By Aubrey Malone
I was watching a documentary on the film director Mike Leigh recently. He saw Laurel and Hardy perform live in England when he was a boy. The main surprise he felt at seeing them in the flesh after having watched all those two-reelers over the years (over 100 between 1927 and 1950) was the discovery that they weren’t actually black and white people.
I’m sure that must have been the first thing that struck anyone about other stars who visited these shores over the years having watched them for years on the silver screen, people like James Cagney, John Wayne, Richard Burton and so on. We think of them as being prisoners of that monochrome world.
Laurel and Hardy’s careers were on the slide when they came here in the fifties. Maybe that’s the case for all stars who leave their comfort zones to navigate the perilous waters of live performing. They were already, as William Holden said of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard “waving to a parade that had passed them by”.
The Irish trips were meant to be dummy runs for a series of shows they were set to do in the UK. They couldn’t enter Britain because of a problem with Oliver’s visa. It was a blessing in disguise. They’d always wanted to come here. Oliver’s grandmother, Mary Tompkin, had emigrated from Ireland over a century before. They first came to Ireland in 1952, playing at the Olympia Theatre on Dame Street for two weeks and staying in the Gresham Hotel. They then went to Belfast to do more shows.
They came back to Ireland the following year. The 1953 visit was much more high profile – and much more emotional. They had no idea of the rapturous welcome they’d get when their liner, SS America, pulled in to Cobh Harbour on September 9.
Traffic came to a standstill. Thousands of people turned out to greet them, chanting excitedly at the beloved pair fas foghorns droned in the background.
Some people even rowed out to the liner on small boats to wave to them. A local school, St Joseph’s, gave children the day off to see them. Children from other schools played truant from school to be there. The staff of the Bank of Ireland were so anxious to see them they ran out of the bank leaving the door open. One of them had to rush back to make sure it hadn’t been robbed in their absence.
When the bells of St Colman’s Cathedral rang out with their theme song, “Dance of the Cuckoos,” Oliver was reduced to tears. They may have been yesterday’s men in Hollywood but here they were still “movie gold.” It was one of the most emotional days of their lives. They said they’d never forget it.
They couldn’t understand how the ropes were pulled in such unison with the notes of the song. They insisted on thanking the bell ringers in person. When they did so, it was explained to them that the bells used weren’t the usual type of carillon church ones. The music had been played by a console instead of with ropes. The people of Cork took them to their hearts. They were equally enthralled to meet their wives. They’d accompanied them. A local baker made a cake with their likeness on it and presented it to them.
Afterwards they went to Blarney. Stan kissed the famous stone that’s supposed to give one the “gift of the gab.” (He hardly needed any help there.) “Babe” – as Ollie was nicknamed – was too heavy at 23 stone to negotiate the steps that led to it, or the exertions involved in casting his head back from a lying position. “I’m too big,” he pined, “Nobody could hold me.”
Their next stop was Dublin. Again they appeared in the Olympia. Some of the gags were corny but it didn’t matter. It was Laurel and Hardy. Laughter and cheering often drowned out the dialogue.
Maybe they didn’t even need dialogue. The enraptured audience watched Hardy twiddling his tie in delight, they watched him pulling faces at Stan, they watched Stan scratching his head or collapsing in child-like tears.
People jostled with one another to exchange a few words with them after the shows. They stuffed phone numbers and addresses into their pockets. Stan was scrupulous in keeping such scraps of paper. He answered every fan letter that was ever sent to him over his long career.
They stayed in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire, savouring the Irish hospitality. A bar in the hotel was even named after Oliver – Hardy’s bar. This despite the fact that he’d complained about the drink – the “bourbon” in the lounge wasn’t to his taste. Staff vied with one another for the right to clean their rooms – and maybe get a generous tip.
Ollie liked to sit in a chair in the lobby watching people pass by, seeing the dismayed look on their faces as they wondered: “Can it really be him?” Shyness sometimes prevented people from asking. They beat themselves up for this afterwards. The ones who did ask were rewarded with an autograph and maybe a photograph.
Oliver’s weight came against him here too. One day he sat in a chair too small for him and got trapped. He had to be helped out of it by hotel staff. They ripped his trousers in the process and had to repair them for him. He walked along the seafront with Stan, often out of breath even over short distances. People stopped beside them in awe, sharing memories of childhood slapstick routines that made them howl with laughter. The duo never refused an autograph, often indulging fans for ages as they dredged their memory banks to recall memories of old sketches they treasured themselves.
The Irish trip of 1953 exceeded Laurel and Hardy’s expectations by a mile. After the subdued 1952 one they hadn’t expected much from it. One of the reasons they’d done it was for money. Both of them were strapped for cash at this time, having alimony to pay to previous wives. Stan had had a colourful marital history. He married his first wife once, his second wife twice and his third wife three times.
He then went back and married his second wife a third time. There was then a fourth wife. That’s eight marriages but only four brides. After they left Ireland they went to Britain. A BBC TV show they did there has survived. It was called “Face the Music.” At one stage the host told Stan he was going to introduce him to 6,000 listeners. “That will take some time, won’t it?” the witty comedian remarked.
Laurel and Hardy will live forever in people’s memories. You may have seen the recent biopic “Stan and Ollie” starring Steve Coogan as Stan. Coogan’s mother is from Mayo. John C. Reilly, who also has Irish roots, played Ollie. It deals with them both in their prime and later on their careers became eclipsed by the newer wave of comedians – Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the Three Stooges, Peter Sellers, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke and others. Ollie only lived for a few years after the second Irish visit. He’d gone on a diet but heart problems proved fatal. He died in 1957. Stan was too ill to go to his funeral. “Oliver would understand,” he said. He refused to perform without his old buddy afterwards.
Stan lived until 1965. His wit didn’t desert him at the end. “If anyone at my funeral has a long face,” he said, “I’ll never speak to him again.”
By all accounts he was the brains of the operation, writing many of their scripts as well as acting in them, overseeing the details as Ollie spent his time living the good life on golf courses with Bing Crosby and the like, or digging into T-bone steaks at exclusive restaurants. Whenever he was consulted about a script he always gave the same answer: “Ask Stan.”
We may not have Stan and Ollie in the flesh anymore but they’ll always be somewhere, be it on a fridge magnet, a key ring or a revived sketch from the archives playing on some nostalgic TV channel. There are also the museums. There are three of these in the world, one in Georgia, America, one in Germany and one in Ulverston, Cumbria. That’s where Stan was born in 1890.
I visited the Ulverston one some years ago. It hoards the most extensive collection of memorabilia about the pair in the world. I spent many hours looking at lobby cards, posters and statues of them, even watching some of their films which run there daily in a little cinema. They brought back memories of the magic days of my youth when the pair – usually through Stan’s doing – landed themselves in yet another “fine mess.”