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Guest: Veteran Actor Calvin Ellison
Interviewer: Joshua Nicholson

The man I have in "The Hot Seat" this month is very dear to me because…well… he's my grandfather (on my mother's side). You might not find it very surprising that he was an actor when he was younger (I guess it runs in the genes). But, this is his story.

I went to his house (which is conveniently right next door to mine), sat with him at his kitchen table, turned on the cassette recorder, and let him talk.

Calvin Robert Ellison was born in Jacksonville, FL in 1925. His father, Talbert Clark Ellison, was a World War I veteran and now made a living as a barber. His oldest sister, Billie, had landed a role in Hollywood with "Ziegfeld Follies".

So, Calvin's grandfather said, "Let's pack up! We're going to California!" They moved into a nice little house that was right in the heart of Hollywood, within walking distance of the famous Hollywood sign.

"You could climb up to it," Calvin said, "which all of us kids did. I climbed right up to the top of the 'H' on the Hollywood sign…just amazing."

Talbert ran the barbershop in the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, where he was no stranger to big stars. One of his many famous customers was Babe Ruth! Calvin's mother was a children's talent agent.

"When you're living out there with it, right in Hollywood, itself, it becomes so routine because you see them on the streets. You can walk right up to them and talk to them." My grandfather has had conversations with Edward G. Robinson and Cary Grant, just to name a few.

Calvin did some shows at the Belasco Theatre. "That was so fun, too," he says. "I had a little dog [on stage] with me. And, every time the curtain would open, we'd be talking and doing our thing, and that stupid little dog would hike his leg up and pee on the furniture! And, it was really embarrassing…especially when he'd hike his leg up on your leg! But, you had to just keep on going." The show must go on, even when "Weezer" (that was the dog's name) is "weezing" on your leg. But, Calvin's real break in showbiz came when he joined up with The Little Rascals.

How Calvin got involved with Alfalfa, Spanky, Butch, and the rest of the gang is a pretty interesting story. "Wartime was just starting there," he said, "and everybody in the United States was trying to grow 'victory gardens'." Well, one day, Cal and his friends saw an old, rusted-out "Studabaker" in someone's backyard. Well, they were playing around it, and the owner came out and got angry at them for playing in his yard and messing around with the car. After calming down, the man told them that if they liked playing with the car so much, they could take it home with them.

The car didn't have a motor in it, and the floorboards were out of it. So, they had to push it home. "Can you get a mental picture," Cal reminisced, "of about seven kids inside that thing, where all you could see is their feet on the ground? We had one guy sitting on the shoulders of another guy [to steer] that thing!"

So, they finally got it into my grandfather's driveway, when he suddenly got a bright idea. "Ya know, that's got a flat top on it," he remarked to his friends. "Let's build a [victory garden] on top of it!" So, they did.

"We got the plywood, nailed it down around the edge of it…brought the sides up. We put a little dirt on top of it. And, we bought some plants and we started putting plants in there. And, sure enough, that thing had corn growing on top of it…all kinds of vegetables…vines hanging down off of it. It was really something!"

Well, they pushed the car back out of the driveway and sat it in front of the house. Lo and behold, one day a gentleman came by and just stood next to the thing for a long time, laughing at it. "He wound up being a talent agent," remarked Cal.

The gentleman told them that he'd like to rent the car use it in the Our Gang Comedies. Well, my grandfather really liked the car and didn't want the gentleman to keep it, so he made a deal. "I said, 'If you take the car, I go with it.'" After some consideration, the man consented. Thus began Cal's movie career.

Although they never used the car, Cal was in few of the Little Rascals films, including "Joy Scouts", "Little Ranger", and "Glove Taps". He went by the name "Nutsy", which was the name of a part he played at the Belasco Theatre. "I was in Butch's gang," he remarked.

When asked whether Tommy "Butch" Bond was anything like his alter-ego, Cal replied, "Butch was a good guy! He wasn't as tough as he made [himself] seem. He wasn't really a tough guy; he just acted tough. And, off-screen, he was as great as anybody else could be. He never picked on nobody; you'd think he'd be picking on Alfalfa all the time, ya know, just for kicks, but he didn't. They got along real good.

"And, [those kids] were crazy! Look at me. I fell right along with them and became just as crazy as they were! They were quite a group of guys. I liked to play with them and everything. Alfalfa, he was really something, that guy, and Spanky McFarland, he was good. I enjoyed every time we got together. Off-screen, when they weren't taking pictures, we played cards and wrestled around. I had a lot of fun with them."

As Cal got older, he moved on to play some other parts. "Mostly background stuff," he said. Cal went from being in Butch's gang to being in another gang called the "Bowery Boys", which was featured in Hunt's Hall, among others. "Always the gang fights they had then. [We'd run up to each other and start] fighting…big deal!" Cal said with a chuckle. "Nobody got hurt, of course, but it was a lot of fun."

Cal did lots of other background work. He did a number of westerns; one of which starred Gabby Hayes. He was a pageboy in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart. He was in Boy's Town with Mickey Rooney. He was in Make a Wish with Bobby Breen. And, he did bit parts in a number of other films; none with any real speaking lines, though, but you could still see him in the background.

Cal was headed for his biggest break of all. He was one of ten finalists in an audition for a James Cagney picture, but it was still wartime, and he was finally at the age to where he could join the military. So, much to the disappointment of his mother (she really wanted him to get the role), Cal enlisted into the Coast Guard.

"I wound up," Cal remembers, "on a landing craft; LST they were called. They made about 1,051 of them during the war, and I happened to be on [number] 23. And, away we went! I spent about 23 three months out there on that ship. We went from one island to another. And, we went through security islands and so forth with the Marines and the Army, and I wound up with seven battle stars."

When he got back home, his mother urged him to audition for some more movies, but… "I just didn't have any interest in it anymore, ya know?" Cal remarked. But, one of his war buddies, who was in Hollywood, also, urged him even more, saying, "Let's go down to the studio and see if we can get a job."

It took some coercing, but Cal finally consented, and they went down to MGM Studios and talked with one of the directors there. After talking with the director about their war history, he gave them some work with the attitude of "well, you're a veteran now, so we'll give you a break."

So, they played in a couple films, one of which was Unconquered, starring Gary Cooper, who was one of the founding members of the Our Gang Comedies. They got paid $120 a week, which was big money then. "Of course, at that time," Cal remarked, "The money wasn't like it is today." After a few weeks of work, Cal just quit. "I didn't want to have anything to do with it anymore," he said. "It just didn't interest me, ya know? [And,] that's the whole purpose, isn't it?"

After his stint in Hollywood, Cal did more service for the Coast Guard and met his wife, my grandmother, in a story that seems like it was made for Hollywood… even though it happened right here in Mobile (they've been married 50 years, now). He took on a few different jobs here and there. He was an insurance salesman at one point and a fire chief the next.

"I've had a pretty colorful life," Cal said as our interview was winding down. Now days, although he's retired, he and his wife work a few days out of week helping to restore an old LST ship that is in one of Mobile's many harbors. This is a very touching and emotional project for him because he'd spent nearly two years on one of them during his term of service.

Throughout the years, his sisters had done numerous jobs in films. Billie was not only involved with the "Ziegfeld Follies" but was also a member of the "Aquamarines", which was a synchronized swimming team that did numerous films. She was also a nurse in the classic film Gone with the Wind. Among other stars, they worked with Abbot and Costello and many others.

Even though my grandfather doesn't do any acting in films, he is really a character. I think he still hasn't completely grown out of being a Little Rascal. And, Lord knows, he's passed that energy on to his children and his grandchildren!

[NOTE: If you'd like more information on how you can help out in the restoration of the LST 325 being harbored in Mobile, AL, just send me an email ([email protected]) telling me what you'd like to contribute, whether it be time or money, and I'll try to send you some information.]



© 2002, Joshua Nicholson & Mr. Jotz Productions
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