He was freckled. He was squeaky-voiced. He had an uncontrollable cowlick. And, he had an irrepressible personality. When you think of Alfalfa, the images conquer the imagination, and the joy is unconfined. His Our Gang appearances have made him an unforgettable part of film history, and his is a story that is packed with adventures, with more than its share of difficulty.
Carl Dean Switzer was born on August 8, 1927, in Paris, Illinois, to George and Gladys Switzer. Carl had an older brother, Harold Frederick Switzer, who would also work in films with his little brother. The two boys created quite a sensation, singing at auctions and various functions near their parents’ farm in Illinois. One time, when visiting their grandparents in California, Carl and Harold decided to try their luck at auditioning for Hal Roach’s popular Our Gang series. However, the boys had some difficulty getting onto the studio grounds without a pass. So, the two stood outside the commissary, and amidst the midday lunch crowd, starting singing. The commotion caught the attention of Hal Roach, who instantly secured the boys for the current Our Gang comedy, the aptly titled 1935 short, Beginner’s Luck.His first nickname in the Gang was Hayseed. But, it was Alfalfa that stuck. And, within a few weeks, Alfalfa had established himself as a formidable talent, a dynamic combination of personality and talent. His perfect handling of dialogue was combined with a most unique penchant for singing. He gave a new meaning to every song he sang.
Alfalfa’s country roots definitely influenced his first appearances in Our Gang films. Soon, however, he took on a different persona, as a slick, wisecracking kid, with a typical costume of a three-piece suit, necktie, and fedora hat. His singing style evolved, as well. He strayed away from the hillbilly, country boy tunes, opting for the unlikely role of crooner. This was so ironic, and so comically brilliant, because his unpredictably squeaky voice quickly made a romantic ballad something of a comedy romp.
Alfalfa appeared in 61 Our Gang comedies from 1935 through 1940. And, the images are indelible: his comic antics with Spanky, his romantic entanglements with Darla, his rivalry with Butch, and his love affair with the movie-going public. Truly, his character had impact, and his screen image in the Our Gang films will cement his immortality.
As happens with all child actors, eventually, there came a point when Alfalfa became too mature, in voice and appearance, to continue with the Our Gang series. He made his final appearance in a short called Kiddie Kure in 1940. He wanted to continue acting, but encountered the difficult reality of typecasting. People thought of him as that irrepressible youngster who sang with a squeak and had a chunk of hair standing up on end. They were hesitant to think of him as an adult – and this caused a great deal of frustration for Alfalfa, who had no end of challenges finding work. He had plenty of bit roles, in such films as State of the Union and Pat and Mike, both with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, My Favorite Blonde with Bob Hope, and a series geared around The Gas House Kids, which reunited him with fellow Our Ganger Tommy “Butch” Bond. Alfalfa also had a cameo in one of the most famous movies of all time: the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
However, try as he could, Alfalfa could never eclipse the shadow of Our Gang. It must have been a huge disappointment to him, and his fellow child performers, to have to remain perpetual teenagers, and not be accepted in the normal process of growing up. Add to this the fact that any producers that he wanted a job from would always ask him to sing off key for them. It was a tremendous source of frustration. Alfalfa had to balance this with the reality of needing an income – he supplemented his occasional acting jobs by tending bar and serving as a big-game hunting and fishing guide in Northern California.
As the 1950s came to a close, tragic events unfolded in Alfalfa’s life. Alfalfa was married, and was quickly divorced. His former wife remarried, and raised their son without telling him who his real father was. In January 1958, Alfalfa was shot and wounded by an unknown assailant who was never caught. Then, on January 21, 1959, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer was shot to death in an argument over a $50 debt owed him by his former partner in the big-game hunting business. The slaying, which took place at 10400 Columbus Avenue in the San Fernando Valley, was ruled a justifiable homicide, since it was alleged that Alfalfa had threatened the other man with a knife. It was a sad and tragic ending to a life that had brought such joy to so many. Alfalfa was just 31 years old at the time of his death.
We who are fans choose to remember not the conflict and the hardships, but the happiness and enjoyment that emanated from the life of Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer. We recall, with smiles and laughter, the comedy of Our Gang, knowing that these talented youngsters, headed for so long by wacky Alfalfa, will remain legends in the world of cinema, forever.