My wife, and daughter and I have suffered a loss we’re going to notice every time we celebrate a birthday: we won’t be getting a phone call from Dorothy DeBorba or hear her sing “Happy Birthday to You” on our answering machine. She never forgot those occasions, and we were just three people on her (apparently) extensive birthday list. That’s the kind of sweet, generous person she was.
Dorothy DeBorba Haberreiter was one of a dwindling group: veterans of Hal Roach’s beloved Our Gang comedies, known to millions under their reissue name The Little Rascals. When Richard Bann and I wrote our book, The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang she proved to be a valuable resource, because (unlike many of her costars) she had crystal-clear memories of making these shorts, when she was just five to eight years old! She remembered locations, costumes, fellow—
—actors—the works. Needless to say, we quoted her at length.
She earned the nickname Echo around the studio after her memorable performance in Love Business (1930), mocking Chubby’s romantic utterances by trying to repeat them, in deadpan fashion, but getting the words mixed up. That scene always made me laugh as a kid, and I smile now just thinking about it. (Chubby, reading from one of his mother’s flowery love letters: “My heart is filled with joy; I want to skip and dance.” Dorothy: “My heart is filled with joy; I want to rip my pants.”)
In recent years Dorothy was happy to rekindle those memories at meetings of Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy organization, and frequently appeared at Ray and Sharon Courts’ celebrity autograph shows, until an ongoing battle with emphysema made it difficult for her to travel.
I called her one day, about five years ago, after screening one of my favorite Our Gang shorts, Pups is Pups (1930) for my students at USC, who loved it. We both marveled at the durability of those comedies and their ability to speak to a modern-day audience. (I also lobbied, successfully, for that two-reeler to be included in the National Film Registry, I’m proud to say.)
Even some of Dorothy’s most ardent fans may not know that years after her departure from Our Gang in 1933 she had another brush with show business when she took a secretarial job at Republic Pictures. Here’s what she had to say about that experience.
“I was there from ‘44 to ‘46, behind the camera; when I left Republic I was bulging [pregnant]. When I first started I was a mail girl, messenger, then a mail girl, then I worked in the mail room. I knew Duke [Wayne] and Sunset Carson, a whole lot of them. On my lunch time I would go over where the horses were and I would hop up on a horse with my dress and high heels on.
“I had fun at Republic because it was a small studio—300 acres, I think. It was a big family, and of course in those days the motion picture people were close; we were close. So when Joseph Schildkraut worked there [or] Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, we had a lot of fun; everybody knew everybody.
“I was on crutches for a while because I had stepped on a nail, and one day I was hobbling over to the doctor and suddenly I felt an arm coming under my back and I was picked up off my feet…and who was it? Mr. John Wayne! He carried me to the doctor’s office.
“Roy Acuff was over there one time, Peggy Stewart and Linda Stirling. I loved to go down to the sets to watch them make the serials. It was fun to watch them film stuff in the tanks for the serials with miniatures; it was really something. Also the prop department was something else, a lot of fun. We could come back at night if they were filming something on the Western street or New York street.
“Then I wound up in the legal department as a receptionist and secretary there. I was there until ’46. We had our yearly picnic where everybody from the studio went…many pleasant memories to look back on. There’ s just so much of Hollywood that’s really changed. Where the Academy Awards are held now [at Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard], that was the Hollywood Hotel, with beautiful palm trees in front; I guess that’s growth. I miss the old Hollywood.”
And I will miss Dorothy DeBorba Habereitter. As my friend Dick Bann remarked, “What a gift she had for relating to people, and what a gift her friendship was.”