YesterNow: Santa Ana’s Wayward Son, Fatty Arbuckle

Fatty Arbuckle was a man of firsts. Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle was the first bona-fide film star to come out of Orange County. He also had the dubious honor of being at the center of the first Hollywood sex scandal—a media flurry that swirled around three trials, eventually ending in an acquittal, but effectively ending his illustrious career as a high-profile actor.

Arbuckle was accused of raping and murdering a 26-year-old rising starlet at a wild bathroom-gin-soaked prohibition-era hotel party in San Francisco in 1921. Two juries deadlocked, and the final trial found Arbuckle “entirely innocent and free from all blame.”

However, in the trial of public opinion, the verdict was delivered via the salacious Hearst papers (the TMZ of the day). This went down during the height of tabloid journalism, the 1920s’ own #FakeNews phenomenon (funny how history repeats itself, no?).

Regardless, the name Fatty Arbuckle is forever associated with rape, murder and scandal.

But before the fame and fall from the public’s grace, Arbuckle was just a kid growing up in Santa Ana. His family moved to the city in 1889, when the Kansas-born Arbuckle was 1 or 2 years old (reports of his age conflict). A 1990 LA Times report places the family home at Fifth and Spurgeon streets, which is now a city-owned parking garage.

His nickname wasn’t a misnomer or ironic—the youngest of nine children was born weighing between 13 and 16.5 pounds. “Being that the mother and father were of slight build, it was certainly an aberration,” explains Tim Rush of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society. “The father was so disgusted with him and his size, believing that the child was not his.”

The elder Arbuckle’s disdain was illustrated by the name he bestowed upon his youngest son: Roscoe Conkling, named after the New York senator and known philanderer, whom he actively despised.

It was (presumably) on the school grounds of Central Grammar School in Santa Ana that fellow ankle-biters gave Arbuckle the famous pejorative he is now permanently affixed with. It is unclear why Arbuckle kept the nickname “Fatty” through to his time in Hollywood (he reportedly hated it), but considering the fact his given name was basically insinuating he was a bastard son, perhaps he went with the less hurtful moniker.

Still, by all accounts he had a supportive mother who encouraged the young Arbuckle to pursue his passion for performing at an early age. When Frank Bacon’s traveling vaudeville act rolled through Santa Ana, an 8-year-old Arbuckle performed onstage (likely at French’s Opera House, which stood on Fourth Street until 1923) with the troupe. “He was working here at a hotel in Santa Ana,” Rush says. “Who knows? The Santa Ana Hotel, perhaps, or the Richelieu, probably—those would have been the two prominent hotels of the day.”

Rush explains that Arbuckle had a habit of singing while he was working. A guest of the hotel happened to be a professional singer and overheard the young Arbuckle and invited him to perform at a talent show. “The way they moved the acts off the stage was with a shepherd’s crook, and of course the crook came out certainly early if the act was bombing,” Rush says. “So he saw the crook coming out of the wings of the theater stage, and it frightened him, so he somersaulted off the stage into the orchestra pit, and when he did that, the crowd went wild.

“That was his ticket to stardom,” Rush adds.

Arbuckle didn’t stay in Santa Ana much after that; he had little reason to. His mother died when he was 12, and his father essentially abandoned him. Arbuckle was no older than 14 when he somersaulted his way out of Orange County and eventually into greater fame in Hollywood. The more things change, right?

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