‘Spanky’ spanked me!
BURLESON – I have a story to tell about George “Spanky” McFarland – that child actor who achieved great fame appearing in the “Our Gang” series of 1930s and 1940s short-subject comedies. These were later syndicated to television and retitled “The Little Rascals.”
But first, I should probably introduce myself.
My name is Ben Tinsley. On Monday I became the new managing editor and senior reporter of the Burleson Star. This is my very first column for this fine publication.
Nice to meet you.
I’ve been writing, reporting and editing in the journalism industry for well over 25 years now.
But my story takes place back in 1987, when I was only 20 and still a baby journalist in every sense of the term. I was a student at the former Tarrant County Junior College’s South Campus working a few hours a week as a cub reporter for the school newspaper.
And it was at that school paper that I was handed an assignment to write a feature about Spanky McFarland.
I adored – and still adore – Mr. McFarland’s amazing work as a child actor. At the time, I would have assumed he lived somewhere in Hollywood, unapproachable by the media, given his level of fame and success.
But .. no. At the time, Spanky lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. By all accounts, he was your fairly average Texan.
What I did not know at the time I received the assignment was that Spanky McFarland refused to deal with student journalists.
What happened next changed me. Forever. It should have been a routine pursuit of an interview but it became something else – something that really blew my mind and left a permanent impression.
So I dialed Spanky’s home number to set up the interview. I also intended to request a photo session so I could bring a staff photographer with me.
A nice lady answered Spanky’s home phone and informed me he was not at home.
As sweetly as I could, I informed her that I was a student journalist hoping to write a news story about her husband.
The nice lady replied that Spanky probably would be happy to be interviewed. However, she added, I needed to call back and talk to Spanky first to confirm.
Reassured by the nice lady’s very positive response, I grew very confident the interview would happen and said so to my editor.
Following the nice lady’s instructions to the letter, I waited exactly 45 minutes and then dialed Spanky’s home number again.
At this point, I was only calling him to request and confirm an interview. That’s it. I had no intention of actually interviewing Spanky until he and I were face to face. Before that could take place, I intended to first generate a healthy list of questions with help from the newspaper staff and from my parents, both of whom were journalists.
To my initial delight, Mr. McFarland answered the phone right away.
There was no doubt it was him. His adult voice sounded soooooo very much like his child actor voice.
I quickly introduced myself and asked if I could come to his home to interview him with a photographer in tow.
I really didn’t expect any resistance from him. I mean, who didn’t want a nice story and photo about themselves in a newspaper?
To my astonishment, Mr. McFarland immediately and bluntly refused.
He declined to allow me or anyone from my student newspaper anywhere near his house.
“I don’t interview with student journalists in person,” Spanky said. “If you want to talk to me, you’ll have to do it now. Over the phone.”
I wasn’t ready to interview him on the fly. Not at age 20. This was like, my first or second interview EVER. In my entire life. Being presented with this situation by a famous actor such as Spanky McFarland was an incredibly scary experience. And it was totally freaking me out.
I really tried to interview Spanky over the phone. I summoned all the questions I could think of for this awkward, “on-command” interview.
But …. I mostly stuttered and stammered.
Spanky grew alternately puzzled and annoyed with me as our phone interview continued.
After five minutes of my nonsensical “wabba zeeba wabba” questions, I threw in the towel.
I thanked Spanky for his time and his contributions to the entertainment industry and bid him farewell.
Despite flubbing the interview I meant my “Thank You” to him with my entire heart.
You see. my childhood was filled with memories of watching The Little Rascals on TV at my MeMa and PePa’s home in Dallas while my sister and I munched on MeMa’s fresh brownies.
Although I never met Spanky before I called him on the phone, I always thought of him as the harbinger of good times and sunny Sunday afternoons spent with grandparents who adored me. I honestly felt like Spanky was a good friend.
But apparently, he wasn’t.
And so, defeated, I hung up the phone on the “interview” – feeling like the biggest loser ever.
I had taken no real notes. Just a few chicken scratches on the notepad my editor gave me.
I didn’t record the interview, either. Which really didn’t matter because I had not asked Spanky anything of any real value. For years after that, I really beat myself up about the experience. I mean: How could I have screwed this up? All I was supposed to do was set up an interview! And it was with Spanky from The Little Rascals, for gosh sakes!
Without a face-to-face interview and photos, the entire story for the school newspaper just ... fell through. Later, Spanky gave the interview I so desperately wanted to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter. Spanky had a book or something he was promoting. I remember thinking that the Star-Telegram reporter’s story was amazing. I’m sure anyone who read it had absolutely no doubt that Spanky McFarland was the greatest, most talented, cutest ‘Our Gang/Little Rascals” guy who ever lived.
And I still salute the late Mr. McFarland for that distinguished career. In January 1994, he posthumously joined fellow alumnus Jackie Cooper to become one of only two “Our Gang” members to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. And they totally deserved it.
Tragically, Spanky McFarland died at his Keller home in 1993.
But he left a legacy. Travis Tedford of Arlington, played the Spanky role in the 1994 “The Little Rascals” feature film.
Years -- and many long nights of contemplation -- later, I have made it my mission to never let the Spanky situation happen ever again. And I’ve found many creative ways to secure interviews.
Over the past 25 or so years, I have spoken with one of my favorites, Lindsay Wagner, the Bionic Woman, as well as Lisa Loeb, Tom Arnold, Lou Diamond Phillips, Yancy Butler, Margo Martindale, James Marsters, and even Jesse Jackson and George W. Bush – just to name a few. Many famous people– Mark Cuban springs to mind – are very approachable if you time it right.
(If you time it wrong? Ouch!)
When interviewing Lou Diamond Phillips, I called my sister on my cell and handed the cell to Lou once she answered. Neither of them were expecting me to do that, but they ended up speaking for a good minute or two.
Through his publicist, William Shatner emailed me a nice quote for a Star Trek-themed story I wrote around 2002 while a reporter in the Northeast Tarrant County Star-Telegram newsroom.
Lisa Whelchel also emailed me a quote for a story I wrote while a staff writer for Texas Jewish Post in Dallas. I geeked out about it for hours on Facebook. Had my interview with Lisa Whelchel taken place in person or over the phone, I would have felt compelled to sing the “Facts Of Life” theme song to her in its entirety. (A FB friend jokingly responded, “That’s probably why she didn’t speak to you in person or over the phone.”)
So I guess you have to work your way past negative experiences to develop the chops to attract the positive ones.
Still: To this day, I have no idea why Spanky McFarland distrusted “student journalists” so much. But I tell you what: After my phone conversation with him, I never again referred to myself as one.
Ben Tinsley – a veteran Texas news reporter with over 25 years experience in the industry – is the Burleson Star’s new managing editor and senior reporter. He can be reached by cell phone, (702) 524-3773 or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tinsley can also be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/bentinsley, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ben.tinsley.12 , or https://plus.google.com/+BenTinsley