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‘”Otay!” The Billy Buckwheat Thomas Story’ (review)

Written by William Thomas Jr. and David W. Menefee 
Published by Bear Manor Media

 

Back in the early ‘60s, I was no different than a lot of toddlers across the US in that an early favorite TV show was Our Gang. Yes, I know it wasn’t an actual made-for-TV show…now. Back then, though, it was on TV.

Sometimes in the early evening, sometimes the early mornings. The films were syndicated but, around here at least, the only ones I saw for years were the MGM releases, mostly with Spanky, Darla, Alfalfa, Mickey (Robert Blake), Froggy, and Buckwheat.

Buckwheat, of course, was black, and in my neighborhood at the time, the only place I ever saw black people was on television.

It’s entirely possible that Buckwheat was the first person of color I ever saw anywhere! Either him or Godfrey

As any fan knows, the MGM-produced years were hardly the best for the Gang. At some point late in the decade, the retitled Little Rascals shorts joined the Our Gang Comedies and I discovered the joys of the young Spanky as well as Butch, Jackie (Cooper), Stymie Beard, Scotty Beckett, Wheezer, and Dorothy (Echo) DeBorba, as well as many others! There were also Buckwheat’s early years…as a girl!

About two decades after I first discovered Our Gang, I discovered the definitive book on them by Leonard Maltin and Richard Bann. I still consider it one of the best books in my Library and one of THE best books on old movies by anyone.

Today, we revisit the Rascals with “Otay!” a short biography of Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas as originally published in 2010 and credited to his son, William Thomas, Jr, in conjunction with prolific show biz history writer David W. Menefee. According to Amazon, the young Thomas himself passed away just a year after this book’s original release, 31 years after his father’s death in 1980.

It wasn’t long after the elder Thomas’s death that interest in his long-ago character was revived by an unlikely source—Eddie Murphy. Murphy was on Saturday Night Live at the time and parodied an adult version of “Buckwheat” in a sketch. It was popular enough that the character was revived numerous times on the show and as such the real, original Buckwheat became a bit of a cult figure with posters and t-shirts and such!

It’s tough to review this book as it really isn’t what it claims to be. Online, it says it’s a 160-page book length biography of Billie Thomas, as written by his son. What it is, however, is a 95-page booklet—a glorified article—with maybe a third of those pages being photographs. There is also no indication that Thomas, Jr. wrote any of it as every mention of him is in third person so I’m left to believe Menefee wrote it all (presumably with input from Thomas’s son).

Content-wise, it’s a nice overview of Buckwheat’s life and careers but with little to no detail on any aspects of same. The book also consistently spells “William” as “Billy” whereas his name has always been abbreviated as “Billie” everywhere else.

There’s some questionable stuff such as a reference to Robert Blake saying Billie hated it when they dressed him in girls’ clothes in his early short subjects and it’s implied that he, Blake, watched him rip them off when shooting was done. The problem there is that those early shorts were in the mid-30s and Blake wasn’t even born until 1933. It wasn’t until the ‘40s when he joined the Gang. By that time, it’s unlikely Thomas would even have remembered the girl’s clothes and certainly would have had no reason to be complaining about them to new guy Mickey.

The narrative leaves out any reference to Eddie Murphy bringing the character back to prominence. More importantly, there isn’t the slightest mention of the infamous “fake Buckwheat” who traded off Thomas’s fame for years before George “Spanky” McFarland himself called him out on a talk show. The bibliography lists articles about that but the product itself doesn’t go near that story.

The good stuff? The photos! Some choice photos of a one of the cutest Rascals ever as well as some rare ones of the adult Billie, no doubt provided by Junior. I do feel as if I learned a little from this “book” that was new to me and I didn’t spot any mistakes (other than a few typos) but unless one is a major fan of The Little Rascals/Our Gang, I’m sorry to say I can’t bring myself to recommend “Otay!” If perhaps Menefee chose to expand on what is here at some point, I would happily give it another chance.

 

 

 

 

 

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