1936 at the age of 21. He was the first of the “Our Gang” alumni to die and the only member not to live to see the end of the series in 1944.
Robert “Wheezer” Hutchins appeared in 58 entries of the series from 1926-1933. He joined the U.S. Army in 1943 after high school graduation, served in World War II and in 1945 enrolled to become an air cadet. Hutchins was killed in a mid-air collision that same year trying to land his plane. He was 20.
William Laughlin, “Froggy” in 29 comedies late in the series (1940-1944). He would be the final member to join the gang who really made an impact with audiences. He provided his own put-on trademark gravel voice. After the series ceased production, he left show business to return to being a regular kid.
In 1948, Laughlin was helping a friend deliver newspapers from a motor scooter when a speeding truck hit them from behind, killing both boys. “Froggy” was 16 and would be the youngest Our Gang member to die.
Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, the kid who actually thought he sang well, appeared in 105 1935-1941 episodes, maintained fairly steady work in movies as an adult as a supporting/bit player. To supplement his income, he became a dog breeder and professional hunting guide. One of his clients was Roy Rogers. In 1959, Carl and his hunting guide partner argued over one of their dogs, resulting in his being shot to death. He was 31.
The “Sweetheart of Our Gang,” Darla Hood, who drove us baby boomer boys wild, made 50 Rascals comedies from 1935-1941. She stayed in show business after leaving the gang and did fairly well appearing in “Ken Murray’s Blackouts,” performing in nightclubs and TV guest appearances. In the 1960s, Darla did many voice-overs in commercials, mostly-remembered as the voice of the Chicken of the Sea mermaid. In 1980, Hood underwent a minor operation at a North Hollywood hospital but contracted hepatitis, dying suddenly from heart failure at the age of 47.
One of the most beloved members, Matthew “Stymie” Beard, did his thing in 36 entries from 1930-1935. His trademark derby was a gift from comedian Stan Laurel. After outgrowing the group, he remained in the business and had small roles in big pictures such as “Captain Blood,” “Jezebel,” “Belle Starr” and “Stormy Weather.”
He was one of 14 children and, during his “Our Gang” years, financially supported his family. During his high school years, Beard fell into drug use and street life, became a heroin addict and spent much of his early adult life in and out of jail.
But by the late 1960s, he had checked himself into rehab and kicked his drug addiction. TV producer Norman Lear gave him roles in “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.” He wore his derby in all of them. In 1981, Matthew suffered a stroke and passed away two days after his 56th birthday.
Darwood Kaye played Waldo, the egghead and sometimes Alfalfa’s rival for Darla’s affections, in 21 Rascals shows from 1937-1940. Kaye served in the U.S. Army after high school, then became an ordained minister. His adult life was a good one, happily married with four children.
Sadly, in 2002, he was struck by a hit-and-run driver in Riverside, Calif., and died the same day, surrounded by his wife and four sons (all ministers). He was 73.
It’s sad for me to think about the misfortunes of these individuals. They brought so much happiness to so many people for so many years. Many of the gang left this world way too early.
But “Reverend Waldo” would probably have an explanation for it.
Mike Cline lives near Salisbury. His website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents all the movies played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1979.