I was once almost a movie star. Well, maybe not a star but at least a real actor. Hmmm. . .actually, that’s not quite right either. The truth is that once – as a child – I appeared in a movie, and I’m not sure but I think it might have just been part of a scam.
As so often happens, my memories were jogged recently by a song, one that I hadn’t heard for many years. Its title is “Good Old Days,” and it’s the theme song for The Little Rascals (sometimes called Our Gang), a series of short films that started in the silent era and continued for the next couple of decades. The idea was the brainchild of director/producer Hal Roach, and although they weren’t very PC by today’s standards, they were popular at the time.
Over the life of the series the producers went through a lot of pint-size actors. Some of those kids never had another acting job but others, such as Jackie Cooper, went on to later fame. Still others became pretty well-known as young actors, but had mixed results as adult actors. George “Spanky” McFarland and his sidekick Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer were two that fell into that classification.
Eventually, some of those old films began showing up on TV screens and entertaining a whole new generation, and have continued to do so in the years since. I was a teen by the time they first appeared on TV in the mid 1950’s, but that’s when I found out something that might have been the key to the beginnings of my own short-lived film career a few years before.
It turned out that my mother had grown up in the same rural area of Illinois as Alfalfa, and knew him as a young boy. Seeing him become famous would surely have made her more susceptible to an opportunity that came along when I was about eight or nine. One day a newspaper ad appeared, stating that a professional movie company was coming to town and that auditions for child actors would be held. I wish I could remember more of the details, but I do recall going to an “audition” along with a lot of other local kids (and their mothers) and I think she paid a “registration fee”. I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that although only a few kids got speaking parts, none were turned away.
The next day, we all gathered at a local park and began shooting our movie. It was something about a kid being kidnapped, and later saved by his friends — a huge gang made up of all those who didn’t have speaking parts (which included me). Our scene involved chasing the bad guy across the park until he fell down, and then piling on him, pounding him with our small fists. There might have been some other stuff in there too, but my memories have dimmed with time.
I’m happy to report that apparently it wasn’t a total scam. The movie people did come back to town at a later date and actually show the movie at a local theater. On the other hand, since admission was charged and the place was jam-packed with the kids and their entire families, I guess it might have just been part two of what was probably a nice money-making endeavor.
I’m sure these guys traveled the country, selling parents on the idea that Hollywood talent scouts would see their kids and make them stars, but of course that didn’t happen. Still, it was kind of fun to see ourselves up on the big theater screen, and besides, going to Hollywood isn’t always a good thing. Poor Alfalfa – who got acting parts later as just Carl Switzer – ended up dying young, shot in an argument over money.