Laurel and Hardy pitch a tent on LI
The Boys, as Laurel and Hardy were affectionately known, will be boys. Take their 1930 short "Hog Wild," in which portly Mr. Hardy's nagging wife has forced him to put up a radio antenna on the couple's rooftop, even though he literally can't find the hat on top of his head. He enlists the help of his equally incompetent pal Mr. Laurel, and . . . well, you can probably guess the rest, which involves a destroyed chimney and falling through the roof.
It's another fine mess they've gotten themselves into — emphasis on the word "fine," judging by the Laurel and Hardy har-hars the film elicits on a late summer evening at Old Bethpage Village's spacious theater. The screening room is the oasis where local chapter members of the Sons of the Desert, the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society, gather eight times a year to socialize, snack and savor the films of the comic duo.
And with the recent interest in classic comics ("The Three Stooges" movie in the spring, "Chaplin" now on Broadway), what better time to revisit — or, for many, discover — the work of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
"No matter what country, what culture you come from, you may not wear derby hats and bow ties, but you get the brotherhood of these two guys who are in tattered coats and outcasts of society who are trying to fit in, and they never quite do," says Larry Wolff, 56, co-grand sheik (think president) of L.I.'s Second Hundred Years Tent. (Each chapter of The Sons of the Desert is called a tent and is named for one of the pair's movies.)
"The most important thing that makes them different from the Stooges and Abbott and Costello is the brotherhood that Laurel and Hardy share," says Wolff, who lives in Islip. "They really did care for one another in real life. They are a team that never had an argument in their entire career, which is pretty amazing."
That camaraderie also is apparent within the Second Hundred Years Tent, which was established in 1990, coincidentally, the 100th anniversary of Laurel's birth. It boasts about 50 members.
"Laurel and Hardy bring back an easier way of life, and this is a great place to see them," says Chuck Lupton, 64, of Islip, who joined 10 years ago.
Meetings usually begin with members socializing over cookies and soft drinks, followed by a toast to Laurel and Hardy, co-stars Jimmy Finlayson, Mae Busch and Charlie Hall, and finally, cartoonist Al Kilgore, the man who designed the tent's escutcheon. Then everyone crosses arms, holds hands and sings the anthem from Laurel and Hardy's 1933 classic "Sons of the Desert," before settling in for the night's film fare. The movies are sure to please fans — pristine, unedited DVD prints.
"As the grand sheik, I get to wear a fez and talk," says Wolff, who usually offers some background on the movies before they're shown. "Dennis [Carter Jr., the co-grand sheik], runs the films, and I do the verbiage."
Despite calling themselves Sons, membership is about half female, says Carter's mom, Teresa, 57, a teaching assistant from Roslyn Heights, whose husband, Dennis Sr., also 57, is the grand vizier (aka secretary). "I'm the greeter," she says. "I greet everybody."
The Sons of the Desert, named for the film many fans regard as the duo's best feature, was created by a group of Laurel and Hardy aficionados — John McCabe, author of the bio "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy"; actors Orson Bean and Chuck McCann, Laurel and Hardy buff John Municino, and Kilgore. With preliminary help from Laurel, Tent No. 1 held its first meeting in New York City in 1965, shortly after his death. Today, there are more than 100 chapters worldwide.
And one of the cornerstones of the group is the "constitution" created by its founders with some help from Laurel. Laurel's biggest contribution was that there should be lots of imbibing at the meetings. The Second Hundred Years Tent on Long Island, however, likes to keep all activities family-friendly.
"We don't do the alcoholic cocktail in the constitution," Wolff says. "It was written that first everyone should have a cocktail, then a discussion of the films with a cocktail, then pre-dinner cocktails and then see the film with cocktails. Stan liked his cocktails."
Better to drink in the atmosphere at each meeting, which sometimes includes special guests with a Laurel and Hardy connection. One of the most popular visitors was Copiague resident Jerry Schatz, formerly known as Jerry Tucker during his child-star days as a member of the Little Rascals shorts produced at the Hal Roach Studios. Schatz, now 87, also appeared in Laurel and Hardy's 1934 classic "Babes in Toyland," playing several roles, including an offspring of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, and one of the Three Little Pigs. "I was standing right next to Laurel and Hardy when they got dunked into the pool, and I was also one of the kids hanging onto a soldier," he says.
Despite working closely with them, Schatz was unfazed by their stardom. "We filmed the Little Rascals on one set and they would film their stuff on the other set. They'd come through to our set and talk to us. I remember Stan Laurel was wearing a derby hat, and he just gave it to Stymie [one of the Little Rascals]. They were very nice people, both of them," he recalls. "As children, we couldn't care less about who they were and what big stars they were. It didn't mean a thing because we were just people who they worked with."
The next generation
Not surprisingly, membership in the Sons does skew older. Mainstays of the group have included Dwain Smith, 87, of Franklin Square, who has attended all 18 of the Sons of the Deserts conventions, held everywhere from Amsterdam to Manchester, N.H., and Edmund "Jazzbo" Tester, 85, who played Clarabell during live shows with "Howdy Doody's" Buffalo Bob Smith. Tester, who corresponded with Laurel and Hardy, is also the proud owner of a derby given to him by Hardy. "We had show business in common," he says of the comic team.
Tester, of Medford, passed on his love of Laurel and Hardy to his grandson Dennis Carter Jr., 37, of Roslyn Heights. He started showing him Laurel and Hardy movies when he was kid, and Carter was hooked.
One of his missions has been to attract a new generation of members. "I'm on Facebook and meeting people, mentioning Laurel and Hardy and telling them about the tent," says Carter Jr., who works as a concierge at an apartment development. "One of the apartment complexes I work at has a movie theater. Every month, they have a movie night, so I'm trying to talk them into having a Laurel and Hardy night."
One of those younger members is Wolff's 19-year-old son, Dan, a Suffolk County Community College student, who was introduced to Stan and Ollie with "Babes in Toyland," aka "March of the Wooden Soldiers," traditionally shown on TV for Thanksgiving. "The main thing I like about them is that they always came up with new material, they always came up with different stuff. I like newer comedians, too, but nothing beats the old classic stuff."
Dan Wolff has even introduced the comic twosome to some of his friends who never heard of Laurel and Hardy. "One of my buddies, he loves the Three Stooges, so I brought him to my house and showed him a Laurel and Hardy movie," he says. "He was like, 'Who are these guys? They're hilarious. I've never seen them before.' "
For longtime enthusiasts, that's a welcome reaction. "My goal is not only to show the films to the people who already know about them, but to get a new generation involved," says Larry Wolff, who is doing a program on Laurel and Hardy at Comsewogue Public Library in Port Jefferson Station in January and Port Washington Library in April. "They don't show that kind of comedy on TV anymore. It's all sex and dirty words and screaming, so if I can just get my foot into the door in libraries and then schools and show a couple of shorts to the kids, I'll be happy."
Interested in joining Sons of the Desert?
The next meeting on Oct. 22 is the annual Halloween-themed family affair, where members bring their kids and grandkids for an evening of costumes, games, prizes and a Laurel and Hardy film (on tap is the 1942 comedy "A-Haunting We Will Go").
Annual membership is $25; couples, $30; for a family, $35.
WHO Sons of the Desert
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22, Old Bethpage Village Restoration, main building, 1303 Round Swamp Rd.