Petey the Pup

July 12, 2013  

Petey from “The Little Rascals” reminds us why pit bulls are indeed America’s dog

By Ingrid Fromm

If you’re like me, growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, you watched “The Little Rascals.” And no one can think about Our Gang, as they were originally known, without thinking of Petey the pup. With his trademark ring around his eye, Petey not only joined the kids in their antics, he proved to be an incredible friend to the gang. Every kid wanted a dog like Petey.

“The Little Rascals” was filmed in the 1920s and ’30s, when pit bulls were America’s dog. Watching the shorts, it’s easy to see just why pit bulls like Petey were considered nanny dogs. Whether Petey was paired with Wheezer, Stymie, Spanky or another kid, he was there to help them, protect them, entertain them and slather them with affection.

Petey was first played by Pal, whose guardian and trainer was Harry Lucenay. Pal did have a ring around most of his eye, and makeup was used to finish it off when he appeared as Tige in the Buster Brown movies. Hal Roach, the Our Gang producer, had no choice but to leave the ring around Petey’s eye when he appeared in “The Little Rascals” soon after. Unfortunately, Pal was poisoned, probably by someone with a grudge against Harry. But Harry was breeding a Petey line, and Pal’s son, Pete, began to appear in the shorts at age 6 months.

Pete was an American Pit Bull Terrier and was registered with the American Kennel Club as a Staffordshire Terrier. The AKC recognized the APBT as a breed, but in 1935 changed the name to Staffordshire Terrier, and many say Pete was among the first to be registered in that name. The dog was also UKC registered under the name Purple Ribbon Peter. Although a few other dogs played Petey, Lucenay’s was the best known.

One of the most endearing episodes is “Pups is Pups,” where Wheezer has a litter of pit bull puppies that come running to him when they hear a bell ring. Wheezer’s genuine affection for his puppies is heartwarming and makes for some great moments in the short. When Wheezer loses his bell, he also loses his pups, which run to follow every bell they hear. He searches everywhere for his beloved puppies and rings bells wherever he is, but to no avail. Wheezer finally ends up on the church steps, despondent, crying for his lost puppies. Then the church bell rings and the puppies come running and pile on Wheezer! It is an incredible moment and still makes me tear up. And while the symbolism isn’t lost on me, it’s the relationship between Wheezer and his puppies that is so moving and poignant.

Wheezer again takes center stage with Petey in “Dogs is Dogs,” where Wheezer is being raised by his mean stepmother who doesn’t take a liking to either him or Petey, who she calls “nothing but an alley dog,” as opposed to her son Sherwood’s dog Nero, a German Shepherd. Even though Wheezer is a victim of unfortunate circumstance, everyone watching can delight in the scene where Wheezer wakes up and plays with Petey in his bed. It is a perfect example of the relationship between a kid and his beloved dog that was played over time and time again in “The Little Rascals.”

The episode is even more satisfying when the stepmother gets her comeuppance at the end. When poor Petey is sent to the dog pound after being blamed for eating Mr. Brown’s chickens (which Nero was responsible for), he is saved by a woman who pays for his license. She turns out to be Wheezer’s aunt, who rescues him, his sister, and Petey from their current fate, and even buys Petey a beautiful new harness.

Whether Petey was following his kids to school, helping them escape from ne’er-do-well adults or babysitting the crowd, one thing was evident: his incredible loyalty and affection. In the book, “The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang,” the child actors delighted in being with Petey. Jack Cooper wrote in his autobiography, “I loved that dog,” and said one of the great events of his childhood was when he was allowed to take Petey home with him for the weekend. “To stay a whole weekend with Pete … was my idea of glory and paradise combined.”

Different “Petey”s were used in the filming of the shorts, and acute viewers will notice that the circle around his eye changes, depending on which dog was used. But one thing is for sure, Pete was just as important a member of the gang as any of the child performers. When Hal Roach sold the series to MGM in 1938, one of the stipulations was that Pete tag along too.

Pete’s ability to respond comically on cue and his strong relationship with the kids in Our Gang endeared him to audiences for generations. Pete was not just a source of money or a celebrity to Harry Lucenay, he was his best friend. Pete lived to be 18 years old. And when Harry was asked about him after his death in 1946 he said, “He was a gentle, playful and warm dog. He would sleep at the foot of my bed. He was just the regular family dog. I really miss him.”

You can see Pete in action in this circa 1932 training video.

This article was originally published on November 30, 2011.

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