The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas on May 13, 1998 · Page 28
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The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas · Page 28

Salina, Kansas
Issue Date:
Wednesday, May 13, 1998
Page 28
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4 WEDNESDAY, MAY 13. 1998 APPLAUSE THE SALINA JOURNAL Gordon 'Porky' Lee: Twilight of a Little Rascal Allie Shah Minneapolis - St. Paul Star Tribune Looking at Gordon Lee, all 6 feet 4 inches of him, it's hard to believe he was once the tiny underdog star of the "Little Rascals" (a.k.a. "Our Gang") series. As Porky, Spanky McFarland's little brother, he charmed TV and film audiences for generations with his trademark: "Otay!" Now look closer at the 64- year-old Lee. Past the towering figure, the grizzly dark beard, the grown-up clothes. There, somewhere in his eyes and in his devilish grin, is Porky. "People say I still look it when I do this," he says, covering his face just below the nose with one hand. For the past five years, Lee has made his home in south Minneapolis. A retired history teacher transplanted from Denver, he has come a long way since the two-word sentences he muttered as a child star. Today, he rambles eloquently on a wide variety of interests — from politics to education to jazz music to vintage cars and, of course, the Little Rascals. He's an ex-Democratic precinct committeeman, a book lover, a Westerner with a sweet drawl, an architecture nut and an empty-nest father. Why Minnesota? Described by friends as a thoughtful and introspective man, Lee speaks openly about many topics but is tight-lipped about his personal life. He says he came to Minnesota to be closer to his only son, who until recently lived here. He's been known to keep some facts to himself. For years, having been mercilessly teased as a boy, he did not tell people he was "Porky." It took a fellow teacher and friend to persuade him in 1971 that it was time for him to come clean about his film career. "My friend called me over and said, 'Damn it, Gordon. You can't do this,'" Lee recalled. It wasn't long before he was appearing on local radio shows as the real Porky and going to reunions with his old costars. And so it was that the world found Lee. It's been more than 75 years since Hal Roach first introduced motion picture audiences to his rascals. Originally called the "Our Gang Comedies," the short films captured children's natural charm and humor and were an instant hit with Depression-era moviegoers. A running theme in all Rascal skits was that the little guy always won in the end. Later, when TV revived the series in the early 1950s, "Our Gang Comedies" became "The Little Rascals." A native of west Texas, Lee was 2 years old when he became a rascal. His mother sent in one of his photos at a time when studio executives were searching for someone to play the part of Spanky McFarland's kid brother. So impressed were they with the likeness between Lee and McFarland that they invited Mrs. Lee to bring in her adopted son for a screen test. "We were on the next train to L.A. and I had a contract within a few days," Gordon Lee recalled, before adding softly, "Fat kid got lucky." His memories of working on the set from 1935 to 1939 are limited to simple events such as getting ice cream at the nearby Our Gang Inn and playing with his costar pals. That, says Lee, was the genius behind Roach. He could make his child actors believe they were just playing so they always looked natural. "He was simply that good," Lee said. "My memories are not about making movies. We played with our toys and the adults played with theirs," he said, referring to the cameras and other equipment on the set. Watching the film "Two Too Young" again at a friend's house recently, Lee chuckled mightily at the one-liners and gags as if he were viewing the film for the first time. A classic Rascals piece, the movie was the first one in which Porky and another character, Buckwheat, were paired up as a team against the older kids, namely Spanky and Alfalfa. In one scene, Alfalfa tells Spanky he can be trusted to safeguard fireworks that the two swiped from Porky and Buckwheat. Lee then flashes a knowing smirk, aware that his character will have the last laugh. Sure enough, little Porky gets the best of Alfalfa by using a magnifying glass and the sun to set off the firecrackers that Alfalfa's been storing in his back pocket. Porky and Buckwheat were a team both on and off screen, Lee said. "We were partners," he said. "I'm only sorry I didn't get to meet him as an adult." Actor Billie Thomas, who played Buckwheat, died of a heart attack in 1980 at age 49. Since then, Lee has met with several of his old friend's relatives and for a time he was in business with Thomas' son. What does Lee think about criticism that the series was racist? He strongly disagrees. In fact, he says "The Little Rascals" was progressive for its time in terms of race relations. "I think Mr. Roach did excellent things. Buckwheat played an absolute equal part in the Gang," he said. "It was a chunk of my education." But Lee acknowledged that some of the character's piece was based on black stereotypes. Unlike many of his costars who stayed in Hollywood after they left the Rascals, Lee said goodbye to acting when Roach and company unleashed him after four years. In that time, he saw his income dramatically increase from $40 a week to $300 a week while filming. Lee and his family returned to west Texas and the life they knew before movies. After graduating from high school, Lee held various jobs before enrolling at Texas Tech University and later the University of Houston. Blessed with an "insatiable curiosity," he studied political science, psychology and education and worked for ,many years as a teacher. During his career, Lee taught history and other subjects at the high school and college levels and was an instructor at an alternative school in Colorado. In later years, he worked as an emergency services trainer for the state of Colorado. Now retired, he appears at various autograph shows nationwide. He has also started to sell autographed pictures and other Our Gang memorabilia. He says his current financial situation is not ideal and it still bothers him that the television distribution company has made a fortune off the Rascals while he and his costars have had to struggle. Several years ago, Lee reached a settlement in a lawsuit seeking $1.9 million over the unapproved use of his character in a cartoon series, but he says the payoff was "not stupendous." He keeps in touch with some of the Gang, occasionally attending reunions. And he talks regularly to Tommy Bond, aka Butch, the bully in the Rascals series. Although he gets more attention for being a former child star, Lee said it is his career as a teacher that he considers his greatest accomplishment. "I'm much prouder of my record as a teacher and educator than having been in movies as a child," he said. Having not been the star of the Little Rascals made it easier for him to escape the usual child-star vices, Lee acknowledged. "Those of us who left it alone and went on to do other things are the lucky ones." Books that Feature Dogs, Dogs, Dogs Karen MacPherson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette For many people, dogs are the quintessential pet, an animal whose loyalty is unparalleled and whose affection is unequaled. Because of the popularity of dogs — especially with kids — canine capers are a favorite subject for children's books. Here's a look at a few new kids' books for various ages. All focus on dogs: It's doggerel at its witty best. Playful rhymes and expressive photographs reveal the true characters of two dozen breeds of dogs in "Shaggy, Waggy Dogs and Others" (Clarion, $15). Author Stephanie Calmenson keeps a light touch as she captures the essence of each breed in four lines of verse. Even kids who think they don't like poetry will be swept away by this lyrical look at dogs. For example, here's what Calmenson has to say about the beagle: "She's a very merry hunting dog,/ Loved wherever she goes./ Just watch her or she'll wander off/ While following her nose." Of the basset hound, Calmenson writes: "This dog is howling/ A tune that I know./ The name of it is/ 'Do Your Ears Hang Low?"' "Shaggy, Waggy Dogs" also includes a non-poetry discussion of choosing a dog, as well as Calmenson's personal note about having to live without a dog as a child because her parents refused to get one. Now a happy dog owner, Calmenson offers the perfect note of empathy for canine-crazy kids who — for one reason or another —just can't have a dog. One last note: the photographs in "Shaggy, Waggy Dogs," taken by Justin Sutcliffe, are full of humor and energy, and add another dimension to this wonderful book. (Ages 4-8). Tootsie is a pampered pooch whose owner, Miss Pettibone, treats him like a baby. She carries him over mud puddles, puts bows on his ears, and asks him "pretty please" to walk or sit. One day, however, Tootsie gets a rude awakening when Miss Pettibone signs him up for a dog-walking group, where the other dogs are a rough and tumble lot and give the fluffy white Tootsie a hard time. In "The New Dog" (Dial, $14.99), author Barbara Shook Hazen details how Tootsie teaches the old dogs some new lessons. When Tootsie catches an escaping robber by biting his leg, the other dogs are amazed, and more than a bit embarrassed at the way they've treated him. Hazen's story is humorous and exaggerated in a way that children love. In particular, young readers who've been a new kid in any situation will identify with Tootsie and revel in his ultimate victory. The colorful illustrations by R.W. Alley carry the comedy even further. (Ages 3-7). In "Mucky Pup" (Button, $14.99), author/artist Ken Brown tells what fun happens when two animals meet their match. As the book opens, "Mucky Pup" has just had a wonderful time getting dirty. But then he finds that none of the other farm animals want to play with him because he's such a mucky pup. He's feeling pretty sorry for himself when a pig sticks its snout through the slats of a gate and asks whether he'd like to have a romp in the mud. Brown's text is simple but entertaining, and his illustrations are loaded with energy. Kids will particularly enjoy his two-page spread capturing the joy of pig and pup as they frolic in the mud. (Ages 3-6). Angus is a black Scottish terrier with an overwhelming curiosity that often leads him into trouble. But that's part of his charm for young readers, a fact author/illustrator Marjorie Flack understood when she created her trio of Angus books. First published in the 1930s, the classic stories have recently be re-issued in paperback formats by Farrar, Straus and Giroux at a cost of $5.95 each. Despite their age, the stories remain fresh and endearing. The feisty Angus is much like a toddler or preschooler in his enduring curiosity to learn about the world around him, and young readers will find themselves mesmerized by his small, but dramatic, adventures. Children will also identify with the fact that Angus frequently is prevented from having such adventures because he's on a leash, and that his most interesting times occur when he can slip out of the house unnoticed. In "Angus and the Ducks," the reader is introduced to this little dog whose name is Angus "because his mother and his father came from Scotland." Flack further describes Angus this way: "Although the rest of Angus was quite small, his head was very large, and so were his feet." In this book, Angus meets up with some ducks and at first enjoys scaring them. Things change, however, when the ducks get tired of being harassed and chase Angus back into his yard. "Angus and the Cat" has a somewhat similar plot, except this time Angus and the cat eventually become friends. And, in "Angus Lost," the intrepid Scotty is forced to spend the night out in the cold after he loses his way. Flack's books are delightful reading for children because she has a genius for writing the way children think. Her matter-of-fact tone and highlighting of details reflects a child's-eye view of the world. Some adult readers might be put off by Flack's rather peculiar habit of capitalizing some words on each page, but the emphasis will seem natural to children. Flack's illustrations have a lively tone to them that combines well with her text. Some of the illustrations are vivid color, others are black and white, but all add dash and emotion to the books. (Ages 3-6). rozen yogurt! Premium Soft Serve • FAT FREE • 16 calories per oz. • Natural Flavor! 9th & Kirwin • SALINA • 823-8066 SIOUX SH For Hay - Hogs - Machinery 24', 30', 36' or 42' wide by any length 15 Year Warranty on 10 oz. Cover NORTH CENTRAL STEEL - MINNEAPOLIS, KS Call 1-800-382-0106 -Anytime COPY CO MORE THAN JUST A COPY CENTER Beat the construction blues! ==- Pick-up & Delivery 2346 PLANET AVE.- GALAXY CENTER- 823-2679 OR FAX 823-2552 lorni Awilflfli • IHIBIII AwalBQS • Eifriici Ciiiplii • Pfflfl Cmn Cirports UtBral Arm AwBlBfls ftrps. Ira Irani Livestock Curtains Toll free 1-888.825-5280 . Grand Bldg. Salina, KS (913)825-5280 m is all It takes to handle your various insurance needs .. • » te ' home, car, business Jean Curry 2737 Belmont Blvd. (785) 823-5129 We'll always be there for you. 1 Get positive. As a superhero, he fought crime. Now Christopher Reeve fights to find a cure for himself and other paraplegics. His "man of steel" mental and emotional strength comes from his indomitable positive attitude. Read about a super man.. .this Sunday in USA WEEKEND magazine. Get it in... Salina Journal

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