Thursday, February 25, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: 'SPANKY' McFARLAND at Harmon

By Steve Crum

HAS IT REALLY BEEN nearly 22 years since "SPANKY" McFARLAND spoke to a packed house of 1,000+ students and faculty members at J.C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kansas? Sure enough. It was mid-morning on Monday, Sept. 12, 1988, when I introduced Spanky at a special assembly in the auditorium. (I was teaching journalism, mass media and English at Harmon then.) 

Earlier that morning, I had driven to the Doubletree Hotel in Overland Park to pick up Spanky, along with his golf clubs and luggage. He was in town as one of the celebrity players at the Peter Marshall (The Hollywood Squares) Celebrity Golf Tournament in K.C. Spank was drinking a cup of coffee, and waiting on the hotel sidewalk when I drove up. 

On the drive to Harmon, Spanky complimented me on my safe driving in between talking about Alfalfa, his growing up in Texas, fellow "Rascal" Scotty Beckett, and show business in general. Regarding his memory of Scotty Becket, with whom he was paired in numerous Our Gang shorts, Spanky said, "Oh God, Scotty Beckett. Poor, poor Scotty. What a sad story. What a talent. So sad. He left us far too soon." (Beckett had a relatively brief but illustrious career in film, radio and TV, but died at age 38 in a nursing home. Drugs, alcohol, martial problems and depression factored into his tragic circumstances.)

It was all prearranged by my good pal Jim Peters, the leader and founder of our Hog Wild Tent, which is the local chapter of the Laurel and Hardy, Sons of the Desert organization. (All the fan club's branches are called tents, and each is named after one of Stan and Ollie's classic comedy films.) Spanky met Jim at a Laurel and Hardy convention, and agreed--for a price--to appear at both of our schools. Jim was teaching at Eisenhower Middle School, a few miles away. 

So Spanky introduced clips (on 16mm) of vintage Our Gang/Little Rascals to an appreciative audience. At that time, the students were very aware of Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla and the gang thanks to repeated showings on TV. Spanky talked and fielded questions about himself and other cast members for an hour. Then he was off to do likewise at Eisenhower. (Jim then drove him to the airport so Spanky could fly home.) He received $500 for each gig; students paid $1-$2 per admittance. Both Spanky and our schools profited. It was absolutely a very cool experience. Before the show, I introduced Spanky to the principal and his secretaries. All were thrilled.

I will add that Spanky was not an overly happy camper when I picked him up. He told me he had planned to play in the golf tournament, but hurt his leg just before playing, and had to cancel out. Still, he was in good humor.
BORN GEORGE ROBERT PHILLIPS McFARLAND on Oct. 2, 1928, SPANKY began his show biz career as a very young child, modeling clothes and appearing in print Wonder Bread ads. A reliable source says he was first nicknamed "Buddy." Another source claims he was called "Sonny." Nonetheless, it was "Spanky" that stuck when he auditioned for Hal Roach's Our Gang series at age 3. Spanky was immediately a sensation, and became the virtual on-screen leader of the Gang, later renamed The Little Rascals in TV syndication. 

After 95 film shorts, Spanky retired in 1942. Typecast forever, and always looking very much like he always did in movies--thanks in part to his shortness, Spanky could not get work in Hollywood. He worked at various businesses, finding success as National Sales Director of Philco-Ford in Texas. For a time, he hosted a local kids' TV show (featuring Little Rascals movies) in Texas, and participated in celebrity golf tournaments (as well as his own). On June 30, 1993, Spanky died of a heart attack at age 64 in Grapevine, Texas. The more recent photo of Spanky was taken at the Harmon assembly in 1988. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
For a Spanky tribute full of "hits," see this:

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