or most Americans, the name Ken Smith meant very little when the news flash came in May 2002: a hit-and-run accident had taken the life of the 72-year-old Smith, who as “Darwood Kaye” had a continuing role as snooty rich kid Waldo in the Our Gang movie serials.
Those little movies, the brainchild of Hollywood pioneer Hal Roach, gained a second life when they were repackaged as Little Rascals, a kids’ TV series that entertained a couple of generations of youngsters during the 1960s and 1970s. Today, they can often be seen on a cable TV channel devoted to “classic” films.
But whatever happened to Darwood Kenneth Smith, the real, full name of child and teen actor Darwood Kaye?
Some readers know the answer: better known as Pastor Ken Smith, the onetime actor who palled around with a young Lucille Ball, spent the rest of his days telling a far greater story, the story of Jesus, as a missionary and pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Smith’s fascinating story is now told in a new book, Finding Waldo (Pacific Press, 2010), which blends the late Ken Smith’s narrative with the writing skills of David B. Smith, one of Smith’s four sons.
Even if the foundational events in Ken Smith’s story took place in the 1930s and 1940s, there’s an element of that tale that is as current as an episode of American Idol.
Ken Smith’s movie career began during the American era known as the Great Depression. The economy was in horrible shape, unemployment was in double digits, investments lost huge amounts of value, and home foreclosures were a common happening. Sound familiar?
Then, as now, entertainment was seen as one avenue “out” from financial ruin. The Smith family wasn’t in the most desperate of circumstances, but they lived quite nicely with the $50 or so young Darwood brought home each week. (In 1939, for example, $50 had the purchasing power that $635 has today.*)
And, truth be told, young Smith enjoyed the notoriety and benefits of being “in the movies.” He had some visions of furthering his career, hoping to catch that one “big break” that could catapult him into acting success.
But something else was tugging at Darwood’s heart, and that was the Holy Spirit. Darwood had a grandfather, his mother’s father, who was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor.
Eventually Darwood met another teen who was a Seventh-day Adventist, and who brought Smith to some Adventist meetings. The long journey culminated in Smith bowing his head and receiving Jesus as his Savior and Lord. Baptism soon followed.
Eventually, he found he could no longer act in Hollywood and ditched the bright lights for the mission field in rural Thailand, about as far away from fame’s lure as you could get back then. A pastoral career stateside, and raising four sons to become Seventh-day Adventist pastors, followed this overseas adventure.
Ironically, Ken Smith never saw a penny beyond his weekly Hollywood pay in the Depression years; the concept of “residual” rights and royalty payments didn’t apply to the Our Gang actors.
Decades later, the semiretired Ken Smith was walking with his wife when a careless driver caused the injuries that ended his life. For many who read the news, it was a blip in the stream of their day’s events. For the lives he touched as a pastor, it was confirmation that while Darwood Kaye may have “lost” Hollywood’s rewards, Ken Smith’s eternal crown was worth that sacrifice.
Samuel H. Williamson, “Six Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to Present,” Measuring Worth, 2009 (www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/, accessed online March 9, 2010).
Mark A. Kellner is news editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. This article was published April 15, 2010.