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Not of this Earth: Spanky McFarland 

Not of this Earth: Spanky McFarland 

And bit about child stars in general. 

George Seminara 

 


Our Gang

 

James Dean told Martin Landau that his biggest fear was that he would grow old and looking like a kid for the rest of his life. "Nothing is worse than being an old boy like Mickey Rooney!" Unfortunately, that is the fate of many child actors. They try. Some grow into adulthood and are just fine-looking adults, and some not so much. You can try to hide it ("I see fat people") behind a big beard. You can take every role that is as far away from your child actor career, no matter how weird or unmagical. Unfortunately, that's their fate. It's no wonder so many end up tragically.  

 

Note #1: Tragedy is the word. Child actors have been getting ripped off by their parents and left destitute, addicted to drugs, arrested, and dying young since they have been putting kids in show business. I'm sure you have your own cautionary tales, from the curse of the Little Rascals, Alfalfa, murdered over a dog, Scotty, overdose, and Froggy, hit by a truck. Even cute little Mickey (Robert Blake) became an addict and was arrested for murdering his wife. Fine. He was indicted for murdering his wife. Not to forget River Phoenix, the two Coreys, and Brittney Spears.  

 


Coogan the Kid 

 

Jackie "The Kid" Coogan was said to have earned an estimated $3.5 million bucks, or around 50 million today. Which is a tidy sum at any time. How did he make so much money? Licensing, kids licensing. In the 1920s, there were Jackie Coogan toys, books, and even peanut butter! Unfortunately, when he turned 21, he discovered that his mother and stepfather had squandered his fortune on fur coats, diamond rings, trips, and fancy cars. Coogan sued them in 1938, and as part of their defense, Coogan's mother claimed that "Jackie enjoyed himself and simply thought he was playing before the camera." His mother went so far as to tell the press that the 23-year-old was a bad boy and that "No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything!" 

 

Coogan sued them in 1938, when it was done, he received $126,000 of the $250,000 remaining of his earnings after attorney fees. When Coogan went broke during the litigation, Chaplin stepped forward and gave him $1,000 cash. The case drew attention to child actors. The use of minors needed to have some regulation. To that end the 1939 California Child Actor's Bill, euphemistically called the "Coogan Law" or the "Coogan Act", requiring that a child's employer set aside 15% of the earnings into a trust (called a Coogan account). It also insisted that child actor's recieve schooling, shorter work days, and time off. It reads better than it functions in reality. At least it's something. (His portrayal of Uncle Fester in the 1960s hit TV show The Addam's Family is pretty definitive!) 

 

 


Bobby Driscoll Award 

 

Since I collect this type of minutia and I spent my formative years in the crime scene, perhaps the saddest is that of Disney Star and Juvenile Oscar winner Bobby Driscoll, The Song of the South, Treasure Island, and the voice of Peter Pan, who was found dead of an overdose in an abandoned East Village apartment building on March 30, 1968. It took months to identify his body, and he was buried in an unmarked grave in Potter's field on Hart Island between New York City's East River (What up, Manhasset Bay!) and the Long Island Sound. Soon to be a city park. He is just one of the over one million souls laid to rest there.  

 


The Little Rascals Whole Gang 

 

But back to the reason we're here!  

Somewhere in Dallas, Texas, an alien deposited a gift on the world in the form of Spanky McFarland. It was October 2, 1928, when Virginia Winifred and Robert McFarland discovered the baby in a rocket ship that had crashed... wait? That's Superman! He arrived like a normal baby, joining his three siblings: Tommy, Amanda, and Roderick. 1928 is an auspicious year in child stars as it is also the year the doyen of Curl, America's favorite girl, Shirley Temple, was born. 

 

Before heading west and joining up with the Our Gang gang, "Sonny," as his momma called him, modeled children's clothing for a Dallas department store's print ads and circulars. Sonny could be spotted around the Dallas area on billboards and in print advertisements for Wonder Bread and Kayro Syrup. He also appeared in a one-minute-long live-action filmed presentation for Wonderbread that was shown in the movie theaters. This radical effort by the Indiana-based company to break into the Texas market was one of the first of its kind. Cooked up by their Chicago Ad Agency, this was among the first commercials. It established Sonny as a star and not just another of the increasing line of adorable child models appearing in print nationwide. Not only that, but it also provided the toddler with experience before cameras. Something that would differentiate this child from the thousands of others headed to Hollywood.  

 

In early January 1931, Hal Roach Studios of Culver City, California, advertised in national magazines requesting photographs of "cute kids." Spanky's Aunt Dottie (his mother's sister) sent some pictures from Sonny's modeling portfolio. The invitation for a screen test arrived that spring, leading to his acting career. Portions of Spanky's actual screen test are used in his Our Gang debut, 1932s Spanky.  (Okay, his debut was Free Eats, but that was a supporting role to Wheezer and Buckwheat.) 

 

I have read a hundred different sources that his nickname "Spanky" came from on-set warnings his mother gave. McFarland contradicted the legend by saying that the name was given to him by a Los Angeles newspaper reporter. I prefer his mother to warn him of a spanky if he didn't behave. Whatever the story is it became his name. In a surprising gesture of generosity, Hal Roach added to one of his studio contracts that Spanky should be given an exclusive license to use the word and name "Spanky" for business or personal activities. It's a massive boon to a young star on the go. Remember Jackie Coogan's success with licensing. As an adult, friends and family would call him Spank.  

 

Once Hal Roach "discovered" Spanky at age three, not that he wasn't already known by his parents and the citizens of Dallas, he became a vital member of the Our Gang series of comedy shorts and one of Hollywood's youngest stars. He was an outspoken toddler, armed with a hammer - "bug hunting" irascible and grumpily going along with the rest of the gang. Spanky was an inveterate scene-stealer bringing him more attention and, for Roach, more butts in the seats! By 1935, he was the leader of the gang, often paired with Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, but Spanky was always the enterprising "idea man." Kind of like a cute kid version of Leo Gorcey's Terrence Aloysius "Slip" Mahoney in the Dead End/Bowery Boys films a few years later - and a few years older. Alfalfa's became as much of a scene-stealer as the young Spanky, and the two boys' fathers constantly fought over screen time and star billing for their kid.  

 


Spanky and Alfalfa Shoot Laurel and Hardy 

 

Scene #1:  Two fathers bicker in false upper-crusty British accents. 

Spanky's Dad: Why your son can't enunciate! Without my boy lifting yours up, you would have nothing! 

Alfalfa's Dad: Nothing!?! Why you, I ought to..." 

Spanky's Dad: Your son is a two-bit crooner who can't even sing on key! 

Alfalfa's Dad: Say... What is this? Well, Your Boy is a Hack!  

And Scene. 

 

Spanky McFarland's only feature film as a lead was in the 1936 Hal Roach-produced film General Spanky. It proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to move the Our Gang series into feature films. Not without merit, I must add. After completing the 1938 Our Gang short Came the Brawn, Spanky was "retired" from Our Gang. He set out on a personal appearance tour, meeting fans, signing autographs, christening babies, smacking battleships with champagne bottles, or whatever else one does when retired at thirteen years old!  

 


General Spanky Lobby Card 

 

In 1938, Hal Roach sold the Our Gang series to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Producers there began searching for a new "team leader" to lead the gang. They asked casting directors to find someone like Spanky. An impossible task given those were considerable size five boots to fill and thus stymied (See? See what I did with the wordplay?) MGM ended up rehiring the Original Spanky himself, George "Spanky" McFarland! He remained as Spanky in the MGM Our Gang productions until his final appearance in Unexpected Riches in 1942, at age fourteen, when his voice cracked. 

 

Throughout his Our Gang tenure, he also appeared in many non-Roach films, including the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy Kentucky Kernels and Fritz Lang's Woman In The Window. But that's not all. His parents would often return the family to Texas throughout his child-star career. After his second retirement, Spanky attended Lancaster High School in Lancaster, Texas. (Imagine retiring twice and still having to attend High School? Ugh!) In 1952, at the ripe-old age of 24, McFarland joined the U.S. Air Force for three years. Upon his return to civilian life, he found that he was indelibly locked into the public's mind as "Spanky" from Our Gang. Though willing, he found himself unable to find work in show business.  

 

He was a hard worker and more than a little bit hungry. Spank submitted to less glamorous jobs than his Hollywood career prepared him for. This included working at the Belleville bottling plant - home of the best sasparilla this side of the Rockies, a hamburger stand, and a popsicle factory. The show biz gods smiled on him again when, in the mid-1950s, The boom in syndicating shorts on Television was all the rage.  

 


Spanky Now and Later 

 

The Our Gang comedies were placed on Television as "The Little Rascals." That's when I first saw him on Television after school. Spanky was tapped to host an afternoon children's show, The Spanky Show. Airing daily on KOTV television in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Who better to host an hour-long show? The Spanky Show included, often, two Little Rascals shorts a studio audience, and they would book appearances by celebrities such as James Arness and whoever else was coming through Tulsa at the time. Though a regional success, station executives prevented McFarland from developing and expanding the show's format. "Just show the shorts!" In 1960, McFarland quit the Spanky Show and returned to Texas. 

 


Spanky in Middle Age 

 

Spank sold fine Texas wine. He opened Spanky's restaurant and nightclub. I imagine a flashing neon, Steak - Chops or Dining - Dancing! (I don't know what's wrong with me.) But he found his place selling appliances, electronics, furniture, and for Philco-Ford Corporation, which mainly were hi-fis and televisions. Spanky was so successful at selling these large cabinet entertainment systems that Philco promoted him to national sales training director. Traveling around the country for Philco, Spanky combined business trips with personal appearances. This led to cameo roles in films and Television. This included a special Our Gang reunion episode of the Mike Douglas Show featuring a reunion of Our gang Stars Darla Hood and William "Buckwheat" Thomas. Unfortunately, all three looked like their childhood selves, only older. (James Dean's ghost shrieks in horror.) 

 


Darla, Mike, and Spanky 

 

Opportunities arrived, and as general programming manager, Spanky helped launch a classic movie channel on this new thing called "cable." The Nostalgia Channel in 1985. During the 1990s, after his self-described "third semi-retirement," Spanky often lent his name and celebrity to help raise money for various charities. He was especially fond of those that required him to participate in a golf tournament. Spanky also had his own charity golf "classic" for 16 years in Marion, Indiana. He loved traveling the country doing speaking engagements and lectures about his movie roles and days in Hollywood. Sadly, his final appearance was in 1993, playing himself in the opening of the Cheers episode "Woody Gets An Election." 

 

Spank was married to his second wife, Doris McFarland, for thirty-eight years. (The less we say about wife number one and their months-long union, the better.) They had three children: Verne-Emmet, Betsy, and George Gregory. For most of that year, the McFarland family planned a big surprise for Spanky. His fans had come through, and he had been selected to receive the honor of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The family kept it a secret, hoping for a big surprise. Dorris and the kids planned to take him to California for the unveiling ceremony. Alas, it was not to be.  

 


Spanky’s Star 

 

On February 1, 1994, just almost seven months after his passing, George "Spanky" McFarland posthumously joined fellow Our Gang alumnus Jackie Cooper, who was in attendance and received his star some three decades earlier, to become one of only two Our Gang cast members to receive a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame to date. He can be found just off the corner of North La Brea and Hollywood Blvd. It's on the north side of the street. If you get to El Cerrito Place, you went too far. He's between the nail salon and the bus stop, near Efrem Zimbalist Jr and Irving Berlin, and almost precisely across Hollywood Blvd from Elvis Presley's Star.  

 

Now, dear reader, I call upon you to reach out to the Texas State Cemetary, wherever you may be. Spanky Needs a Stone! It is located at 909 Navasota Street, Austin, Texas 78702. They can be contacted by email at State.Cemetery@tspb.texas.gov or by phone at (512) 463-0605. They can also be followed on Facebook. Please inform them that George Robert Phillips "Spanky" McFarland's ashes were interred in the Statesman's Meadow, Section 2, Row: G Plot number:26, approved by the Texas State Cemetery Committee 1994, and should have a headstone. The cemetery was given the funds long ago, and the stone should be placed sharpish. Meaning now.  

 

Why should a person who gave us such joy, helped raise money for the Leukemia Society of America and the Cook Children's Medical Center, and made a final gift to mankind as an organ and tissue donor to more than a dozen recipients is left in a grave without a marker?  

Spanky Needs a Stone! 

 

Note #2 

For those of you not in the know, The Academy Juvenile Award, or the Juvenile Oscar, was an Honorary Academy Award by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to celebrate juvenile performers under the age of eighteen for "outstanding contribution to screen entertainment." There were so many child actors.  

The following are the winners of the pint-sized Awards I like to call the Jouvies, and I'll try to include all the inscriptions too:  

 

At the 7th Academy Awards In 1934, Shirley Temple, aged 6. won the first Juvie in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment in 1934. The kid only made four films that year!  

 

Four years later, in 1938, 17-year-old Deanna Durbin won with 18-year-old Mickey Rooney for their significant contribution to bringing the spirit and personification of youth to the screen, setting a high standard of ability and achievement. 

 

In 1939, 17-year-old Judy Garland received one for her outstanding performance as a screen juvenile during the past year. She made 3 films in 1938 and The Wizard of Oz in '39. So lazy. Thank goodness for amphetamines. 

 

Margaret O'Brien took the award at the tender age of 8 years old. To Margaret O'Brien, outstanding child actress of 1944. 

 

At the 18th Oscars presentation, Peggy Ann Garner, 14 years old. To Peggy Ann Garner, outstanding child actress of 1945. For her performances in both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Junior Miss. 

 

In 1946, Claude Jarman, Jr., 12 years old, received his for the Yearling. To Claude Jarman, Jr., outstanding child actor of 1946. 


1948 brought the award to 12-year-old Ivan Jandl. To Ivan Jandl, for outstanding juvenile performance of 1948 as "Karel Malik" in The Search. 

 

At the 22nd Academy Awards presentation, the Jouvie went to the aforementioned 13-year-old Bobby Driscoll. To Bobby Driscoll, as the outstanding juvenile actor of 1949. The Slacker only made two films that year. 

 

1954 brought the Jouvie to 10-year-old, Jon Whiteley and Vincent Winter for their performance in The Little Kidnappers. (A movie I have never seen!)To (Insert either name) for his outstanding juvenile performance in The Little Kidnappers. They each got an Oscar with just their name on it.  

 

The last Jouvie was presented at the 33rd Academy Awards in 1960. It was given to 14-year-old Hayley Mills. To Hayley Mills for Pollyanna, the most outstanding juvenile performance during 1960. 

 

Why did they stop giving the award? Well?  

First a song: 

 

"Meet Cathy, who's lived most everywhere,  

From Zanzibar to Barclay Square.  

But Patty's only seen the sights.  

A girl can see from Brooklyn Heights --  

What a crazy pair!   

 

But they're cousins,  

Identical cousins all the way.  

One pair of matching bookends,  

Different as night and day." 

 


Patty Duke


16-year-old Patty Duke starred in The Miracle Worker in 1962. 1963, she was nominated for and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress! She became the youngest actress at the time to win an adult Academy Award, demonstrating that a juvenile could win in a competitive category.   

 

That was the theme to The Patty Duke Show, by the way. She is also the mother of Rudy and Samwise Gamjee, actor Sean Astin. See you next time!




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