Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison

'Sunshine Sammy' Morrison, Mickey Daniels, Mary Kornman, Joe Cobb, Jackie Condon, Allen 'Farina' Hoskins

I was on a documentary kick a few days ago and watched one on Youtube called, "Our Gang: Inside the Clubhouse." Is it the best made documentary out there? No. Is it still worth watching? I think so. While it is dated and not very well made, you do have a chance to hear behind the scenes stories from Our Gang members like Dorothy DeBorba, Tommy Bond, and the subject of this entry, Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison. 

One of the things I really enjoyed about the documentary was hearing the stories from the actors themselves and how glad I was that they had (for the most part) fond memories of their days as Little Rascals. While some of them were too young to remember all of their experiences, they do remember that they really liked their teacher on the lot and that they all really loved director, Robert McGowan, or 'Uncle Bob', as they called him. 

I think it is worth checking out and if you wish to, check it out here. For now, let's focus on Our Gang member and the first black child star, "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison. I want to add a little disclaimer to this entry because I feel it is necessary. I am going to include some quotes taken from movie magazines of the time and the way that Ernie is often described is not politically correct by any means. However, we must keep in mind the time period and take that into consideration when reading the quotes. Ernie and other black child stars of Our Gang talk about this in the above mentioned documentary and how they were never made to feel different or ostracized on set. They and the other cast members and crew were 'color blind' and they were actually ahead of their time having white and black children playing together on screen. So, please keep these things in mind while proceeding with the entry. 

"Sunshine Sammy" was born either Frederic Ernest Morrison or Ernest Frederick Morrison (the first is what is marked on his headstone, while the latter is from census records) on December 20, 1912 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was the oldest child and only son born to Joseph Ernest Morrison, a grocer and later actor, and his wife, Louise Lewis. Ernie was later joined by three younger sisters, Florence, Vera, and Dorothy. (there was reportedly another sister, but I couldn't find her on census records) His sisters would sometimes have bit roles in pictures too.

Ernie got his start in films through a friend of his father who worked in the industry as a producer. One day the producer friend asked Joseph Morrison if he could bring his son by the studio. Apparently the original child actor hired would not stop crying and they had pretty much given up trying to console him. Joseph brought in his young son and the producer and director were impressed at how well behaved he was. It was this positive disposition that garnered Ernie his nickname, "Sunshine." His father would later add "Sammy" to the moniker. 

Ernie's film debut was 1916's The Soul of a Child

From top: Wesley Barry, Ernie, Florence Morrison, and Gordon Griffith

From 1917 to 1922, Ernie's career was mainly in shorts that paired him with another popular child star of the silent era, Baby Marie Osborne. He also appeared in Harold Lloyd shorts and later with another comedian of the day, Snub Pollard and a now forgotten comedic leading lady of the day, Marie Mosquini. While appearing in these shorts he used the name "Sunshine Sambo."

In 1921, Ernie was offered his own comedy series, but unfortunately it only lasted one episode. However, it was shortly after that he was offered the chance to appear in a new series being created by Hal Roach to be called Hal Roach's Rascals. He may not have been the one and only star of the series, but he sure stood out! 

Ernie made his Our Gang/Hal Roach's Rascals debut in the 1922 short, One Terrible Day, which was actually the debut for most of the original members. In the first few shorts, his character's name was 'Booker T. Bacon.'

Hal Roach, Ernie, and Joseph Morrison

During the two years he appeared as an Our Gang member he used various names on screen including Booker T. Bacon, Sorghum, Ernie, Sammy, and Sunshine Sammy. 

As it happens with all child stars, eventually the cute little boy grew up and he made his final Our Gang picture in 1924 at the ripe old age of twelve. 

After leaving films, Ernie appeared on the vaudeville stage, the apparent 'go-to' for many of the former Our Gang kids. He would return to the screen in the 1940s, appearing with another group, The Dead End/East Side Kids. Ernie played a character named 'Scruno.' 

Leo Gorcey, Ernie, Bobby Jordan, Billy Benedict, and Bobby Stone

Like many young men of the time, Ernie was drafted into the army to serve in World War II. After serving his country by entertaining the troops overseas, he was asked if he wanted to return to the screen with a new gang called The Bowery Boys. Ernie declined the offer.

Greenwich Village (1944) starring Carmen Miranda would be his final screen appearance. He did appear on television once in a 1974 episode of Good Times playing a messenger. 

After retiring from performing, Ernie found work in the aircraft industry and that is where he worked for almost 20 years.

Ernie passed away on July 24, 1989 from cancer in Lynwood, California. 

He was interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. 

There isn't a lot of information on Ernie's personal life as far as romantic relationships. I did find a newspaper article from 1936 that talks about what might have been his only marriage. Ernie met Harlem chorus girl, Annette McAbee, while he was working on the vaudeville stage. The couple would eventually marry around 1934 and would separate and eventually divorce around 1936. Annette would later tell the press that she still loved Ernie, but that the family dynamics made the marriage strained almost from the start. According to her, Joseph Morrison wasn't too happy to have someone coming into his son's life and taking his attention away from his stage career. The strain between father and son eventually led to Ernie dropping him as manager. Annette reportedly got along well with Louise Morrison (or Louise Robinson, as the Morrisons had divorced in 1933) and frequently corresponded with her. I should note however that while the two wrote often, they never met. What a situation this was!

Ernie and Harold Lloyd

"Who doesn't know 'Sunshine Sammy,' the funny little darkie of the Hal Roach comedies? Millions have laughed at him, exhibitors have commented upon his popularity with their audiences, though he wasn't starred, - just a wide-grinning little coon, loose jointed, full of pep, a 'pip' of a 'feeder' to the comedy stars he supported. Now he is starred in one two-reel comedy, made the way Hal Roach knows how to make 'em." -- Exhibitor's Herald, December 1921


  1. It so nice to see that he had a good life overall and lived to an ok age as compared to so many others. When I read about your disclaimer I thought it was a good idea to have it in. I did not expect what was actually written in 1921! I just shake my head because they felt it was complementary. It shows the history which I think is important.

  2. Jessica,

    Thank You for writing this article on Ernie Morrison. It is fascinating to read about silent film child stars who start our nearly 100 years ago. In case you didn't know, Ernie's sister Dorothy Morrison is still living (born 1919) and she is the oldest surviving member of the Our Gang series. She did an interview in 2011 for the NBC Los Angeles news talking about her and Ernie's days working for Hal Roach.