Cline column: Good times spent with 'Our Gang'
By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
I’m setting the dials on the “Way Back Machine” to Knoxville, Tenn. It was mid summer, circa 1990.
Local pharmacist Rodney Eddinger and I, along with our mutual friend John McElwee of Wilkes County, headed West for a couple of days to attend a Western Film Convention. We used to do things like that quite a bit back when we were youngsters.
We actually attended a couple of Knoxville shows, so I may be a bit confused as to what guests we met at what show. Two Western celebrity stars I vividly recall meeting were Rex Allen and George Montgomery.
Rex Allen had made a series of Western features during the early 1950s and had his own television series (“Frontier Doctor”) in 1959. Rex was also a recording star, but is probably best remembered for narrating a string of Walt Disney nature films such as “Arizona Sheepdog” and “Yellowstone Cubs.” His voice was unmistakable. Some probably remember Rex narrating Ralston Purina Dog Food commercials as well.
George Montgomery, the youngest of 15 children, gave up a career in boxing to become an actor. It was a good move. Beginning in features in 1935, Montgomery was a top leading man by the early 1940s, continuing to act in movies and television until the mid 1980s.
He was also a master craftsman. George Montgomery-designed furniture was a top seller for many years. He was also married to Dinah Shore.
As much as we enjoyed talking with these two gentlemen, the apex of our trips to Knoxville (for me anyway) was the morning we wandered around the celebrity and dealers’ room and saw two fellows sitting behind a table.
No one was talking with them. I couldn’t imagine why because the two “Rascals” sitting alone were “Our Gang’s” Porky and Butch. We rushed up to them and introduced ourselves.
Soon, we had pulled up three chairs, and the five of us were having, sort of, our own private convention. One of the best hours of my life. Porky and Butch couldn’t have been nicer.
Yeah, even that mean bully Butch was really a nice guy.
Porky (the “O-Tay” kid) was actually Eugene Gordon Lee of Fort Worth, Tex. He had been hired by Hal Roach as an Our Gang member in 1935 because he resembled Spanky McFarland, then the leader of the gang.
Roach figured Porky could replace Spanky when the older McFarland outgrew his part. Things didn’t turn out that way, as Porky hit a growth spurt and shot up as tall as Alfalfa.
So at the tender age of six, Porky departed the gang. He returned to Texas with his mother, leaving show biz for good. He became a career school teacher, and for many years, hid the fact (as best he could) that he had been Our Gang’s Porky.
Butch the bully was born Thomas Ross Bond of Dallas, Tex. His entrance into show business came in 1931 when he was hired to be an “Our Gang” member. He stayed for three years. After the Gang work, Tommy became a voice actor, providing kid voices for cartoon characters. Then in 1936, he returned to the Gang, not as “Tommy,” but as “Butch,” the bully who became Alfalfa’s rival for the lovely Darla Hood.
After leaving again in 1940, Tommy appeared in feature films regularly throughout the 1940s, including a handful of East Side Kids and Gas House Kids movies. And he was actually the first screen Jimmy Olsen, when Superman hit theatres in 1948 and 1950.
He moved over to television production for 40 years, retiring in 1991. Tommy was prop master for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild.
During our time with the two gentlemen, I asked Gordon if people found out that he had been Porky in films. He said that they did, and most honored his request to be called Gordon, not Porky. Except this one smart aleck.
“He began to taunt me one day after school,” Gordon recalled, “but after I broke a Coca-Cola bottle across his face, he realized I was serious. I never had any more problems with it. Only my mother called me Porky those days.”
Gordon Lee had literally disappeared from most of the world. When “The Little Rascals” hit TV in 1955, he remained silent. Even other Gang members didn’t know where he was. That’s the way Gordon wanted it. I wouldn’t have tried to force him to come forward (why am I thinking of Coca-Cola?).
But finally, in the late 1970s, when the nostalgia craze was at a fever pitch, Spanky located Gordon and talked him into stepping back into the public spotlight.
Spanky told him that people wanted to talk with him and thank him for all the great times. And he could make some money as well. So Porky came out of hiding.
Rodney, John and I had read that Tommy Bond had recently sued King World Features, who had taken over the TV rights to The Little Rascals in the early 1970s. Bond was seeking damages for King World using his image on Rascal merchandising without his permission.
King World claimed that they didn’t need his permission. A court would decide.
Unlike most of the “Our Gang” members such as Spanky and Alfalfa, Tommy was never put under a long-term contract, but rather was hired on a “per-film” status.
Since Butch didn’t appear in all the comedy shorts, the studio figured there was no reason to have to pay the kid and not use him.
This proved to be the deal breaker in Bond’s favor. He won his case and was awarded a sizeable judgment. But at the time he told us this story, the King World battery of attorneys had the judgment tied up in appeals, so he hadn’t received any money.
After at least an hour had passed, other attendees had noticed Gordon and Tommy, so we said our goodbyes and thanked them for the incredible visit.
Paths would cross again several years later when John and I talked with Porky again in beautiful downtown Burbank. He was getting on the same elevator we were getting off, and he recognized us on sight.
We were flattered as all get-out. Gordon did celebrity shows off and on for about 20 years. He often told his fans that he was merely a “relic of history.” He had moved to Minnesota to be near his son.
The “O-tay kid” passed away from cancer in 2005 at 71.
John and I ran into Butch two more times through the years, once in Cleveland, Ohio, and in Burbank. We spoke again each time, reminding him of our initial meeting in Knoxville.
Bond’s wife and son were with him in Burbank. She reminded me of Suzanne Blackmer, and the younger Bond looked just like his dad. Tommy “Butch” Bond died at 79 in 2005, the same year as Porky.
At the time of his death, the King World lawyers were still earning their retainers. Butch had still not seen a nickel of his awarded settlement from 20 years earlier.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents all the movies played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1979.
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