In the history of film, there have been scores of leading ladies who have charmed and captivated audiences worldwide. But, how many of them have been children? Only a handful — and one of the most enduring young actresses, whose talents will forever be remembered, is Darla Hood, the brunette beauty who contributed to the great success of the Our Gang films of the 1930s and 1940s. This gorgeous little girl grew into a multi-faceted, and diversely talented, adult performer — and her story began in the country’s heartland.
Darla Jean Hood was born on November 4, 1931, in Leedey, Oklahoma. Her father, James Claude Hood, was a banker, but it was her mother, Ruby Elizabeth, who encouraged their little girl to take singing and dancing lessons in nearby Oklahoma City. Darla’s looks made her a performance natural: her teachers recognized this early on. They thought so highly of Darla that they brought her along on a trip to New York City. One night, at the Hotel Edison in Times Square, the bandleader invited the little dynamo to actually conduct the orchestra and sing. The entire crowd instantly fell in love with her, including a man named Joe Rivkin, who was the casting director for a major production house in Hollywood — Hal Roach Studios. Recognizing the possibilities, Rivkin arranged for an immediate screen test in Manhattan. The result? Darla was whisked to Hollywood, where she was signed by Hal Roach to a seven-year contract, starting at $75 a week. From there, a major star was born.
The Our Gang Follies of 1936 was already deep in production, but Roach’s new find was hastily written into the musical revue, singing “I’ll Never Say Never Again, Again.” This delightful introduction was enough to solidify Darla’s new role: Our Gang leading lady. Over the next six years, she appeared in fifty Gang comedies, mostly as the love interest to Alfalfa, played by Carl Switzer. Switzer, who died in 1959, is also buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Darla had it all: she had a canny ability to act, had a delightful speaking voice, and could wow them with her singing. Any song Darla tried, she gave new meaning to. She was a marvelous asset to a truly unique ensemble of child actors.
One of the downfalls of children in the entertainment industry is the awkward transition from being a “cute little kiddle” to becoming a teenager. For many members of Our Gang, this adjustment was not an easy one. And, by the time Darla retired from Our Gang, she was almost twelve years old. Imagine how difficult it must have been for a child that age to resign herself to the fact that the public, that adored her just last year, now stopped worshipping her. For Darla, what could have been a very uncomfortable period was made easier, simply by improvising. While she would never again attain the level of stardom that she had as a youngster, Darla now used her talents – her vocal gifts – to forge a successful, and busy, career as a behind-the-scenes performer.
Early on, she formed a vocal group called “Darla Hood and the Enchanters,” which provided background music for many 1940s films. She also did stage work, and appeared as a regular on the television programs of Paul Whiteman and Ken Murray. Darla did guest spots, in the 1950s and 1960s, on Tell It to Groucho and The Jack Benny Program. She had a nightclub act which had bookings at the Copacabana in New York, the Sahara in Las Vegas, and the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. And, in the midst of a very busy schedule, she found time to appear, as a secretary, in the 1959 Vincent Price horror classic, The Bat. She had a wonderfully hectic and fruitful career.
But, it was in voiceover work that Darla found the most versatile use for her unique three-octave voice. She was the voice of such products as Campbell Soups, the Tiny Tears Doll, and, most famously, sang the famed jingle which boasted, “Ask any tuna you happen to see, What’s the Best Tuna? Chicken of the Sea!“
Darla attended numerous festivals and conventions, held throughout the 1960s and 1970s, celebrating the legacy of Our Gang. She also organized a reunion of the kid stars at a 1979 Laurel and Hardy convention, sponsored by the team’s fan club, The Sons of the Desert. Unfortunately, she could not attend. Darla entered the hospital in Spring 1979, for routine surgery. However, she contracted hepatitis, and died on June 13, 1979. She was just 47 years old. Darla Jean Hood rests in the Abbey of the Psalms, on the grounds of Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
The legend of Darla Hood will live on forever. The films of Our Gang, syndicated on television as The Little Rascals, pass on from generation to generation, and are as apopealing now as in their day. Scores of memorabilia pieces, from figurines to dolls to lunch boxes, keep the memory of these delightful child actors alive and well. There was even a 1970s cartoon series, based on the popular Gang films, and a feature movie, called The Little Rascals, in 1994. As long as the Gang remains a part of the popular consciousness, Darla Hood will be remembered fondly, and will remain forever young.