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Saddle Pals & Sidekicks
The Juvenile Helpers

Frankie Darro

Sometimes spelled as:
Frank/Frankie Darrow

Real name:
Frank Johnson, Jr.

1917 - 1976

On the right is Frankie Darro in a 1934 photo when he was about seventeen years of age.

(Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)

Frankie Darro was born December 22, 1917 in or near Chicago, but the family did not reside in the Windy City. Frankie "arrived" during a stopover/play date in Chicago as his parents were circus aerialists called "The Flying Johnsons" who worked for the Sells-Floto Circus. In the early 1920s, the family was in California and had abandoned circus life due to medical/mental issues with Darro's mother. Frankie's first silent film work begins around 1924 when he was 6 - 7 years of age. A few years later, he was the kid helper to Tom Tyler in his silent cowboy films at Film Booking Office (FBO).

Tom Tyler was one of the silent sagebrush heroes employed by Film Booking Office (FBO) and he did twenty nine films for FBO which were released from 1925 - 1929. Helping Tyler in over two dozen of these range adventures was youngster Frankie Darro.

On the right are lobby cards from:

THE MASQUERADE BANDIT (FBO, 1926) with star Tom Tyler, Darro and Dorothy Dunbar.

TOM'S GANG (FBO, 1927) with Darro, Tom Tyler and Sharon Lynn.

As best I can determine, there's only one surviving Tyler/Darro FBO adventure, THE TEXAS TORNADO (FBO, 1928) (which is available on VHS and DVD).

(From Old Corral collection)

But to B western and serial fans, the Frankie Darro that we recall is a youngster and teenager in Mascot chapterplays. Nat Levine and his Mascot serial factory existed from 1927 through the 1935 merger that created Republic Pictures. Darro was a favorite of Levine and he used the reliable kid star in a couple of features along with the half dozen cliffhangers listed below:

Let's do some math. We have six cliffhangers times 12 chapters each for a total of 72 episodes ... and that equates to being seen at 72 Saturday matinees. All that screen time is the reason that Darro is fondly remembered.

(From Old Corral collection)

In the front row from left to right are Smiley Burnette, great rider Betsy King Ross, Gene Autry at the microphone, and Frankie Darro (as "Frankie Baxter") in a Chapter 1 lobby card from THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (Mascot, 1935), Autry's first starring film.

I can hear Darro yelling out "To the Rescue!" as the group of youngsters who were the "Junior Thunder Riders" gallop off to assist Autry. Frankie was about 17 years old when he did this serial.

How important was Darro to Nat Levine? During Mascot's brief lifespan, Levine churned out a total of thirty chapterplays and little Frankie was in six of the thirty. And he rewarded Frankie with nice pay checks.

The late Gene Fernett wrote about Nat Levine and Mascot in his Next Time Drive Off The Cliff (Cinememories Publishing, 1968). Chapter eight was devoted to the young actor and was aptly titled "A Child Shall Lead Them". Fernett's opening paragraph reads: "The juvenile player Frankie Darro was frequently inside the Mascot encampment, and his presence there undoubtedly was a welcome one for Levine's purse." Author Jon Tuska, in his book The Vanishing Legion: A history of Mascot Pictures 1927 - 1935 (McFarland, 1982), mentions Darro's salary at Mascot - he received $1,000.00 for his first serial, $3,000.00 for THE DEVIL HORSE (1932), and by BURN 'EM UP BARNES (1934), his pay had escalated to $5,000.00.

His next starring series was for Maurice Conn (Conn Productions and Ambassador Pictures) and Frankie's adult helpers were Le Roy Mason (billed as Roy Mason) followed by Kane Richmond. Ten films were released during 1935 - 1937 and black actor Fred "Snowflake" Toones appeared in about half the entries. In addition to the Darros, Conn did other films and series, including Ken Maynard's brother Kermit in a respectable group of ten mountie films followed by eight western programmers. Then came some bad luck for both Kermit and Frankie - in late 1937 - early 1938, Maurice Conn filed for bankruptcy and wound up taking his production setup to Monogram where he did a few of the early Jack Randall westerns.

Then Frankie did his first batch of films for Monogram with many featuring great comedic foil Mantan Moreland as his sidekick. Ten films were released from 1938 - 1941, and these were Darro's "last hurrah" as a lead/star. During that same period, he also appeared in another chapterplay, THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK (Columbia, 1938) which starred Gordon Elliott (before he became "Wild Bill"). In this fifteen episode adventure, he was billed fourth (after Elliott, Monte Blue and Carol Wayne). And he dies in this serial.

From left to right are Frankie Darro (as "Jerry"/"Little Brave Heart"), Gordon Elliott and Chief Thunder Cloud (Victor Daniels) in the fifteen episode serial THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK (Columbia, 1938).
(From Old Corral collection)

World War II intervened and Frankie entered the Navy, serving for about three years as a Corpsman/pharmacist. Among his last film appearances prior to military duty was a support role in the twelve episode JUNIOR G-MEN OF THE AIR (Universal, 1942), which featured the Dead End Kids.

After the war, he was back at Monogram in their "Teen Agers" musical series which starred singer Freddie Stewart and featured June Preisser and Noel Neill. Eight films were released from 1946 - 1948. Frankie, who was around thirty years old, portrayed the nemesis/antagonist to Stewart. In the late 1940s, he did a few bit/support roles in several of Monogram's Bowery Boys comedies. One of his last meaty screen appearances was portraying a no-good in cahoots with gambler Robert Armstrong in the Gene Autry SONS OF NEW MEXICO (Columbia, 1949).

Because Frankie was dependable and a good actor, he was successful in finding work at major studios as well as "Poverty Row" - for example, you can spot him in several with James Cagney, THE PUBLIC ENEMY (First National, 1931) and THE MAYOR OF HELL (First National, 1933). Due to his small size (about 5 feet 3 inches in height), he was often typecast as a horse racing jockey in both films and television. Darro rides "Avalanche" in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE RACE TRACK (Fox, 1936) ... and he takes a payoff from a gambling ring, throws the horse race, complains about the money he got ... and winds up dead. Other jockey roles included the Marx Brothers in A DAY AT THE RACES (MGM, 1937) as well as the Frank Capra directed RIDING HIGH (Paramount, 1950) which starred Bing Crosby.

He did some early television in westerns and non-western programs. Probably his most remembered TV work was as the "little ol' lady doing falls" in the Red Skelton show. I also have a vague recollection of a Skelton program in which Red portrayed a dentist and Frankie was his patient.

And now for some Frankie Darro trivia:

As to his personal life, Darro had problems with alcohol abuse. In the 1950s, he owned a bar. And there were several marriages. Frankie Darro passed away from a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1976 during a visit with his stepdaughter. He was 59 years old.

The California Death Index and the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) have records on Darro - he was born born December 22, 1917 in Illinois and passed away in California on December 25, 1976.

John Gloske was friends with Frankie Darro during the last 4-5 years of his life and he has authored a book titled TOUGH KID: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF FRANKIE DARRO. John's book is at:
And his website includes some Darro photos, posters and lobby cards:

I asked John if he could confirm some information as well as provide more details on Darro's later life.

John writes:

"Frankie Darro, whose real name was Frank Johnson, Jr., was born December 22, 1917 in Chicago Illinois. Frankie was literally born into show business as his parents were aerialists with the popular Sells-Floto Circus. Frankie's father got his young son his first role in movies when Frankie was just six years old. The film was JUDGEMENT OF THE STORM released in 1924.

Chiefly remembered today for his numerous jockey roles, Frankie appeared throughout his career in westerns. Between 1925 and 1929 Frankie co-starred in twenty-six westerns for FBO. His co-star in the series was B-Western stalwart Tom Tyler. Unfortunately only one of these films is known to exist, TEXAS TORNADO, released in 1928. Frankie also appeared in western themed serials such as LIGHTNING WARRIOR (1931) and DEVIL HORSE (1932) starring Harry Carey. Frankie loved making westerns, especially as a child, because they were filmed outside and many on location. His love for horses is clearly evident in many of his early films. As a young adult, Frankie appeared in two western serials, the classic THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935) co-starring Gene Autry and THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK (1938).

After returning from duty in the Navy during World War II, Frankie found it more and more difficult to find substantial roles in movies. With less and less work on the horizon, he turned more and more to drinking to pass the time of unemployment. The roles became smaller, mostly jockey roles, but a fair amount of roles in westerns too. Frankie appeared in WYOMING MAIL and SONS OF NEW MEXICO both released in 1950. The following year he had smaller roles in ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI and WESTWARD THE WOMEN. With the advent of television, Frankie had substantial roles on such popular shows as JUDGE ROY BEAN and BAT MASTERSON.

By the 1970's Frankie was destitute and living in a run down hotel on Hollywood Blvd. I met and befriended Frankie in June of 1972. His days of stardom had long since passed as he had been virtually forgotten by Hollywood. Even during this difficult period, Frankie remained optimistic and grateful for the career he once had. He loved telling stories about his days of stardom, but he was always careful never to say an unkind word about anyone.

Frankie was married at least twice. First to bit actress Aloha Wray in 1939. They divorced in 1941. In 1943 he married Betty Morrow, and that marriage lasted until 1951 and produced Frankie's only child, Darlene. Shortly after his divorce he moved in with Dorothy Carroll. Frankie would introduce her as his wife, however Frankie's daughter did extensive research and was never able to prove they actually married. Dorothy stayed with Frankie until he passed away.

Frankie had fond memories of working with Gene Autry in THE PHANTOM EMPIRE. As it was Autry's second film and his first starring role, Autry was apprehensive about the assignment. Frankie was the veteran of the leading players and coached Autry on the fine points of film acting. Autry was very grateful for the help. Autry hired Frankie for THE SONS OF NEW MEXICO in 1950. By this time Frankie was drinking heavily and it was not a pleasant experience, but Frankie turns in a fine performance in the finished film.

Frankie and Mantan Moreland were very close. Moreland suggested the name for Frankie's daughter. Frankie respected Mantan's talent and understood how important he was to the success of the films they did together. I had the pleasure of meeting Mantan a few times, and he spoke just as highly about Frankie. Frankie was an honorary pallbearer at Mantan's funeral in 1973.

Frankie died of a heart attack on December 25, 1976.

With easy access to many of his western and non-western movies on DVD, Frankie can still entertain us with his boundless energy and suburb acting skills. Search out his films, they are worth rediscovering."

John Gloske
July, 2009

(Courtesy of John Gloske)

Above - Frankie circa 1950.

(Courtesy of John Gloske)

Above - John Gloske and Darro in Frankie's room at the St. Francis Hotel in Hollywood circa 1972.

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