Ernie reminisces about his experiences in Hollywood:
I was born in Beverly Hills in July of 1931. Our next door neighbor, William McGann, was a director for Warner Bros. and knew that the various studios were looking for photogenic and talented youngsters for the many films coming up. The success of Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and the 221 money-making episodes of the Our Gang Comedies (1922-1944) created a huge demand for hundreds of movie brats.
Mr. McGann had cast me in one of his films when I was five, which then qualified me to join the Screen Extras Guild (SEG) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and my mother signed a Warner Bros. contract for me. When the next Our Gang film began production, I was loaned out to the Hal Roach Studios.
As Stinky, my usual role was as the tagalong kid riding a tricycle. Once Alfalfa was supposed to be in a boxing match, and he had the choice of who it was he wanted to fight. I was one of his potential opponents but, after feeling my muscles, he decided I was too strong. Considering how skinny I was, that really was a comedy.
One morning, a scene in an Our Gang episode called for Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) to recite Shakespeare. He was supposed to say Mark Anthonys famous line, Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. Alfalfa messed it up at least 15 times until he got it right. Everyone on the set knew the line better than he did long before the final take!
In one of the Our Gang episodes, we were on location at the Warner Bros. Ranch in the west end of the San Fernando Valley. The scene called for Farina to run to the shack beside the small lake, quickly change into his skin-colored bathing suit (to look like he was skinny-dipping) and jump in the water. The problem was he couldnt swim. So they had positioned a professional swimmer in a black suit to make him invisible under the water and instructed Farina to jump in the water. Before he would sink, the swimmer would come up beneath him and carry him on his back across the lake. It took several takes before he got it right, but I admired him for having the courage to even try such a stunt, realizing how afraid he was of the water.
Caesar Romero was my mothers boyfriend in another film. I was playing an obnoxious brat and, in one scene, he invited me to join him in the pool. His line was, Its only up to my waist. But your waste is taller than I am, I responded. He answered, Thats the idea. Romero was very patient through the whole scene.
In another film, The Bluebird by Maurice Maeterlinck, we were all dressed in brief, blue satin togas. It was one of the last of Shirley Temples films before the beginning of the Second World War. The youngsters, who represented unborn children in heaven, were covered with body makeup wherever they werent covered by these skimpy costumes. During the long hours between takes, we were to stay inside a huge tent that sat on a wooden platform with fans blowing on us to protect us from the summer heat.
We played constantly when we were in the tent (it was summer and there was no school to worry about) and got filthy rolling around on the dirty wooden floor. Every hour or so we would be alerted to get ready to be on the set for the next scene. As we filed out, several makeup people on each side of the line swabbed us down from head to toe with another layer of body makeup to cover up the grime. They used large buckets and sponges to apply it and, by the end of the day, the makeup had to be six or seven layers thick. Every night for the week that we shot the scene my mother would have to soak me several times in the bathtub to get me clean, each time scrubbing off the pancake makeup that clung to the sides of the tub.
There was a casting call for a young boy who could speak French. My mother, who had lived for several years after her first marriage in a town in New Hampshire where they spoke French, gave me a crash-course in the hopes it would convince the director to use me. But all they really needed to hear was a French accent. In the scene, the teachers line to the class was, What is the capitol of France? I was to answer Vichy, the underground headquarters of the French resistance, after another child had answered Paris, the capitol held by the Germans.
The other actor then threw the contents of a bottle of ink at me (it was only tinted water). My next line was, So you throw eenk at me! and a fight ensued. This was my first experience with movie violence.
The reward for all the hard work at the Maury Rubins School on Sunset was our regular paid performances as an entertainment troop. As a chorus line of six couples, boys and girls all about eight years old, we performed as the Floradora Sextet from the Siegfield Follies, In Your Easter Bonnet from Easter Parade, and a number of other song and dance routines. We were very popular with night club crowds. A beautiful little blond named Shirley Doble was my partner. I had a crush on her and didnt really mind how many times we had to rehearse.