Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Advertisement, the Telegram,, February 12, 1932. Image courtesy Silent Toronto.
Like children elsewhere across the continent, young Toronto moviegoers in the 1920s and 1930s eagerly awaited the next installment of the Our Gang series of shorts. The adventures of an ever-changing cast of rough-and-tumble kids entertained audiences during their original theatrical run from 1922 to 1944 and in reruns on televisions (often as The Little Rascals) for decades afterwards. Among the most popular performers, and one who bridged the silent and sound eras, was pigtailed Allen “Farina” Hoskins. The attention given to the Toronto stop of the vaudeville act he toured with after departing Our Gang in the early 1930s provides a glimpse into both his drawing power and the stereotypical manner in which non-white performers were depicted by the city’s media.
Legend has it that Allen Clayton Hoskins earned his stage name from an executive at Hal Roach Studios who felt the chubby toddler was as agreeable as a bowl of cereal (on set, and in scripts, he went by his normal nickname, “Sonny”). He starting acting in the Our Gang series just short of his second birthday in 1922 and became one of the series’ anchors within a few years, often being featured prominently in promotional material. Producer Hal Roach felt that Hoskins was “one of the finest natural actors we had in the gang. He could cry big tears in just a few seconds. You’d think his heart was breaking, then they’d cut the camera and he’d be back playing again.” Farina’s exact gender was not made clear for many years, a situation that was later repeated during Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas’s first few years in the series in the mid-1930s. By his final season in the series, Hoskins was the highest-paid member of the ensemble, earning $350 per week at a time when new recruits earned forty dollars.
Having grown out of Our Gang after 1931’s Fly My Kite, Hoskins and his younger sister Janey (a.k.a Mango) developed the vaudeville act that brought them to Toronto. Their engagement began on February 12, 1932 with a Friday night spot as a special attraction at the Imperial Theatre (now the Canon) amid the “Co-Eds” revue and opening night for the William Powell film High Pressure. The next morning, they performed at a matinee at the Imperial, then made brief appearances for adoring fans at two Kresge stores along Danforth Avenue.
The Star provided a teaser of their appearance:
Farina, with the eyes and corkscrew curls, the personification of inferiority complexity, who was a laugh in so many of the famous Our Gang Comedies, will be at the Imperial tomorrow in a big whoopee song, comedy and dance offering. Little sister Mango will assist the popular Farina in making this a thumb-nail whoopee spectacle. Few actors at seven can boast that they were knocking ‘em dead at three. Farina could but doesn’t.
Allen “Farina” Hoskins signs his copy of the Just Kids Safety Club membership card as his sister Janey (Mango) looks on. The Globe, February 13, 1932.
In terms of press coverage, the limited amount printed in the Globe would be considered the most palatable today. No derogatory terms were used in the paper’s brief biographical sketch, which focused on Farina’s signing of a membership card for the paper’s Just Kids Safety Club. The accompanying picture presents the siblings as two well-dressed children who could have been out for a winter walk. The Globe clearly depicted Farina as a boy, unlike the Telegram’s stance of keeping the gender of the “dark cloud of sunshine” fluid:
Yo’all remember this adorable little black fragment of that young band of hellions! For who could forget those pathetic eyes and the comic mass of kinky wool bound with muslin (or was it cotton)? It was christened Farina and they dressed it in rags and the moment it made its appearance it was hit with a lemon or custard pie.
And then there’s the Star. To modern eyes, reading the paper’s coverage makes you want to slap your head repeatedly each time reporters think phrases like “pickanniny sunshine dispenser” are a charming way to describe Hoskins. The paper’s photographers coaxed him to pose for the camera with his eyes bulging in a spooked-out way that echoes the way most black comedians had to play their roles at the time. An interview on the day of the first performance indicated that “two dark clouds descended upon Toronto today.” In that piece, Hoskins noted that he loved the previous stop, Montreal, for its “foreign atmosphere,” praised his sister’s hot dancing skills, mentioned that his favourite actors were Douglas Fairbanks and Joan Bennett, and, when asked if he had a girlfriend, noted “Yes I have. She lives in Los Angeles and she goes to school. But that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
Advertisement, the Toronto Star, February 12, 1932.
On matinee day, the Star featured a front-page interview with both children and their mother. Reporter Archibald Lampman (not the nineteenth century poet) noted that Janey “didn’t think we were so hot.” The girl’s instincts were on target, as the printed interview with “the doggy pickanins of the movies” was a shambling, sometimes condescending affair. The occasion was deemed to be so special that the paper set up “chairs all around.” The children’s responses to questions like “do you have a man teacher?” and the number of times it was noted that their mother kept them in line, indicated boredom on their part (Janey perked up only when asked if she liked Alice in Wonderland). Lampman made lame attempts to act as if he was trying to keep up the façade of dignified reporter before giving in to a case of the cutes whenever Hoskins flashed a toothy grin.
Every time we cleared our throat and adjusted our tie, Farina unloaded a façade of juvenile porcelain to our direction. His jet hair was got up in kinky little knobs with white ribbon and he wore a tattered black and white ensemble. It got us every time.
Mrs. Hoskins hinted at the discrimination the family faced, noting that she felt far more accepted on the west coast than the east. With a voice Lampman described as flowing “like an old darky melody,” she praised the efforts of Scopes Trial lawyer Clarence Darrow to improve conditions for blacks in America (presumably a reference to the Ossian Sweet case) and believe that her children’s generation would overcome prejudice.
After a final preview which noted that “Farina fascinated because he, or rather, she, was the perfect incarnation of poor witless man’s struggles against inscrutable fate,” the Star reviewed the performance: “Seated on a flour barrel on the stage last night,” the paper noted, “he gave even further promise. The boy has a natural comedian’s drawling accent and a nicely developed sense of pantomime.”
Hoskins gradually drifted away from show business and the name Farina. After a stint in the army during World War II, he took drama classes in Los Angeles but then, as he admitted during an Our Gang reunion on the television show You Asked For It! in the 1950s, “I decided I’d like to eat regular.” He moved north to the Bay Area and eventually found high satisfaction as a supervising director of adult workshop programs for the mentally challenged in Alameda County. Hoskins was inducted into the Black Filmmakers’ Hall of Fame in 1975 and died of cancer five years later.
Additional material from The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang by Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1992) and the following newspapers: the February 13, 1932 edition of the Globe; the February 13, 1932 edition of the Telegram; and the February 11, 1932. February 12, 1932, and February 13, 1932 editions of the Toronto Star. Thanks to Eric Veillette for assistance with the images.