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Carl Switzer was born August 7, 1927 in Paris, Illinois. Carl was the youngest child born to Gladys Carrie Shanks and George Frederick “Fred” Switzer. Their oldest son died in 1922. Carl also had a sister Janice (b. 1923) and a brother Harold (b. 1925).
Carl and Harold became famous in Paris for their musical talent and performances. Both boys sang and played a number of instruments.
In 1934, the family traveled to California to visit family. During their trip, they toured to Hal Roach Studios. After the tour, six year old Carl and his brother Harold entered the public cafeteria, ‘Our Gang Cafe’ and began an impromptu performance.
Unknown to the family, producer Hal Roach was present in the cafeteria and was impressed with the boys’ performance. He signed both brothers to appear in ‘Our Gang’. Harold was given the nicknames ‘Slim’ and ‘Deadpan’. Carl was dubbed ‘Alfalfa’.
In 1935, the brothers appeared in the ‘Our Gang’ short, ‘Beginners Luck’. By the end of 1935, Alfalfa was one of the main characters, while Harold was turned into a background character. Although he was an experienced singer and musician, Alfalfa was known to sing off key renditions of popular songs for comic effect, most often those of Bing Crosby.
Though the audience loved Alfalfa, it was his co-stars who knew the other side of him. He was known for being abrasive and difficult on the set. Switzer was known for playing cruel jokes on the other actors and holding up filming with his antics.
“Alfie once put fish hooks in Spanky’s back pockets and poor Spanky had to have stitches placed on his tush,” co-star Darla Hood said.
Darla wasn’t off limits either. Switzer put a switchblade in his pocket and tricked her into putting her hand in there with the pretense that he had a ring for her from a Crackerjack box. She almost lost her fingers.
His trouble making ways didn’t stop there. Switzer pulled off a prank that could’ve ended badly.
“We were filming one day and the scene called for the kids to show their own movie on a progress screen. The rear projection system and lights (1,000 watts per bulb) were taking a long time to set up,” George ‘Spanky’ McFarland stated in an interview. “Alfie decided to use this time by going behind the screen and peeing on the bulbs. This is extremely hazardous, for even spitting on those bulbs is tantamount to setting off a series of bombs. The lights exploded and filled the studio with a tremendous stench. Everyone had to be taken off set and the director fixed the bulbs and cleaned up the mess Alfalfa created that day.”
By the end of 1937, Switzer’s ‘Alfalfa’ character had surpassed the series’ nominal star, George “Spanky” McFarland. Even though both of the boys got along, it was their fathers that argued over their sons’ screen time and salaries.
In 1940, Switzer’s tenure on ‘Our Gang’ ended. He was twelve years old. His first movie role after leaving the series was a boy scout in the film ‘I Love You Again’ starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. In 1941, he co-starred in the comedy ‘Reg’lar Fellers’. The next year, he had a supporting role in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.
Carl continued to appear in films in various supporting rolls. Some of his movies included ‘Johnny Doughboy’ (1942), ‘Going My Way’ (1944) and ‘The Great Mike’ (1944). He also had an uncredited role as Auggie in the 1943 film ‘The Human Comedy’.
In 1946-47, Switzer reprised his ‘Alfalfa’ character, complete with comically sour vocals in PRC’s Gas House Kids comedies. By this time, Switzer was downplaying his earlier ‘Our Gang’ work. In his 1946 resume, he referred to the films generically as ‘MGM short product’.
Switzer also had small parts in the 1946 Christmas film ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ as Mary Hatch’s date at a high school dance in the beginning of the film and again in the 1948 film ‘On Our Merry Way’ as the mayor’s son, a trumpet player in a fixed musical talent contest.
In 1952, he played in ‘Pat and Mike’ as a bus boy. The movie starred Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. In the 1954 musical film ‘White Christmas’, Switzer’s photo was used to depict ‘Freckle-Faced Haynes, the Dog-Faced Boy’, an army buddy of the lead characters Wallace & Davis. The movie starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, who was also the brother of both female leads the Haynes Sisters, played by Rosemary Clooney & Vera-Ellen.
Switzer turned to television in the 1950’s. Between 1952 and 1955, he made six appearances on ‘The Roy Rogers Show’. He also guest starred in an episode of the American Science Fiction Anthology series Science Fiction Theatre and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.
In 1953 and 1954, Switzer co-starred in three William A. Wellman directed films: ‘Island in the Sky’ and ‘The High and the Mighty’, both starring John Wayne, and ‘Track of the Cat’, starring Robert Mitchum.
In 1956, he co-starred in The Bowery Boys film ‘Dig that Uranium’ followed by a bit in the part as a Hebrew slave in Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments’. His final film role was in the 1958 drama ‘The Defiant Ones’.
In early 1954, Switzer went on a blind date with Diantha Collingwood, also known as Dian or Diana, the daughter of Lelo and Faye Collingwood and heiress of grain elevator empire Collingwood Grain. Collingwood had moved with her mother and sister to California in 1953 because her sister wanted to become an actress.
Switzer and Collingwood got along well and married in Las Vegas three months later. In 1956, with his money running out and Diantha pregnant, his mother in law offered them a farm near Pretty Prairie, Kansas. Their son, Justin Lance Collingwood Switzer was born that year. In 1957, the couple divorced and Diantha married Richard Rosswell ‘Ross’ Eldridge, who adopted Lance as his own. Diantha and Richard had two more children Chris and Lee Eldridge.
In 1957, Carl was paid a visit by his former co-star George “Spanky” McFarland. “The last time I saw Carl was in 1957.
It was a tough time for me and him. I was starting a tour of theme parks and county fairs in the Midwest. Carl married this girl whose father owned a pretty good size farm near Wichita,” McFarland said. “When I came through town, he heard about it and called. He told me he was helping run the farm, but he finally had put a radio on the tractor while he was out there plowing. Knowing Carl, I knew that wasn’t going to last. He may have come from Paris, Illinois, but he wasn’t a farmer! We hadn’t seen each other since we left the ‘Gang’. So we had lunch. We talked about all the things you’d expect. And I never saw him again. He looked pretty much the same. He was just the Carl Switzer-kind of cocky, a little antsy and I thought to myself he hasn’t changed that much. He still talked big. He just grew up”.
In January 1958, Switzer was getting into his car in front of a bar in Studio City, California when a bullet smashed through the window and struck him in the upper right arm. The gunman was never caught. Later that December, Switzer was arrested in Sequoia National Forest for cutting down fifteen pine trees he’d intended to illegally sell as Christmas trees and sentenced to one year’s probation and ordered to pay a $225 fine, which would be about $2,000 today.
In 1959, in the middle of his legal and financial issues, Switzer agreed to train a hunting dog, a Treeing Walker Coonhound for Moses Samuel “Bud” Stiltz, a long time friend and business partner whom he met while working with Roy Rogers on various productions at the Corriganville Movie Ranch.
While in Switzer’s possession, the dog ran off to chase after a bear. Stiltz was unsympathetic towards Switzer, firm in his demands that he return his dog or pay him the equivalent of the dog’s value. Switzer took out ads in the newspapers and put up posters in an effort to find the dog. Eventually, the dog was located and brought to the bar where Switzer was working at time. The rescuer was rewarded with $35 in cash and $15 in alcoholic beverages, the equivalent of $450 now.
The loss of his $50 didn’t sit well with Switzer. During an emotional conversation with his friend Jack Piott, the two decided that Stiltz should reimburse Switzer the finder’s fee, as the dog was still Stiltz’s and not Switzer’s.
The two arrived at Stiltz’s home in Mission Hills that he shared with his wife, Rita Corrigan and his step-children to demand money. The accounts of the exchange differ depending on who you would ask. All present agreed that Stiltz was struck over the left side of his head with a glass clock and later retreated to his room to retrieve a .38 revolver, which Switzer wrestled him for, causing the gun to discharge and almost shoot Tom Corrigan, Stitlz’s fourteen year old step son.
Stiltz account was one of self defense, testifying that Switzer had banged on his front door yelling, ‘Let me in or I’ll kick in the door’. The threat was followed by a struggle that began with one of the men, Switzer or Piott, striking Stiltz with the clock, prompting him to retrieve his firearm, which Switzer grabbed for. The gun discharged accidentally, almost shooting Corrigan, after which Switzer, according to Stiltz, threatened him with a knife and yelled ‘I’m going to kill you’. Stiltz fired and shot Switzer in the groin, damaging and artery that caused massive internal bleeding. Switzer was dead when he arrived at the hospital.
On January 25, 2001, Tom Corrigan, Stiltz’s step son told his side of the story. Corrigan was just a child when Switzer was killed. “It was more like murder,” Corrigan stated. Tom stated that he had heard a knock on the door and Switzer said ‘Western Union for Bud Stiltz’. Rita, his mother, opened the door to find a drunk Switzer, complaining about a perceived month old debt and demanded repayment.
Corrigan said Swtizer entered the house followed by Jack Piott and said he was going to beat up Stiltz. Stiltz confronted Switzer with a .38 caliber revolver in his hand. Corrigan said that Switzer grabbed the revolver and began to struggle over it. He said Piott broke the glass domed clock over Stiltz’s head, causing his eyes to swell shut.
During the struggle, a shot was fired into the ceiling and Corrigan was struck in the leg by a fragment. Corrigan said his two younger sisters ran to a neighbor’s house to call for help. He recalled Switzer saying ‘Well, we shot Tommy, enough of this’ just before they left.
Corrigan said he had stepped out of the front door when he heard, but did not witness, a second shot behind him. He said he then turned and saw Switzer sliding down the wall with a surprised look on his face after Stiltz had shot him. Corrigan said he saw a closed penknife at Switzer’s side, which he presumed fell out of his pocket or his hand.
Tom then said he saw his stepfather shove Piott against the kitchen counter and threaten to kill him too. Corrigan said they heard emergency sirens as Piott began to beg for his life, and he thought that was the only reason Bud didn’t kill him. Corrigan said his stepfather lied in his account of the event before the coroner’s jury.
Corrigan said a Los Angeles Police Department Detective interviewed him and asked him if he would testify before the judge. He agreed, but was never called before the court. “He didn’t have to kill him,” Corrigan said.
Moses Stiltz died in 1983 at the age of 62. Carl Switzer was interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. Because he died the same day as Cecil B. DeMille, his death received only minor notice in most newspapers as DeMille’s obituary dominated the columns.