ST. PAUL, MN - The 1985 film "That Was Then... This Is Now" placed St. Paul's east side on the national stage, even if for only a short time. The movie showcased the neighborhood's eclectic mix of old and recently built structures along East Seventh Street, places like St. John's hospital, 7-11, 10,000 Auto Parts, and Spanky's Saloon.
Almost everyone knew of the saloon at the corner of East Seventh and Earl - located just east of the Earl Street bridge at 1066 E. Seventh St. It was a local institution on St. Paul's "Rockin' East Side." The bar, renamed 'Charlie's Bar' for the movie, had a small but integral role in the film. Owned by Charlie, a character played by Morgan Freeman, it was the place the two main characters first began to drift apart.
To celebrate his bar's part in the movie, owner Walter Engelhardt began calling his establishment 'Spanky's of Hollywood.'
Spanky's Saloon, known (in part) for the picture of the round-faced boy wearing a beanie found in advertisements on the side of the building, returned to the spotlight in 1989. Unfortunately, it was for a completely different reason. Actor George McFarland, who starred as 'Spanky' in the 'Our Gang' and 'Little Rascals' television shows and films of the 1920s and 30s, believed the bar was using his name and likeness without permission.
Because the bar had been named Spanky's since opening in 1977, McFarland felt entitled to thirteen years' worth of damages. He sued for five percent of the saloon's gross profits, all the furniture, clothing, and equipment that bore the likeness of his 'Spanky' character, licensing fees, and legal fees. In his opinion, having his name associated with a bar that showcased bands like "Raw Meat," "Primal Scream," and "Blue Murder" negatively impacted his brand and potentially limited his future earning opportunities.
McFarland's attorney noted in the lawsuit that "Spanky's wholesome appeal, particularly to families and children, [was] debased by associating him with these morbid musicians."
Engelhardt saw things differently.
Yes, the bar's logo was a "chubby" boy wearing a beanie, but it wasn't McFarland. The bar had two other versions of their Spanky character, including a neon boy with bright orange hair. Each looked different, and in the owner's words, none were McFarland. The kid was just a kid, one who could have just as easily been named 'Fred' or 'George.' They just happened to choose the name 'Spanky.'
People came to Spanky's Saloon for entertainment, not nostalgia for the 'Our Gang' television show or the 'Spanky' character.
The court sided with the former child actor, at least to a degree. While a person could not legally copyright their name, celebrities like McFarland had a "right to publicity" to commercially use their name, identity, and likeness as they saw fit. Spanky's Saloon's logo bore enough resemblance to the actor that it could have potentially harmed Mr. McFarland's family-friendly personal image.
However, the judge drew the line at damages.
Engelhardt and the bar's previous owners were not required to pay McFarland for using his likeness. But the judge ruled they would need to change the bar's name. In 1990, the former Spanky's Saloon became 'Checker's Nightclub.'
Any image that resembled the television show's 'Spanky' character was removed.
- "The Bars of Dayton’s Bluff – Heavy Table." Heavy Table – Minneapolis-St. Paul and Upper Midwest Food Magazine // Feasting on the Bounty of the Upper Midwest. Accessed April 2, 2022. https://heavytable.com/the-bars-of-daytons-bluff/.
- Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Judge says Spanky's Saloon violated McFarland's rights." January 23, 1991, 7B.
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- Trimble, Steve. "Dayton's Bluff Through the Decades." Dayton's Bluff Forum (St. Paul), February 2022, 6.
- Trott, William C. "SPANKY SPEAKS OUT." UPI. Last modified August 26, 1989. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1989/08/26/SPANKY-SPEAKS-OUT/4973620107200/.
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