One of those little rascals was part of our gang.
Before American audiences had ever heard of child stars such as Stymie, Wheezer, Jackie, Chubby, Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla, Porky, Butch and Froggy, Northeast Ohio residents were introduced to a kid named Johnny.
Brown-eyed, dark-haired Johnny Downs was billed as “The All-American Boy” when he appeared in Hollywood producer Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” comedy series for Pathe Exchange over a five-year span in the 1920s.
Before he found fame in short films, Johnny was a carefree child in Portage County’s Suffield Township. His father, Lt. Morey H. Downs, a dirigible pilot, was an officer at the U.S. Naval Airship Training Station, where Akron-made balloons and airships were tested at Fritch Lake, known today as Wingfoot Lake.
Lt. Downs and his wife, Eva, relocated with their son, Johnny, 5, from Florida to Ohio after the Navy pilot was transferred in 1919. They initially lived in an Akron hotel before Downs moved into the barracks at Wingfoot and his wife and son boarded at the Suffield home of Horace and Pearl Kent and their son, Eugene, 6, on South Cleveland Avenue.
“I wanted even as a tiny kid to go into naval aviation, like my father, but he discouraged it,” Johnny Downs recalled years later. “I went up in an airplane with him once, when I was a very little fellow, but I liked it too well. He would never take me up again.”
Lt. Downs was friends with Goodyear pilots Carl Wollam, Ward Van Orman, Jack Boettner, Ralph Upson and Bill Young, and spent many an afternoon floating over Ohio.
Johnny had happy memories of hanging out at Wingfoot Lake, playing with housemate Eugene, going sledding, having snowball fights and attending school in Suffield. Johnny and his dad traveled to Akron to buy a pet dog, which the boy happily named Blimp.
The kid might have enjoyed growing up in Ohio, but fate intervened. Lt. Downs was transferred to San Diego in the early 1920s, and the family moved to California.
Ready to act
Eva Downs began taking her photogenic son to movie casting calls in Los Angeles.
“I’m an actor and I came to get a job,” the boy confidently told a studio doorman.
He received interest from Hal Roach, who had just started production in 1922 on the “Our Gang” comedy series. After passing a screen test, Johnny joined the original cast in the ninth episode of the series.
Johnny, 9, made his “Our Gang” debut in the boxing tale “The Champeen,” which premiered Jan. 23, 1923, with a young cast that included Mickey Daniels, Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Jack Davis, Mary Kornman, Jackie Condon, Allen “Farina” Hoskins and Joe Cobb.
“I think we had a privileged childhood working in those films,” Downs recalled years later. “It was fun and we got paid $60 a week. I was one of the least paid. Some kids got as much as $300 depending on their replacement value.”
Everyone in the gang was a character and a caricature, Downs said: The freckle-faced kid, the black kid, the tousle-haired kid, the overweight kid, the rich kid, the prissy kid.
“I was the leading juvenile when I was 11,” he recalled. “That is, most of the time. Sometimes we changed characters. Sometimes I played the tough boy. We thought it was just a lot of fun, but we really learned acting technique.”
He also enjoyed playing with Pete the Pup, the famous dog with a ring around his eye. “Our Gang” featured several dogs, but Pete was the gang’s favorite.
Johnny appeared in 24 silent comedies before retiring from “Our Gang” at age 14 with the short film “Chicken Feed” in November 1927. He stayed in show business by singing and dancing in a vaudeville act, returning frequently to Ohio.
“Gosh darn it! It isn’t even cold,” he complained after arriving with his parents at Akron’s Union Depot in January 1928 for a show at the Palace Theater.
He remembered Ohio for its snow. There wasn’t enough to form a snowball.
It was a happy return, though, as the teen reunited with his former playmate, Eugene, when the Downs family visited Horace and Pearl Kent in Suffield.
Johnny came back to Akron in June 1930 for another show at the Palace. After his father arranged a ride aboard the Goodyear blimp Vigilant, Johnny was eager to behold the Goodyear-Zeppelin Airdock.
“I want to see the new hangar out at the airport,” Johnny said. “Dad has promised me that we will go. They say it’s the biggest one in the world.”
Return to films
The “Our Gang” alumnus also expressed hope that he could appear in talking pictures after his voice stopped changing and his body stopped growing.
“I’ve grown an inch since last month,” he told the Beacon Journal. “It won’t be long now until I can go back in pictures. I want to be in pictures again. And I’m not particular what parts I get. Just as soon as my voice decides what pitch it wants to keep, that will be still another step forward.”
Unlike many of his childhood co-stars, Johnny Downs enjoyed a successful career as an adult actor. In the mid-1930s, he began landing roles in college musicals such as “Pigskin Parade,” “Junior Prom,” “Hold that Coed” and “Melody and Moonlight,” earning $1,500 a week (about $28,000 today).
By the time he appeared in the 1953 Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film “The Caddy,” he had more than 100 film credits to his name.
In the 1950s, “Our Gang” shorts were repackaged for TV under the “Little Rascals” name. The original cast’s work was seldom seen because its films were silent, but Downs landed a job as a children’s TV host in San Diego, where he showed cartoons and “Little Rascals” episodes.
He and his wife, June, formed their own gang, welcoming five children.
Looking back on “Our Gang,” Downs once described his child stardom as “a memorable experience.”
“It was great fun, and certainly had no ill effects on my life,” he said.
He was 81 years old when he died of cancer in 1994 in California.
“Our Gang” films are still entertaining audiences. Most of the original silent films are in the public domain and are available for viewing on YouTube and other sites.
Have a movie marathon. Enjoy "The All-American Boy" who used to live in Suffield.
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.