By Jill Rosen
The Baltimore Sun
2:43 PM EDT, June 22, 2012
Though Norman Chaney has lain in obscurity for nearly 76 years, thanks largely to the generosity of Baltimore, the child star is getting a headstone.
In May fans launched a campaign to raise money to mark the grave of Chaney, a Baltimore native, who won a national contest in 1929 to become "Chubby," the new "fat kid" in the popular film series "Our Gang."
Though he quickly won hearts with his round cheeks and charm, Chaney, the son of a Baltimore electrical worker, left after just two seasons, returning to Baltimore, where he went to school, eventually became sickly and died at 21 just as most young people's careers are taking off.
He was buried in Baltimore Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Even if people wanted to pay him respects, they had no idea where to find him.
Earlier this year a Michigan musician who goes by the name Mikal C.G. realized that and found it immensely sad. He decided to see if he could help.
Producer Hal Roach created the "Our Gang" films, which became known as "The Little Rascals" on television. The comedies showcased a bunch of children who were supposed to be pals in a poor neighborhood. It's credited for being among the first to have black and white children acting together.
Chaney bested nearly 2,000 boys in a national contest for the role of the fat one in the film shorts, replacing Joe Cobb. When he heard the news that he'd gotten the job, Chaney reportedly told Roach, "Mister, are you just kidding me because I'm fat?"
Chaney appeared on "Our Gang" from 1929 to 1931. In one famous episode, he has a crush on his teacher, Miss Crabtree, and while attempting to woo her, asks that she call him "Chubsy-Ubsy."
Mikal C.G. called it "a tragedy" that someone who'd gave so many people so much pleasure was buried without recognition. So he started an online fund drive. After a story ran in The Baltimore Sun, donations began coming in -- as little as $1, as much as $100.
The plan was to raise $8,000 to buy the nicest headstone for Chaney that Baltimore Cemetery would allow -- only a modest one, nothing grand. Because the stone had to be small, Mikal C.G. wanted the best black granite, and he wanted it to have an etching of Chaney's round, expressive face. If he could reach goal, he'd have enough to buy one just like it for Chaney's mother Carolyn, who lays next to him, also in an unmarked plot.
In the end, when the campaign wrapped this week, more than 100 people contributed, most of them from in or near the city. They'd chipped in about $3,500 dollars, it was less than Mikal C.G. had hoped for.
That's where Heather Simons came in. The funeral director for Baltimore's Hubbard Funeral Home had read about the campaign and reached out to the organizers, offering help finding a good price on a headstone.
She'd never even seen "Our Gang."
"I just thought wow, whether you've seen the show or not, it reaches you as a human," she said. "I felt that anybody deserves to have their final resting place marked propertly, especially someone like him who'd accomplished so much in such a short period of time."
Simons arranged for the campaign to work with Tegeler Monument in Woodlawn. There
Shane Mitchell, the general manager, found a way to get the black granite and the etched messages that Mikal C.G. had in mind, but for less than half the price they were orginally quoted.
"We felt it was important," Mitchell said. "Everyone has a story. Everyone has touched people's lives. It's nice to go to a place of remembrance and just reflect. What if you don't have that place? Anyway, it's not always about profit in a business."
So the headstones are ordered. They'll be 28 inches wide and stand 16 inches tall, thicker at the bottom than the top to create a slanted effect.
Chaney's will state his full name, Norman Myers Chaney. It will list the dates of his birth and death. And it will say he was known as known as Chubby "aka Chubsy-Ubsy." There wil be a photo of him carved into the granite, one from his prime, where he's wearing a suit and smiling.
The stones should be ready for installation in about four months. Mikal C.G. would like to have a small service then, an unveiling for anyone who'd like to come.
"It worked out as it should have," he says. "I feel pretty good about it."
When Chaney died on May 29, 1936 after surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the New York Times covered the one-time actor’s death with the headline "Norman Chaney Dies; Fat Boy of 'Our Gang.'" The obituary pointed out that he died at the West Lombard Street home of his grandparents.
Simons finds it fitting that it was folks from the city, people who know Lombard Street even if they never knew Chaney, who stepped up to bury him right.
"It seems appropriate," she said. "It makes Baltimore seem a little smaller."
Follow the effort online at: http://facebook.com/NormanChubbyChaney and http://twitter.com/ChubbyChaney
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