George 'Spanky' McFarland vs. East St. Paul’s 'Spanky’s Saloon'

George 'Spanky' McFarland vs. East St. Paul’s 'Spanky’s Saloon'
Spanky's Saloon Ad [1983] Twin Cities Reader

The 1985 film "That Was Then... This Is Now" put 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 new 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 to the 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,' 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 'Sparky's of Hollywood.'

In 1989, Spanky's Saloon, known for the round-faced boy wearing a beanie paint on the side of the building and found in advertisements, returned to the national spotlight. 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 5 percent of the Saloon's gross profits, all the furniture, clothing, and equipment that bore the likeness of his 'Sparky' 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.

In the lawsuit, McFarland's attorney noted "Spanky's wholesome appeal, particularly to families and children, is 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. There were two other versions of Spanky in the bar, including a neon character with bright orange hair. Each looked different, and in the owner's words, none was McFarland. The kid was just a kid, one that could have just as easily been named 'Fred' or 'George.' They just happened to go with 'Spanky.'

People came to Spanky's Saloon for the entertainment, not nostalgia for either the 'Our Gang' television show or the 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 previous owners of the bar were not required to give McFarland back pay for the use of his likeness. But the judge ruled they would need to change the bar's name. In 1990, the former Spanky's Saloon was renamed 'Checker's Nightclub.'

Any picture resembling the 'Spanky' character was removed.


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