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“Our Gang” in Jacksonville

THE BIRTH OF “OUR GANG” (“THE LITTLE RASCALS”) — In 1921, “Our Gang” seemed to come at just the right time: Hollywood was beset by scandals, from drug addictions to murders. These problems even included some of the top stars. Authorities charged the highest-paid comic in the world, “Fatty Arbuckle,” with manslaughter & rape. They accused the hefty funnyman of crushing a young actress to death while forcing himself on her. (Arbuckle was later acquitted in a court of law, but ruined in the court of public opinion.)

Something fresh & wholesome: This is what was needed, according to Hal Roach, the well-known producer of the “Keystone Cops.” Roach had grown weary of the bevy of bathing beauty comedies & chalk-faced slapstick flicks. He was much more impressed with Jackie Coogan in the celebrated Charlie Chaplin movie, “The Kid.” Best known later as “Uncle Fester” in TV’s “The Addams Family,” Coogan started as a child performer who seemed natural in silent films. He acted like a real kid would.

One Hollywood day, Roach became disgusted as he auditioned a little girl who showed too much make-up and too much rehearsal. After she finally left, Roach walked over to a window and gazed on a lumber yard across the street. Five or six youngsters played there. For fifteen minutes, Roach watched the smallest child argue with the oldest one over a particular stick. This silly dispute sparked a brainstorm in the producer’s mind: Why not cast some street kids to play themselves? Why not show life from a child’s angle?

“Our Gang” proved to be an instant, resounding success. Over the years, it starred such immortals as Buckwheat, Alfalfa, Spanky, Darla, & Stymie. The long-running series suffered a big problem, though, in that it had to keep replacing its kids as they entered adolescence. This led to various auditions, including the one in Jacksonville in 1928.

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