1/28/10

What became of ALFALFA?


Who wouldn't like this little boy with one eye larger than the other, missing tooth, slicked down hair, and country boy overalls? I found him in a box at an estate sale. Nothing written on the back. He reminded me of someone, someone once famous. Do you see it? Even a little bit? I'm thinking of Alfalfa from the Our Gang series.

Our Gang, also known as The Little Rascals or Hal Roach's Rascals, was a series of American comedy short films about a group of poor neighborhood children and the adventures they had together. Created by comedy producer Hal Roach, Our Gang was produced at the Roach studio starting in 1922 as a silent short subject series. Roach changed distributors from Pathé to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1927, went to sound in 1929 and continued production until 1938, when he sold the series to MGM. MGM in turn continued producing the comedies until 1944. A total of 220 shorts and one feature film, General Spanky, were eventually produced, featuring over forty-one child actors. In the mid-1950s, the 80 Roach-produced shorts with sound were syndicated for television under the title The Little Rascals, as MGM retained the rights to the Our Gang trademark.
The series is noted for showing children behaving in a relatively natural way. While child actors are often groomed to imitate adult acting styles, steal scenes, or deliver "cute" performances, Hal Roach and original director Robert F. McGowan worked to film the unaffected, raw nuances apparent in regular kids. Our Gang also notably put boys, girls, whites and blacks together in a group as equals, something that "broke new ground," according to film historian Leonard Maltin. Such a thing had never been done before in cinema but was commonplace after the success of Our Gang. (Source: Wikipedia)
Alfalfa, played by Carl Dean Switzer, was one of the most popular characters in the series. He had a cowlick that stood straight up on the back of his head and was known for his off-key singing. He was my favorite. I had forgotten how his life ended tragically in 1959. The following is from Wikipedia:
Carl Dean "Alfalfa" Switzer (August 7, 1927 – January 21, 1959) was an American child actor, professional dog breeder and hunting guide, most notable for appearing in the Our Gang short subjects series as Alfalfa, one of the series' most popular and best-remembered characters.

Switzer was born in Paris, Illinois, the second son, fourth and last child of Gladys C. Shanks (née Doerr) and G. Frederick Switzer. He was named Carl after the Switzer family and Dean after many relatives on his grandmother's family. He and his older brother, Harold Frederick Switzer, became famous around their hometown for their musical talent and performances; both sang and played a number of instruments.

The Switzers took a trip to California in 1934 to visit with family members. While sightseeing they eventually wound up at Hal Roach Studios. Following a public tour of the facility, 8-year-old Harold and 6-year-old Carl entered into the Hal Roach Studio's open-to-the-public cafeteria, the Our Gang Café, and began an impromptu performance. Producer Hal Roach was present at the commissary that day and was impressed by the performance. He signed both Switzers to appear in Our Gang. Harold was given two nicknames, "Slim" and "Deadpan," and Carl was dubbed "Alfalfa."

The Switzer brothers first appeared in the 1935 Our Gang short, Beginner's Luck. By the end of the year, Alfalfa was one of the main characters in the series, while Harold had more or less been relegated to the role of a background player.

Although Carl Switzer was an experienced singer and musician, his character Alfalfa was often called upon to sing off-key renditions of pop standards and contemporary hits, most often those of Bing Crosby. Alfalfa also sported one of the most famous cowlicks in pop culture history.

Switzer's country-boy sense of earthy humor could often be cruel. He enjoyed playing tricks on his fellow cast and crew members. One incident occurred when he put fishing hooks in the pants of Our Gang co-star George "Spanky" McFarland, and McFarland suffered severe cuts that resulted in his receiving stitches. Switzer tricked co-star Darla Hood into putting her hand in his pocket, telling her he had a ring for her, but in reality it was a switchblade knife. Hood almost lost her fingers from that incident.

By the end of 1937, Alfalfa Switzer had supplanted Spanky McFarland, the series' nominal star, in popularity. While the two boys managed to get along (save for Switzer's pranks), their fathers fought and argued constantly over their sons' screen time and salaries. Ironically, Switzer's best friend among the Our Gang kids was Tommy Bond, who played his on-screen nemesis "Butch". In Bond's words, he and Switzer became good friends because "neither of us could replace the other since we played opposites."

After Hal Roach sold Our Gang to Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) in 1938, the now-adolescent Switzer's behavior was even more extreme, and he often sabotaged the production of the Our Gang films. Once, during a break in filming, Switzer urinated on the set's lights. When filming resumed, the lights heated up and filled the set with such a stench that filming had to be halted for the rest of the day. On another occasion, intending to get back at a rude cameraman, Switzer forced the other kids to chew as much gum as they could, and stuffed wads of spent chewing gum inside the camera. Switzer's attitude towards authority impressed one of his younger Our Gang co-stars, Robert Blake, who, as an adult, became known for his disposition as an iconoclast.

The tenure of both Switzers in Our Gang ended in 1940, when Carl was twelve. Carl continued to appear in movies in various supporting roles, including I Love You Again, Going My Way, Courage of Lassie, and It's a Wonderful Life and starred in the John Wayne film Island in the Sky where he coined the phrase "Whatever's customary," about the only line he spoke throughout the film, but one he repeated several times in it.

Switzer's last starring roles were in a brief series of imitation-Bowery Boys movies; he reprised his "Alfalfa" characterization, complete with comically sour vocals, in PRC's Gas House Kids comedies of 1946-1947. He returned to supporting roles, including a short stint as B-western sidekick "Alfalfa Johnson." Switzer preferred not to recall his Our Gang work; in his 1946 resume he referred to the gang films generically as "M-G-M short product."

Switzer had a fleeting cameo in the 1954 musical film White Christmas where his picture was used to depict an Army buddy (named "Freckle-Faced Haynes") of lead characters (Wallace and Davis) played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and also the brother of the female leads (the Haynes Sisters) played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. He also did some acting for television.

His final film role was in 1958's The Defiant Ones and on the television series The Roy Rogers Show, where he was called upon to reprise his off-key "Alfalfa-like" singing. Switzer's difficult reputation and his typecasting as "Alfalfa" made it difficult for him to find quality work.

Prior to a hunting guide job, Switzer had borrowed a hunting dog from Moses "Bud" Stiltz. When the dog was lost, Switzer offered a $50 reward for the dog's return. A man found the dog a few days later and brought it to the bar where Switzer was working. Switzer paid the man $35 and bought him $15 worth of drinks from the bar. Several days later on January 21, 1959, Switzer and his friend Jack Piott decided that Stiltz owed Switzer the $50 paid to the man who found the dog. The pair allegedly arrived drunk at Stiltz's home in Mission Hills to collect the money Stiltz "owed" him.

He banged on Stiltz's front door, demanding, "Let me in, or I'll kick in the door." Once Switzer was inside the home, he and Stiltz got into an argument. Switzer informed Stiltz that he wanted the money owed him, saying "I want that 50 bucks you owe me now, and I mean now." When Stiltz refused to hand over the money, the two engaged in a physical fight. Piott allegedly struck Stiltz in the head with a glass-domed clock, which caused him to bleed from his left eye. Stiltz retreated to his bedroom and returned holding a .38-caliber revolver, but Switzer immediately grabbed the gun away from him, resulting in a shot being fired that hit the ceiling. Switzer then forced Stiltz into a closet, despite Stiltz having gotten his hands back on the gun. Switzer then allegedly pulled a switchblade knife and screamed, "I'm going to kill you" and was attempting to stab him with it, but just as Switzer was about to charge Stiltz, Stiltz raised the gun and shot Switzer in the groin. Switzer died of massive internal bleeding and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Jack Piott gave a second version of events to investigators. According to Piott, he and Switzer went to collect a debt from Stiltz, when an argument broke out. Piott said a brief struggle ensued and Stiltz brandished a gun and shot Switzer, who was unarmed at the time, in the groin. Then, according to police reports, only by begging was Piott able to save his own life.

The killing was held to be a justifiable homicide. Switzer had allegedly pulled a knife; therefore, the shooting was judged to be self-defense. During the inquest regarding Switzer's death, it was revealed that what was originally reported as a "hunting knife" was in fact merely a penknife. It had been found by crime scene investigators under his body, but with no blade exposed.

On January 25, 2001, a third witness came forward and gave his version of the events of January 21, 1959. The witness, 56-year-old Tom Corrigan, son of Western movie star Ray "Crash" Corrigan and stepson of Moses Stiltz, was present the night Switzer was killed.

"It was more like murder," Corrigan told reporters. He said he heard the knock on the front door and heard Switzer say "Western Union for Bud Stiltz". Corrigan's mother, Rita Corrigan, opened the door to find a drunk and demanding Switzer complaining about a perceived, months-old debt. Switzer entered the house followed by Jack Piott and stated that he was going to beat Stiltz. Stiltz greeted Switzer with a .38-caliber revolver in his hand. Tom Corrigan claimed to witness Switzer grab the revolver and the two began struggling to gain control over it. Piott broke a glass-domed clock over Stiltz's head whose eye swelled shut. During the struggle the gun fired into the ceiling and Tom Corrigan was struck in the leg by a piece of shrapnel. After the initial shot, his two younger sisters ran to a neighbor's house to call for help. "Well, we shot Tommy, enough of this," he remembers Switzer saying before Switzer and Piott started to retreat. Corrigan had just stepped out the front door when he heard a second shot go off behind him. He did not see his stepfather shoot Switzer, but when he turned around he saw Switzer sliding down the wall with a surprised look on his face — shot in the groin. Corrigan said he spotted a closed penknife at Switzer's side which he presumed fell out of his pocket or his hand. He then witnessed his stepfather back Piott into the kitchen counter and threaten to kill him, but as the man begged for his life, they heard emergency sirens which is why Corrigan believed Stiltz didn't shoot him again. Corrigan recalled that his stepfather, Bud Stiltz, lied in his account of the event to the authorities.

Following the shooting, Corrigan claims a now-deceased Los Angeles Police Department detective, Pat Pow, interviewed him and asked him if he would testify before a judge. Corrigan claims to have agreed, although for unknown reasons he was never called before the coroner's jury. "He didn't have to kill him," Corrigan said.

Carl Switzer is interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. His death went virtually unnoticed in the media, as Switzer died on the same day as Cecil B. DeMille. Switzer received only minor footnotes in most newspapers, while DeMille's obituary dominated the columns. (Source: Wikipedia)
Of course, the little boy in the photo above is NOT Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer. He's an unknown country boy with a striking resemblance.

The big question I have is before the photo was shot, who combed his hair? Did the teacher comb it? This is most likely a school photo. I can't imagine this little fellow staying this clean and crisp all day, but then when I look at him I think of Alfalfa. He makes me smile. I hope this fellow had a better life than Alfalfa.

9 comments:

  1. Lordy, what a tragic life he led! I didn't realize he had appeared in those films. I used to love watching "The Little Rascals" on Saturdays when I was a kid. Darla was so cute!

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  2. What a story. They could make a film of that.

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  3. Every year when Vera and Rosemary show the guys the picture of their brother, in White Christmas, we all call out, "It's Alfalfa!"

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  4. What an amazing story.

    Maybe the kid in your snap was Alfalfa's good twin. He looks like a sweet kid.

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  5. Yes, an Alfalfa movie would be fun. I wonder if there ever has been a movie made about the Our Gang kids? So many of them grew up to face sad lives.

    And you know, I never realized that the fellow in the photo in White Christmas was Alfalfa. Wonder how he got cast for that.

    I do wonder what sort of taunting this little boy took for looking so much like Alfalfa. Did he have to do imitations to please the other kids or did it make him withdrawn and careful.?

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  6. It does look a lot like him.

    What a story !

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  7. Hi
    I've just set up a blogusing my photo collection. It's at www.junkshopsnapshots.blogspot.com
    I've added a link to Tattered and Lost. If you lke my site can you put a link to it?

    regards

    John Toohey
    (One Man's Treasure)

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  8. Happy to do it John. It's now on my list and I look forward to seeing more at your site.

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  9. That little boy is adorable. Alfalfa was adorable too, but I had no idea he was so bad. Those pranks are not exactly harmless.

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