Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Alfalfa Switzer — A Little Rascal's Tragedy

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One of the episodes in the Our Gang series tells the tale of the young cowlick-bedecked Alfalfa attempting to shed his reputation as a common crooner and become a great opera star. He visits an opera company where the impresario is so inspired he immediately signs Alfalfa to a contract effective 20 years hence. At the appointed time two decades later, the intrepid divo makes his operatic debut and the audience, predictably, boos him off the stage. It's all downhill from there for our hero, whose adult life just doesn't turn out the way he expected. The episode ends happily as Alfalfa wakes from his dream, sees the error of his ways and returns to his calling as a popular, albeit off-key, crooner.

In many ways the episode is a foreshadowing of the real life of the actor, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, whose meteoric rise to fame as a child preceded a tragic adulthood.

Hal Roach created the Our Gang comedies in 1921 after watching a group of kids do what kids do best. They were playing in his yard. Originally made as silent films the series grew in popularity as Roach added sound in the 1930s. MGM re-released the episodes in the mid 1950s as The Little Rascals.

In 1935, Carl's parents took him and his older brother Harold to visit the Hal Roach Studios in Los Angeles. The purpose of the trip was nothing less than to turn Carl and Harold into child stars; and it worked. Carl and Harold parked themselves in front of the crowd at the studio's café and began performing. Roach saw them and signed them on the spot.

Carl... Alfalfa, as he was known in the series... quickly overshadowed Harold and became one of the top stars along with regulars Darla Hood and George "Spanky" McFarland. He was enormously popular with viewers but was just as unpopular with the child actors and filming crew.

Alfalfa was a prankster and the biggest bully of the gang. During filming he would intentionally step on other kids feet or stick them with a nail he carried in his pocket. On one occasion a cameraman became frustrated with Carl as he muffed his lines and told him to, "get it right so we can go to lunch." After the cameraman left, Alfalfa gave each of the kids a stick of gum and collected it back from them after they were done chewing it. Then he took the enormous wad and stuck it into the gears of the camera. That afternoon, the kids went home while the cameraman tried to save his machine.

One day director George Sidney became so frustrated with Alfalfa's antics he pulled him aside and told him, "Come and see me when you grow up so I can beat the crap out of you."

In 1940, Roach booted 13-year old Alfalfa from the series for being too old. He had been earning about $750 a week — a fortune in the depression era — and supporting his family. Suddenly it all ended and, like most child stars, he did not make a successful transition into acting as an adult.

While continuing to struggle in his acting career, he became an outdoorsman and hunting guide. In 1958, he borrowed a hunting dog from a man named Bud Stiltz. He lost the dog when it ran after a bear on a hunting trip, and he offered a reward for the dog's return. When a man brought the dog back to him, Alfalfa was so grateful he paid the reward and bought the man several drinks. Later, he decided Stiltz should be responsible for the money he spent on the dog's return. On January 21, 1959, Carl went to him and demanded $50. Stiltz refused to pay. They argued and fought. Finally, Alfalfa drew a knife and went after him. Stiltz ran, got a gun and killed the 31-year old former child star. A jury subsequently acquitted Stiltz of any wrongdoing.

Along the way, there was a bright spot in Carl's short and tragic life. In his work as a hunting guide, he crossed paths with cowboy superstar Roy Rogers, a 33° Mason and member of Hollywood Lodge 355. Roy tried to help Carl's faltering career by giving him parts in several of his shows. He also encouraged Carl to join the Freemasons, which he did.

Brother Carl was buried in Hollywood Forever cemetery, a resting place for many of Hollywood's greatest. His tombstone bears symbols of the better parts of his otherwise tough life: It reads "Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer" and is adorned by a carving of a hunting dog (not "Pete" from the Our Gang series, as some think), and two square and compasses flank the top. Interestingly, the cemetery sits on the grounds of what once was Southland Lodge 617, and the original Lodge building is still standing.

Alfalfa and other child actors from the series proved being a child star wasn't as glamorous as it might have seemed. About half of them, Carl included, did not live to see 40. Even Carl's brother Harold committed suicide at age 42. Today, the Little Rascals are all gone; every one of them. Many, Carl chief among them, never had that second chance Alfalfa got when he woke from his operatic nightmare.

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