The Little Rascals: Part 1 - Remembering Alfalfa
By Marcia Katie Stowe Baker – TapWires News Service
Unless you were a child growing up in the 1950s, you probably have no idea who these children's favorite television characters are: Petey, Mary Ann, Spanky, Darla, Porky, Alfalfa or Buckwheat.
I had the privilege of growing up in a more gentler and kinder America. Civil rights were just coming to the forefront, and yet, even with the riots that broke out back then in the 1960s and 1970s, they were nothing compared to what we are seeing happening in America today.
Recently I read a headline: “Fifteen Child Stars That Grew Up Hot” and there was the picture of young Alfalfa. Hot? Well, Darla always thought so!
This “blast from the past” peeked my curiousity as to what had become of my childhood television friends, the child stars from one of my favorite programs, “Our Gang”, or as they became better known, “The Little Rascals”. The show was a series of short comedy films about the adventures of neighborhood kids that grew up in a poor community.
In 1921, the Hollywood Film producer, Hal Roach, wanted to produce wholesome and honest programs about kids. The story has been told that one day as Roach looked outside his studio window, he saw some boys fighting over a stick. This inspired him to want to film stories of life from a child’s perspective, “real kids doing real things”. And so it was that “Our Gang” was birthed.
These were originally silent, short stories films about “boys, girls, whites and blacks together as equals, something that broke new ground, according to film historian Leonard Maltin. That had never been done before in cinema, but has since been repeated after the success of Our Gang.” – Wikipedia
As the children grew older they were one by one replaced by newer actors. The one actor who most people most quickly identify associated with the Little Rascals was “Alfalfa”, who was portrayed by Carl Dean Switzer.
Switzer was born in Paris, Illinois on August 7, 1927 to Gladys C. Shanks and George Frederick Switzer. His older brother, Harold Switzer, was also an actor and member of “Our Gang”.
In 1935 the Switzer family went to Hal Roach’s studios on Washington Blvd. in California intent on getting their sons noticed. Carl (who was 7 at that time) and his family were not allowed into the studios. Fortunately, for the Switzer family, the Our Gang Café, which was the studio’s commissary, was located just outside the gates and open to the public for lunch. The Switzers went into the café where Harold and Carl began to perform and were signed that very day!
Alfalfa’s trademark from the series was, of course, the strand of hair that protruded from the top of his heard and his serenading of the audience. I can still remember listening to him “sing” when I was a child and the sounds emitting from the television caused me to laugh … it was absolutely awful … but then it was supposed to be!
I wondered what this sweet, innocent boy, who was Darla's hero, was really like on the set with the other child stars. My research was quite surprising. Believe it or not, Alfalfa, or "Alfie" as his friends called him, “was not liked by too many of the kids,” said Jerry Tucker, who played the Waldo, the nasty rich kid.
Tucker continued the interview saying, "He was very abrasive on the set. That didn’t mean he wasn’t a nice kid … he was just different. He liked to play jokes on people and frankly, none of us thought it was very funny.”
“He had some tendencies of being a bully and picked on some of the younger kids,” commented Kenneth Smith, who also played Waldo. “My Dad told me that one time Alfalfa threw a firecracker on him as he was walking away and it exploded right by his back, and he didn’t appreciate that.”
“He would step on some of the other kids’ feet; he would carry big nails in his pocket and stick them into the other kids and hit the kids and things like that,” remarked director, George Signey.
Tommy Bond, who played “Butch, the Bully”, told the story that one time, when no one was around, Alfie urinated on one of the lights. When the actors returned to the set to begin filming the scene, the lights began heating up causing a terrible stench in the studio and everyone had to get off the stage because they couldn’t stand the smell.
Finally, the Director, Carl Sidney, had had enough of Alfie's antics. He “killed the cameras” and called him over and said, “Carl, when you are 21, I want you to look me up because I’m to slug you for your hitting people ...you come back when you’re 21.”
His early display of temper and flying off the handle if things didn’t go his way did not end with his adolescence but carried over into adulthood and would later prove fatal.
28 year old, Carl Switzer poses with cutout of himself at the T.V Guide "Our Gang" Reunion in 1955
Alfie left the show in 1941 at the age of 13 and, as has been the case with many child stars, he struggled to find any substantial parts, other than B-movies due to his role as Alfalfa. Typecasting has been the curse of many child stars and older actors when they are best thought of by their fans as any beloved character from previous films. However, some of the more recognizable films he appeared in after the Rascals included:
The Gas Light Kids” (1947)as Chili Williams. “That lasted two or three entries and that went kaput ant that was the basic end of his starring years,” said Jim Parish, author of “Hollywood Death Book”.
White Christmas (1954) his photo was used to depict "Freckle-Faced Haynes," an Army buddy of lead characters Wallace and Davis (played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) who was also the brother of the female leads the Haynes Sisters (played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen).
Between 1952 and 1955, he made six appearances on The Roy Rogers Show. He also guest-starred in an episode of the American science fiction anthology series Science Fiction Theatre and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. In 1953 and 1954, he co-starred in: Island in the Sky and The High and the Mighty, both starring John Wayne, and Track of the Cat, starring Robert Mitchum. In 1956, he co-starred in The Bowery Boys film Dig That Uranium, followed by a bit part (uncredited) as a Hebrew slave in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Switzer's final film role was in the film drama The Defiant Ones [Switzer played the part of Angus].” – Wikipedia
In 1954 Carl married Diantha (Dian) Collingwood, daughter of Faye Drennen and Lelo Collingwood of the Collingwood Grain empire, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The newlyweds moved to a farm in Pretty Prairie, Kansas, where their son, Justin Lance Collingwood Switzer, was born in 1956. Roy Rogers stood in as his godfather. Sadly, the couple divorced just a year later, and Justin was later adopted by his step-father, Richard Roswell Eldridge. According to some accounts, Justin was raised never knowing that Carl was his father.
Marvin Wolfe, author of “Fallen Angels”, has written and spoken out publicly that in January of 1959, Carl borrowed a hunting dog for a trip near Lake Shasta from a friend and former business partner, Bud Stiltz. When the dog ran away chasing a bear, Carl put up a reward for the return of the dog for $35 and when the dog was returned, he bought the man drinks and paid him his reward, which now had cost him $50.
During his last days Carl had begun drinking quite a bit and on one of these occasions, while drinking at the bar, he was overhead ranting about how Stiltz owed him $50 for the return of the dog. He called Stiltz from the bar and demanded he be paid the money, but Stiltz refused.
On January 21, 1959 Alfie went to Stiltz’s’ home in Mission Hills, California and banging on the door demanded, “I want my $50.”
Stiltz refused to go to the door and Carl broke into the house screaming, while holding out a switchblade knife, “You give me that money or I’m gonna kill you.”
According to Wolfe, “About that time Stilz comes out holdin' a gun. By this time Alfie is just seeing blood and he threatens him with the knife and Stilz pointed his gun and shot him and down he went. And by the time the ambulance came and hauled him off to the hospital, he had bled to death.”
A different story was told by an eye witness to these events, Tom Corrigan of Thousand Oaks, California, the son of the late western movie star, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, and stepson of Moses S. “Bud” Stiltz.
Corrigan, who was 14 at the time of shooting, has claimed, “It was more like murder.”
He remembers that when the hunting dog had been found that the rancher demanded $50. Alfie, who was financially strapped at that time, felt the reward should have been paid by Stiltz, but Stiltz had refused.
“It just got to be a principle stand with Alfie. He was feeling down and out and thought Bud should cover it”, said Corrigan in an interview with Coleen Cason that was reported in The Philadelphia Daily News on January 25, 2001.
He recollects that Alfie and his drinking buddy and friend, Jack Piott, came to their home just before dark on the 21st and announced, “Western Union for Bud Stiltz,” but they all knew his voice and knew it was him at the door, not Western Union.
According to Corrigan, Stiltz greeted Alfie with a .38-caliber revolver in his hand. When the men saw the gun a brawl broke out and while Alfie wrestled Stiltz for the gun, Piott broke a glass dome clock over Stiltz’s head.
The gun went off and the bullet grazed the young teenager’s leg as he had stood there watching the scene, that could have been a script written for a western movie, unfold before his eyes. Meanwhile, Tom’s two younger sisters had run next door to call the police.
“We shot Tommy … enough of this!” Alfie said as he and Piott were about to leave the home. Tom stepped out the front door ahead of them and then he heard the second shot, which had struck Alfie in the groin. He walked in the door as Alfie was sliding to the floor, his back against the wall. Tom then spotted a small closed penknife lying beside him on the floor.
Stiltz then backed Piott against the bar in the home and threatened to kill him next, while Rita Stiltz, Tom’s mother, begged her husband not to shoot Alfie’s friend. The sirens of the approaching ambulance saved Piott’s life.
Although Tom Corrigan agreed to testify during the trial, he was never called to the stand. The coroner’s jury bought Stiltz’s story and ruled the shooting a “justifiable homicide”.
“He didn’t have to kill him,” said Corrigan.
Regardless of which version is true, it is apparent that Alfalfa’s childhood temper and bad behavior had carried over into adulthood and proved to be his terribly sad demise.
“Alfalfa” is buried at Hollywood Memorial Park (Hollywood Forever), which is located at 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, California. His father and brother are buried next to him.
NOTE: Diantha Collingwood Eldridge died on Nov. 29, 2004 at the age of 74 in Hutchinson, KS. She was survived by her son, Justin Lance Collingwood Eldridge of Colorado Springs, CO, Christopher Collingwood Eldridge of Bentonville, AR, and Lee Collingwood Eldridge of Lawrence, KS. She had seven grandchildren.
Butchered, Little Rascals, Alfalfa, Carl Dean Switzer, Gladys Shanks and George Switzer, Harold Switzer, Our Gang, Hal Roach, George Signey, Kenneth Smith, Waldo, Tommy Bond, Nud Stiltz, Murder of Alfalfa, Tom Corrigan, Jerry Tucker