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July 23, 2000

"Our Gang" movies, featuring the lovable kids and their neighborhood adventures, enjoyed a new wave of popularity a few years ago when their old films were resurrected and run in syndication on television. The kids were given a new name for TV - the Little Rascals - but their comedy had the same happy impact on youngsters of that generation as they did back in the 1930s when the original versions played as short subjects in theaters all over the U.S. My sisters and I used to make a point of buying tickets from the Roxy or Annex Theaters whenever a new Our Gang episode was brought to town.

If you were a fan, you surely remember the principals - Spanky MacFarland, Darla Hood, Alfalfa Switzer, their dog with the circle painted around one eye, and assorted others who came and went through the years. Mickey Rooney was an alumnus of Our Gang. Sophisticated they were not, but they found a niche in the hearts of boys and girls through their films and again decades later on TV, and they were much loved. A new feature-length film was made a few years ago with look-alikes playing the same old characters, but the movie was not a big hit. The originals were too good in what they did.

Many of the original cast have passed on to that big playground in the sky, but they are still fondly remembered by the Great Depression generation that knew them best, and that included your correspondent here. So you can imagine my double take one afternoon some 40 years ago when Gene McKenna, manager of our Perry film palaces at the time, invited me to have a cup of coffee with Spanky himself at Monte Jones Drug Store on the west side of the square. I was gainfully employed in the news department of this newspaper at the time and Gene and I frequently had extended conversations over a Coke or coffee in one of Monte's comfortable booths. Both of us were great movie buffs.

When he extended that invitation to meet Spanky in person, I trembled with anticipation. At the appointed hour, I strolled into Monte's place and saw Gene motioning me to a booth just beyond the soda fountain. There, comfortably ensconced, was Master MacFarland, extending a pudgy but friendly hand and an invitation to sit. I'm sure I stared unashamed. Here, in the flesh, was one of the greatest entertainment names of my childhood, talking to ME! Our conversation was brief, though, because Spanky was trying to convince Gene to hire him for a stage show he had put together for small towns about the size of Perry. The problem was, Gene's principal theater, the Perry, did not have a stage suitable for that kind of show, so he reluctantly had to say "no." I listened politely but perhaps the disappointment showed. Spanky took Gene's answer pretty well, however.

Several years later, in July 1973, Spanky died at the age of 64 at his home in Grapevine, Texas. He never received a dime from residuals of the Our Gang (Little Rascals) TV shows and his youthful fame did not leave him rich. He peaked as a child actor during a time of relatively small Hollywood salaries, and then he had to hustle for every dollar he made as an adult.

It's another sad story about our heroes of the past. He seemed like such a nice guy.