Sadly, Peter Elkins has also passed away since the feature below was written. So this page is dedicated to the memory of: Malcolm Stuart Fellows, Peter Elkins, Tony Hawes and Bill Cubin.
Laurel & Hardy bequeathed a feast of comedy to their thousands of hungary fans.
Feature -Sons of the Desert
Writer Lee Jordan
Photographer Mike Lawn & Roger Scruton
Seventy years ago two gentlemen met on a silent movie film set. One was a large American, the other a thin Englishman. The picture they were filming was a comedy Lucky Dog and this fortuitous casting in 1922 was the genesis of Laurel & Hardy, arguably the greatest comedy pairing the silver screen has ever seen. A partnership that would last for 30 years and an act that would transfer successfully from silent films to talkies.
Such was, and, indeed is, their appeal that 70 years on, thousands of Laurel & Hardy fans still curl up in laughter at the adventures of two kind-hearted men dressed in suits and derby hats who, no matter how hard they endeavour not to, always find themselves in trouble. And the resultant attempts to alleviate their problems guarantee hilarious situations.
During the 1960s when Professor John McCabe was writing his authorised biography Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy he wrote to Stan Laurel and asked if he had any objection to a body of enthusiasts being formed on the lines of the 'Baker Street Irregulars', the society devoted to Sherlock Holmes. Stan Laurel was delighted that "celebration" would be its theme and even helped with the groups constitution. The societies name, suggested by a founder member the late Al Kilgore derives from Laurel & Hardy's 1933 film, Sons of The Desert.
Today there are new sons (and daughters) being admitted and each new member joins a "tent" of The Sons of The Desert. Each tent has its own name: The Dirty Work Tent are all Washington firefighters; Midnight Patrol Tent, made up of police officers and Do Detectives Think?, more members of the b blue. These are just some of the hundred plus tents worldwide.
Rob Lewis is co-founder of the Helpmates UK tent and is the co-publisher of The Laurel & Hardy Magazine, which has subscribers all around the World. On the wall of his sitting room hangs his prized possessions framed, original cheques signed by Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy. Stans daughter ,Lois gave him the Stan cheque while the Ollie was harder to come by as only a few are known to exist.
Twenty-two years ago while an apprentice printer and bookbinder, Rob was working on a machine with a colleague, Peter Elkins. "Peter was always larking about, a real joker. We started talking about our favourite comedy heroes and when at the same time we both named Laurel & Hardy, a special bond of friendship formed and we realised that our interest in their comedy was more than just 20 minutes of laughter," says Rob. Such was their enthusiasm for the pair that it immediately affected their work. "We got carried away and ended up putting 30 hardback book covers on upside down. It was almost worthy of a scene from one of the Boys' (a term of endearment used by Desert members) films," Rob laughs at the memory.
The BBC, at this time, were showing a collection of Laurel & Hardy films which generated a surge of interest and introduced a new generation to comedy that was as fresh as it had been 50 years before. Rob and Peter were aware of the Sons Of The Desert and knew of only one branch in Scotland, so Rob joined as a postal member. But, it was the Christmas of 1977 that would turn a mere appreciation into a full spare-time vocation. Rob printed a batch of Laurel & Hardy Christmas cards and soon after was contacted by another enthusiast from London a retired judge, the late Malcom Stuart-Fellows. The three men put their heads together and in doing so showed themselves as visionaries when they determined to launch a magazine and spread the word as widely as they could. They would start their own branch in the South, Rob and Peter would apply their skills to printing while Mr Stuart-Fellows would take care of typesetting; all three would contribute to the magazines contents. With a stare of a classroom teacher Rob says, "And this was pre-computers, this was the real way of publishing a magazine, it was an art then." The first issue came out in 1978 and today it continues to inform and entertain subscribers. Rob recalls Peter asking, "How are we going to keep finding new storys about 'the boys'?". Well that was over 20 years ago and we are still turning up new finds!
More people joined the cause. When Dennis Gifford, the writer of the Seventies quiz show Looks Familiar asked if he could contribute to the quarterly magazine the judge, the apprentice and the joker realised the demand for the Boys' comedy was greater than they had imagined. Dennis Gifford invited Rob and Peter on to the show and to the studio's "Green Room". Here they met Denis Norden, and the comedians Tommy Trinder and Max Wall. When introduced to a gentleman called Tony Hawes they politely shook his hand but did not know who he was until he told them his was the voice behind the conveyor belt (remember the cuddly toy?) on Larry Grayson's Generation Game. He informed them that Larry Grayson, Isla St Clair and Ronnie Hazlehurst the BBC's Musical Director wanted to join. "We thought it was a wind up, these people were household names and they were asking if they could join us!" Jimmy Marshall another comedian had started a small branch in the north and Dennis Gifford( The Film Funsters) had formed a group in London. "In time we amalgamated all the branches and just watched it grow and grow," Rob says, his eyes wide open in wonder.
In 1980, Rob and Peter organised their first of several tours to the Laurel & Hardy convention in Hollywood. With them were Larry Grayson, Ronnie Hazlehurst, Isla St Clair and Tony Hawes. One passenger on the flight had a meeting with destiny. Little did Tony Hawes know that life's own conveyor belt would bring him his future wife. For attending the convention was Lois Laurel, Stans daughter. Tony and Lois eventually married and and Tony joined the Los Angeles branch of Sons Of The Desert. "When we met Lois, I was astounded. She had brought with her memorabilia, there were personal photo-graphs, letters and an actual photograph signed by Charlie Chaplin." Rob is animated as he tries to convey what this meant to him. "Do you know we've even got a subscriber in Libya, but I don't think his name is preceded by colonel."
Rob was sad to say that Malcolm Stuart Fellows and Tony Hawes are no longer with us, but their memory will always live on through The Sons of the Desert. Our interview is peppered with trivial information such as: "Did you know the famous pair's introduction tune was originally a radio signal?" And, "Off screen they were great friends but shared different interests, Stan stayed behind to help edit the movies while Ollie loved the sanctuary of a golf course." Rob recalls a convention at an hotel in Kent. Peter Elkins was signing people in when one particular gentleman enquired if he could join, Peters head was buried in the register so he had not seen the approaching man. When he did look up he was greeted by the smiling face of David Jason, who is now an honorary member. Bob Monkhouse, Roy Hudd, Barry Cryer and Jeremy Beadle are all honorary members. "We do not cash in on famous names, they simply share our passion for the Boys' comedy," Rob says. Could it be that Laurel & Hardy inspired and indeed contributed to the rise of fame these stars enjoy today?
That the UK members share such devotion and enjoy many conventions around the World is due to the efforts of many people but Rob points to one man who spent his lifetime furthering the cause. A man who believed that future generations should still be able to enjoy good, clean, fun and the brilliant comedy of Laurel & Hardy. The late Bill Cubin was owner and curator of the Laurel & Hardy museum in Ulverston, Cumbria, where, in 1890, Stan Laurel was born. Bill Cubin devoted his life to these world famous comedians and collected an amazing variety of memorabilia, believed to be the largest in the world. The collection includes photographs, letters, personal items and furniture. There is even a small cinema showing free films and documentaries daily. Bill Cubin made a concerted effort to developing Sons Of The Desert in the UK. He would always encourage fans to start their own tents(branches) and he was always available to help and travel around the country to give talks and advice. His daughter, Marion Grave, has vowed to continue her father's work with the support of Alan Jordan who helps manage the museum, and they expect to meet 23,000 visitors this year.
When we visited and sat in the small auditorium enjoying a 1930s adventure, one enthusiast sitting in front of us remarked to his partner, "This is a different version of this film because it's a different waiter"!
Oliver Hardy (Babe to his family and friends) and Stan Laurel appeared in a total of 106 films in which they played themselves 104 times. But here is a mystery. Two of the films are missing. One is Hats Off, a silent movie made in the Twenties when they played different characters and the other is a Laurel & Hardy picture, The Rogue Song made in 1933. Hats Off featured them carrying a washing machine up a flight of stairs; this was later remade as a Laurel & Hardy talkie and the washing machine was replaced by a piano in 'The Music Box'. It is the silent film that is missing, a 16mm version which is thought to be out there somewhere in the world. In the Fifties it was reported that a print was sold on 16mm film in New York. The Rogue Song was originally an operetta feature film and, though completed, the makers were not happy with the result. The studio hired Laurel & Hardy and re-filmed sequences with the famous twosome in colour and billed them alongside the stars. But, this film has vanished and no complete prints exist. Research , has discovered three minutes of a projectionist's print which features the comedy pair. And in Prague they have found a silent reel of the original film prior to the Laurel & Hardy edition; so the quest continues. "It's a real mystery, I am convinced someone has these films in their attic, maybe a reader of this feature holds the key?" Rob reflects.Stan and Ollie have been residents of comedy heaven for many years now. Oliver Hardy died in 1957 and Stan Laurel in 1965. If they are aware of the missing films, one can imagine Hardy turning to his friend and saying, "This is another fine mystery you've got me into Stanley". Laurel starts to cry and replies, "I didnt mean it Ollie".And their genius unites heaven and earth in rapturous applause for the immortal comedy that is Laurel & Hardy.
The signed cheques and museum
For further information, contact: Helpmates UK.
www.laurelandhardy.org (The Laurel and Hardy Magazine)
The Laurel & Hardy Museum, is at 4c Upper Brook Street, Ulverston (town centre), Cumbria LA12 7BH. Tel: 01229 582292/861614.
This article appeared in the July 1998 edition of Saga magazine .