Fundraiser aims to give Chubby from 'Our Gang' a headstone
Baltimore child star Norman Chaney has lain in unmarked grave for decades
The unmarked Baltimore Cemetary grave of Norman "Chubby" Chaney, star of the early TV show "Our Gang." (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / May 10, 2012)
Chaney, the son of a Baltimore electrical worker, won a national contest in 1929 to become "Chubby," the new "fat kid" in the popular film series, replacing the original Chubby, who had grown out of the role.
But with his impossibly round face and impish charm, Chaney eclipsed his predecessor — becoming the fat kid people remembered.
Yet after only two seasons with "Our Gang," Chaney left the show and returned to Baltimore, where he went to school, eventually became sickly and died just as most young people's careers are taking off.
"To die at only 21 and to be in an unmarked grave when people are still watching the show and laughing and getting all this enjoyment from his work," says a Michigan musician who goes by the name Mikal C.G. who has started the collection to buy Chaney a headstone. "I thought to myself, that's kind of a tragedy."
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 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."
"He's one of the characters that most people remember," says Mikal C.G.
When Chaney left the program, apparently getting bigger and losing his cuteness in the eyes of show executives, he moved home, where he struggled with his health. His weight fluctuated wildly over the years, ballooning to a high of 300 pounds and, near his death, plummeting to less than half that.
Doctors treating him at Johns Hopkins Hospital chalked his ailment up to a "glandular disorder." He died at age 21, on May 29, 1936, after surgery.
The New York Times covered the one-time actor's death with the headline, "Norman Chaney Dies; Fat Boy of 'Our Gang.'" He died at the West Lombard Street home of his grandparents, the article said.
Chaney beat nearly 2,000 other 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?"
He was just a fifth-grader then, his obituary said, with good grades in everything but "deportment," which he famously said ranked "low," because he shined in other ways, namely making "the other kids laugh so easily."
Visitors enter Baltimore Cemetery, where Chaney has been buried for nearly 76 years, through a castle-like gate at North Avenue's eastern terminus. Despite the showy threshold, and despite a handful of grand monuments inside, the cemetery is a final resting place for the working class.
Chaney's grave can be found a short walk from the entrance, beside that of his grandparents, Mildred and William Myers, who share a stone etched with a cross and flowers. He's there somewhere to the left, near his mother, under the grass and buttercups.
Bob Satterfield, a high school activities director from California and a member of a society devoted to the comedy duo Laurel & Hardy, another Hal Roach creation, is helping with the fundraising drive. He has already helped get headstones made for four other "Our Gang" members.
He visited Baltimore Cemetery years ago to pay respects to Chaney, and he knows there are plenty more fans who would do so, too, if only the grave were easier to find.
"There's people out there, lots of them all over the world, who remember him very well," Satterfield says. "We're just trying to make this correct, so people can pay homage and leave flowers and gifts."
Satterfield and the others collecting money don't want just any marker. They want something grand to make up for the years of anonymity. But the cemetery will only allow so much — in this case, a modest slab, about the size of a breadbox. So the plan is to set up Chaney with the nicest breadbox-size stone that money can buy — a piece of black granite carved with an etching of his round, expressive face.