Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer was the most popular star of the classic Our Gang comedies. But the facts of the Little Rascal’s untimely death have been clouded in Hollywood Babylon myth… until Burt Kearns & Jeff Abraham started digging.
by Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham
We were talking about Hollywood and performers who died onstage when Gilbert Gottfried asked us, “How did Alfalfa die?” Alfalfa from The Little Rascals? A drug deal, right? “Weren’t his last words, ‘Give me my drugs’?” “No!” Gilbert and his podcast partner Frank Santopadre shouted in unison. “No,” Gilbert said. “It had something to do with a dog.”
A dog? A dog like Pete from The Little Rascals? The American pit bull terrier with the ring drawn around his left eye? That’s the only dog we could think of when we thought of Alfalfa: Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, the skinny, freckle-faced kid with the slicked-back hair and straight-up cowlick from the Our Gang comedies of the 1930s. When the movie shorts were revived and renamed decades later on television, we all got to know Alfalfa and Spanky and Buckwheat and Darla and Stymie and the rest of the gang as The Little Rascals. Alfalfa was said to be a nasty practical joker and a pain in the ass on set, but he became the biggest star in the gang, the black-eyed kid who crooned the most unforgettable version of “I’m In The Mood for Love” when he was eight years old.
Alfalfa was said to be a has-been by the 1940s and a down-and-out alcoholic druggie on the fringes of show business by the time he died in 1959, bleeding out at age thirty-one in a sordid Hollywood Babylon scenario. We should say an actual Hollywood Babylon scenario, because the death of Alfalfa was one of the many scandals immortalized in Kenneth Anger’s infamous, notoriously-banned book, Hollywood Babylon. That’s why we thought Alfalfa was killed in a drug deal. Kenneth Anger wrote it:
“Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer is shot to death in a dope burn.”
That’s the scenario we grew up with, what got stuck in our heads at an impressionable age. The truth is somewhat different, about Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer’s life and career after Our Gang, and the circumstances of his death.
The “something to do with a dog” part, though? That’s correct. Not a dog like Pete the Pup; more like a Treeing Walker Coonhound, the dog that led to Alfalfa’s final confrontation, or the dirty dog who got away with his murder.
FIRST OF ALL, EVERYONE CALLED HIM ‘ALFALFA.’ From the time Hal Roach bestowed the moniker, through adulthood and even into the afterlife, no one called him by his given name. He was Alfalfa. Or Alfie, or Alf. So that’s how we’ll refer to him.
He was born Carl Dean Switzer in Paris, Illinois on August 7, 1927. He was the third and youngest son of four children born to Gladys Schanks and George Switzer. George was an inventor whose most noteworthy creation was the Allure Bust Development Device. Carl and his younger brother Harold were hometown celebrities who sang and played several musical instruments. They were on a family trip to Hollywood in 1934 when they visited Hal Roach Studios, were discovered by the producer and immediately shoved into the Our Gang comedy Beginner’s Luck. Harold faded into the background. Carl became “Alfalfa” and became a star.
Alfalfa made most of his money between the ages of seven and twelve. His parents spent it all. As he grew into and out of his teens, he worked steadily in character roles with diminishing returns, always immediately and distractingly recognizable as Alfalfa. Most notable was his part in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life in 1946. Alfalfa was Freddie Othello, Donna Reed’s date at the high school dance until she lays eyes on Jimmy Stewart. Freddie loses the girl but gets revenge by turning the key that opens the gymnasium’s retractable floor, causing the couple and other dancers to fall into the swimming pool below. He didn’t even get listed in the credits. The following year, he revived the Alfalfa character for a pair of “Gas House Kids” pictures. In all, for all his frustrations and historical reputation as a failure, Alfalfa would have small roles in at least six Academy Award-winning pictures.
He would have worked more, if not for the dogs.
Though he had film, and later television credits in every year of his life since Beginner’s Luck, Alfalfa’s true passion was the outdoors. Whenever he had the chance, and that was often—and often at the expense of his career—he’d leave dirty Hollywood to hunt in the crisp air and rugged wilderness of the High Sierra mountains outside Los Angeles, or travel 600 miles farther north to the majestic Cascades and Mount Shasta. Alfalfa began breeding and training hunting dogs, and began a business as a hunting guide, specializing in bears.
IN 1954, ALFALFA WAS 26 YEARS OLD and had his best chance at moving on from the juvenile roles he’d been saddled with since the days of Our Gang. He played a number of parts on Hollywood cowboy Roy Rogers’ television series and signed for three pictures with Wayne-Fellows Productions, John Wayne’s shingle on the Warner Bros. lot. The deal included a small role in Wayne’s disaster picture, The High and the Mighty, and a larger and potentially career-making part in a Robert Mitchum flick, Track of the Cat. Alfalfa would portray a 100-year-old Indian, in heavy makeup whose application aged him “at a rate of almost fourteen years an hour.” No one would mistake Joe Sam for the freckle-faced kid from Our Gang.
The John Wayne connection spun Alfalfa in an entirely different orbit that year, when Wayne’s brother Michael Morrison (remember, John Wayne was born “Marion Morrison”) set him up on a date with a “grain heiress” in town from Kansas. Dian Collingwood had come to Hollywood with her mother, after her father died in a fall from a grain elevator.
Alfalfa and Dian Collingwood hit it off so well that they eloped to Las Vegas in May. Within weeks, they’d split up, but in July, Hollywood gossip columnist Erskine Johnson wrote that Alf and his estranged bride had reconciled. Dian moved out of her mother’s home in Beverly Hills and the couple moved into a small apartment near the Warner Brothers lot, where Alfalfa was filming as the Indian. Among the terms for reconciliation, Johnson wrote: “Carl has agreed to get rid of his three dogs.”
In August, Erskine Johnson wrote one of his more ironic gossip items: “The bad luck that dogs the footsteps of former film kiddie stars has skipped Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, the freckled-faced, toothy-grinned kid of the Our Gang comedies.
“With a minor role in ‘The High and The Mighty’ and a bigger one — an ancient Indian in ‘Track of the Cat’ — he’s rubbing his eyes about film emoting again and wondering what happened.”
“I look just like I did when I was a kid,” Switzer told Johnson. “It’s hard for a child actor to start working again. I’ve never played a part over 19. I’m always a teenager and there haven’t been many jobs until recently.”
Johnson noted that for the past seven years, Alfalfa had been a bear-hunting guide in Sonora County, up and around Mount Shasta. “He has 18 hound dogs, ” he wrote, “and a couple of movie star customers, Roy Rogers (who got two bears last year) and Henry Fonda.”
“I’ll see how this turns out,” Alfalfa told the columnist. “If this doesn’t do it for me, nothing will. I go all the way through the picture.”
The bad luck began creeping in soon enough. A month after Johnson’s write-up, Alfalfa was back in the Cascades, hunting bear near Mount Shasta, when he was stricken with a severe pain in his right side. He should have turned back, but he was determined to bag a bear. He wound up getting three, but at a price. At one point, his coonhounds ran off on a scent and because of the pain, Alfalfa couldn’t keep up with them. One of his dogs got into a scrap with a black bear and was torn apart. That coonhound was worth $500.
When Alfalfa returned home that weekend, his appendix burst. Doctors at Temple Hospital operated on Sunday evening, September 19. Gossip queen Hedda Hopper interviewed a recovering Alfalfa in the hospital. Alfalfa agreed he was lucky the attack didn’t take place on the mountain, where he most likely would have joined his dog.
TRACK OF THE CAT did well at the box office, but his part as the old Indian didn’t generate any extra wampum for Alfalfa in 1955. Neither did his latest blast of publicity when the old Our Gang comedies found a place on television (just like William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy westerns had a few years earlier). WPIX television in New York City was running Alfalfa’s childhood hits on a show called The Clubhouse Gang. The series not only beat out all the other kid shows on the network, but surveys revealed that the old Our Gang shorts — soon to be marketed as “The Little Rascals,” had as many adult as child viewers. Alfalfa and his fellow Our Gang actors didn’t share in the syndicator’s success. They didn’t get a penny in residuals, and autograph conventions were a couple of decades away. Once again, being the eternal Alfalfa was a problem. He and his wife were broke.
According to his bride, money was scarce because Alfie never learned to read. “He was very bright but he needed help reading the scripts,” Dian Collingwood recalled many years later. “The other problem was he loved to hunt. He could have been a big star, but they couldn’t get him out of the mountains. They wrote the Jerry Lewis parts for Alf, but he was always up there when he was supposed to be at the studio.”
Dian’s mother offered the young couple a way out: the family farm she’d left behind in Pretty Prairie, Kansas. The Carl “Alfalfa” Switzers left Hollywood and moved to 700 acres of flat land where the alfalfa crop grew plentifully. Neighbors recall Alfie to have been a lousy farmer, but an avid hunter, knocking on doors at 4 a.m. to awaken his buddies to get out and kill some rabbits while the getting was good. No one in Kansas called him Carl. Everyone called him Alfalfa.
In 1956, Dian gave birth to Alfalfa’s son, Justin Switzer. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were godparents. The baby was a year and half old when Alfalfa had enough of the real alfalfa and enough of his wife. He filed for divorce in Reno County Court in September 1957, on grounds of “extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty.” He hung around Reno County for a while before heading back to Hollywood, where he spent more time with his dogs and leading hunting trips. Movie and television work was slow, so Alfalfa got a part-time job tending bar in Studio City.
He also moved into an apartment on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. The apartment was a less than a block from the entrance to Hollywood Memorial Park cemetery. That’s where, at the end of the final year of his life, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, would be buried.
ON SUNDAY EVENING, JANUARY 26, 1958, Alfalfa had parked his station wagon on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, just over the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. He was opening the driver’s side door when suddenly, a spray of glass hit him in the face and he was knocked back by a sharp sting in his upper right arm.
He’d been shot.
Alfalfa dropped to the floorboards and cowered. Blood soaking through his shirt, he waited for what was coming next. When no shots followed, he ran to a bar at 11916 Ventura, burst in and asked the startled bartender for help.
“Alfalfa?” Clark Olsen gave the wounded man a ride to North Hollywood Receiving Hospital. While Alfalfa underwent surgery, detectives gave his car a going-over. They found a bullet hole in the left front-door window and blood on the seat and floor. They figured the spent slug was somewhere in the station wagon, so they impounded the vehicle. When they got around to speaking to Alfalfa, he said he didn’t see who fired the shot. He swore he couldn’t think of anyone who’d want to kill him.
The newspapers labeled the shooter a “sniper” and the shooting “mysterious.” The sniper remained a mystery until Thursday, when Eugene Earl Butler, a real estate salesman from Woodland Hills, was arrested at his home. He was booked in Van Nuys Jail, charged with suspicion of assault with intent to commit murder.
The 30-year old suspect denied ambushing Alfalfa, but admitted he was being divorced by his wife Susan, and that he suspected that Alfalfa had been “seeing” her.
The following Monday, the papers published a photo of Alfalfa in bed, recovering from his wounds.
ALFALFA MADE ONE LAST MOVIE in 1958. The Defiant Ones starred Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as a pair of convicts, black and white, shackled together and on the run. Alfalfa’s role was small but notable comic relief in a tense drama. Offscreen, he continued to tend bar, lead hunters into the mountains, and breed and train coonhounds.
He was also drinking too much. Alfalfa supposedly almost drank himself to death on more than one occasion. Some say he was into drugs like methedrine. There have been allegations that he did some work for, and owed money to the Mob, and that the sniper attack at the beginning of the year was a Mob warning to pay his debt. There’s solid evidence he was scraping for money. Two days after Thanksgiving, he was arrested by the National Forest Service and charged with a “high misdemeanor of converting government real estate into personal property.”
That was a fancy way of saying that on November 29, Alfalfa went into the Sequoia National Forest and cut down fifteen trees on Poso Creek near the Sugar Loaf Lodge. He’d chopped down Christmas trees without a permit. Alfalfa went to court in Porterville (“The Gateway to Sequoia National Forest”) on December 12. The charge was knocked down to petty theft of Christmas trees. He received a suspended 30-day jail sentence, and was fined $225.
When Alfalfa stepped out of the courthouse, he had 40 days to live.
IN THE LAST YEAR OF HIS LIFE, there was another indication that Alfalfa may have been in dire financial straits and spinning toward tragedy. Before he’d gone on that Christmas tree-chopping adventure, he’d begun nursing a beef with an acquaintance named Bud Stiltz. Stiltz was 38, a bully boy from St. Louis who’d arrived in Hollywood as a bodyguard for Ray “Crash” Corrigan, a movie stuntman who first got work because he owned a gorilla suit and went on to work in westerns with stars like Alfalfa’s pal Roy Rogers. Stiltz was a mechanic and welder who was good with his hands, which made him valuable when his boss opened Corriganville, a movie ranch and tourist attraction in Simi Valley. In reality, Bud Stiltz was too good with his hands. Along the way, he stole Corrigan’s wife, Rita Jane, and moved in with her and their three kids.
In the final months of his life, Alfalfa had borrowed a coonhound from Bud Stiltz for a hunting trip to Mount Shasta. The dog got loose, ran away, and was eventually found by a local rancher who demanded a $50 reward. Alfalfa didn’t have the money, so he asked Stiltz to pay. It was his dog, after all. Stiltz told Alfalfa to pound dirt. “You lost the dog. You pay the damn reward.” Alfa was torn. He could either lose the dog or borrow fifty bucks.
He borrowed the money and nursed that grudge. He nursed it even harder as he nursed drinks at night in the bar. On Wednesday night, January 21, 1959, after a nice long session throwing them back with his pal Jack Piott, Alfalfa decided to make Bud Stiltz pay up. Piott, a 37-year-old bit actor, agreed to come along for the ride out to Mission Hills in the north San Fernando Valley.
It was just after dark when they turned onto a street lined with nice little ranch houses and pulled up at a nice little ranch house at 10400 Columbus Avenue. What transpired in the minutes to follow has been told in many ways. The newspapers, and official police account, played it like this:
Everything was quiet in the Corrigan house when Alfalfa banged on the door, impersonating a police officer and flashing a phony badge. “Let me in, or I’ll kick in the door!” he shouted.
Bud Stiltz opened the door. “I want that fifty bucks you owe me now — and I mean now,” Alfalfa growled. Then he stepped inside, demanded the money again, and a ferocious brawl ensued. The fight spilled into a bedroom. Alfalfa grabbed a glass-domed clock from a dresser and smashed Stiltz over the head with it. Stiltz, dazed and bleeding, pulled a gun from a dresser drawer. Alfalfa lunged for it, and as the men rolled into the living room, the gun went off. The bullet went into the ceiling. Rita Corrigan and her three kids — a 14-year-old son and two girls, 12 and 13 — ran to a neighbor’s house and called the cops.
Now Alfalfa grabbed the gun. Bud Stiltz got it back — and when he did, Alfalfa drew a big knife. “I’m gonna kill you, you son of a bitch!” he yelled.
“That’s when I shot him,” Stiltz told police.
Alfalfa was blasted in the abdomen. He soon was dead.
The next day, Deputy District Attorney Al Warnberg announced plans to charge Moses Samuel “Bud” Stiltz with murder. Stiltz, pictured in the papers with a big bandage covering his right eye, claimed self-defense.
An inquest was held on Monday, January 26. Bud Stiltz testified weepily to the coroner’s jury. “Alfie charged me with a jackknife,” he said — and yes, he called him Alfie. “I was forced to shoot.” The jury ruled that he’d acted in justifiable self-defense. Bud Stiltz went home to Rita Corrigan and the family. The following day, Alfalfa was buried at Hollywood Memorial Park.
THAT’S THE WAY THE STORY was told, repeated and embellished upon for more than 40 years. There were rumors that drugs were the real cause of the feud (thanks, Kenneth Anger!), and questions about the official account, because when police found Alfalfa’s penknife, it was under his body, and closed.
The truth, or the closest thing to it, wasn’t disclosed until 2001, when a reporter took the testimony of a 14-year-old boy. Of course, Tommy Corrigan wasn’t 14 any more. He was 56, a San Fernando Valley character who dressed like a movie cowboy with a ten-gallon Stetson, and was owner and face of the western-themed Corrigan’s Steakhouse, the most popular eatery in the Valley. Tom Corrigan was Crash Corrigan’s son, and later, stepson to Bud Stiltz. He was the kid who was in the room when Alfalfa and Bud engaged in their fatal combat.
The story Tommy told to reporter Colleen Cason differed from Bud Stiltz’s, and was at odds with the official account. It began just before dark on the night of January 21, 1959, he said, with a knock at the door at the Corrigan home. It wasn’t someone impersonating a police officer. It was a voice that called out, “Western Union for Bud Stiltz!” When Tommy heard the voice, he almost laughed. He’d known Alfalfa through his dad, and after all these years, Alfalfa still sounded like the kid who warbled “I’m in The Mood for Love.”
Tommy’s mom Rita opened the door, and Tommy was in the living room when Alfalfa walked in, along with Jack Piott. Alfie was drunk. He wanted his money, and he said he’d beat it out of Bud Stiltz. When Bud entered the room, Tommy said, he was already holding the .38 caliber revolver. Alfalfa went for the gun, and while he and Bud wrestled, it was Jack Piott who crowned Bud with the glass-domed clock. The big man’s eyes swelled shut and the gun went off. The bullet went through the wall or ceiling and a piece of plaster or shrapnel hit Tommy in the leg. He screamed. His two kid sisters ran to a neighbor’s house to call the cops, and the action on the floor came to a sudden stop.
“Well, we shot Tommy,” Alfalfa said, backing off. “Enough of this.”
He and Jack Piott were stepping away, and Tommy had just walked out the front door when he heard another shot. Then he saw Alfalfa, looking surprised as he fell back against the wall and slid to the floor, shot in the groin. “It was then,” Cason wrote, “Corrigan spotted a closed penknife at Alfie’s side, He figured it either fell out of his fist or his pocket.”
Meanwhile, Stiltz had Jack Piott backed up against the kitchen counter at gunpoint, shouting that he was next. Jack cried and begged for his life. Rita screamed at Bud not to shoot. The sirens were approaching. This time, Bud Stiltz backed off.
In this version, Alfie didn’t lunge with a knife. The gun didn’t go off in the heat of battle, or in self-defense. Tom Corrigan told Colleen Cason, “It was more like murder.”
Tommy said he told his story back then to a detective named Pat Poe. He said he even agreed to testify, but he was never called.
Alfalfa’s mother Gladys never bought the official story either. She was going to press for a real police investigation into her son’s death but worried it might aggravate her husband Fred’s heart condition. She and Fred had already been prescribed sedatives after Alfalfa’s ex-wife Dian (whose lawyer said “she has no further interest in her ex-husband, dead or alive”), delayed the funeral by refusing to allow the coroner to release the body to them. Fred died two months later. Alfalfa’s brother Harold, the one who got pushed into the background in their first Our Gang feature, died at 42 in April 1967, also at the end of a gun. Only he was holding the gun, having gone home to blow his brains out after using the gun to kill his partner in a laundromat business. His mother said Harold had been suffering from a painful brain tumor. “He’d say, ‘Oh, my head is on fire.’ Then he went berserk and shot himself.”
Bud Stiltz died in 1983, at 62. Tom Corrigan, who hated his stepfather, would join the Marines, and in 1982, open his steakhouse. He died in March 2018, at 73.
The grave of Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, located in what’s now the Hollywood Forever cemetery, still attracts tourists and fans. A Treeing Walker coonhound is etched in the center of Alfalfa’s gravestone. Every once in a while, someone draws a ring around the dog’s eye so he looks like Pete from the Our Gang comedies.
(With thanks to Gilbert Gottfried and Frank Santopadre.)