Ollie: Get this house cleaned up! Do you know that my wife will be home at noon!
Stan: Say, what do you think I am? Cinderella? If I had any sense I’d walk out on you.
Ollie: Well it’s a good thing you haven’t any sense!
Stan: It certainly is!
Life is full of dynamic duos–two halves from opposite ends of the spectrum colliding at just the right moment, and instantly creating iconic perfection. It gets to the point where you can’t have one without the other. In similar fashion, it is hard to imagine Mister Laurel without the jovial (although often frustrated) Mister Hardy.
While Laurel and Hardy are known as a pivotal comedic duo today, their professional partnership was prefaced by their two very different lives that started far from Hollywood. Stanley Laurel or Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born in 1890 in Ulverston, England, while Norvell Hardy was born in 1892 in the small town of Harlem, Georgia.
Norvell was born to Oliver Hardy and Emily Norvell. His father was a Confederate soldier and later became a tax collector upon being injured at the Battle of Antietam. Though the Hardys moved to Madison, Georgia, just before Norvell’s birth, Emily continued to own a house in Harlem that she rented to tenant farmers. Oliver died just one year after Norvell’s birth, leaving baby Norvell to be raised by Emily.
Growing up, Norvell’s life was full of ups and downs. Norvell was the youngest of five Hardy children. Unfortunately, tragedy struck when his brother, Sam, drowned in the Oconsee River. Norvell pulled Sam out of the water but was unable to revive him. Despite this family trauma, Norvell’s mother continued to occupy herself with keeping up the Harlem home and raising her family. Although she housed a varied of tenants, the people that she housed most often possessed a passion for music and theater.
Though Norvell attended schools such as Georgia Military College and Young Harris College, his interest in education was minimal. Instead, the vigor and glee of his mother’s tenants no doubt amused young Norvell, and soon enough, he headed for the stage. Norvell ran away from his boarding school in order to sing with an Atlanta-based theatrical group.
When Norvell’s mother learned of his affinity for performance, she supported his talents and paid for his lessons in music and voice. In memory of his father, Norvell adopted the name “Oliver Norvell Hardy”—a name which he would occasionally mention in full throughout various Laurel and Hardy performances. Additionally, Oliver also received the nickname of “Babe,” as his Italian barber would apply talcum powder to his face, saying, “nice-a baby.” The nickname would briefly follow him into his early film career, with him occasionally also being credited as “Babe Hardy.”
Oliver entered show business as a singer, often performing at his local cinema. When yet another cinema opened near his hometown, he became interested in theater operations and worked as a janitor, manager, projectionist, and in the ticket booth. Soon enough, he was entranced by the actors he saw on screen and decided that he could be just as adept in his own performances. One of his friends encouraged him to go to Jacksonville, Florida, where he began working at the Lubin Manufacturing Company.
At the Lubin studio, Oliver was typically cast in villainous and “heavy” roles. Oliver was 6’1” and roughly 300 pounds, so the parts he received were limited by his stature. However, his physique worked well in comedies, providing a foil to his co-stars. After making roughly 50 films for Lubin, Oliver moved to New York and also filmed at Pathé, Casino, and Edison Studios, followed by a move back to Jacksonville to work at Vim Comedy Company.
Later, Oliver moved across the country to Los Angeles and found freelance work in the film industry, making over 40 films for Vitagraph. It was at this point that Oliver first collaborated with British actor, Stan Laurel. The two appeared in The Lucky Dog (1921), with Oliver’s character trying to rob Stan. They would not work together again on screen for another six years. In the meantime, Oliver worked for Hal Roach Studios, and can be noticed in Our Gang shorts and Charley Chase films. Additionally, he played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1925), followed with being directed by Stan in Yes, Yes, Yes, Nanette! (1925).
In 1927, Oliver and Stan teamed up once more, leading to the production of several short films starring the duo. Two years later, they would appear in Hollywood Revue of 1929. Additionally, the duo starred in their first feature film, Pardon Us (1931), while still working on various short films. In fact, their short The Music Box (1932) won them an Academy Award for best short film. Upon the completion of Saps at Sea (1940), Oliver and Stan left Hal Roach studios in order to perform for the USO during World War II. When they returned, they found work at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor studios as well as 20th Century Fox. Laurel and Hardy would make their last film, Atoll K (1951), while also making time for occasional television appearances.
Stan and Oliver’s collaborations spanned from the silent era and well into the transition to sound. Altogether, the comedic duo made roughly 106 films between 1921 and 1951, offering performance sin 34 silent shorts, 45 sound shorts, and 27 full-length feature films.
Unfortunately, Oliver suffered a heart attack in 1954 after making his way through rapid weight loss. Another stroke in 1956 affected his voice and mobility. Oliver died at age 65 on August 7, 1957.
Although Oliver is one half of a legendary comedy team, many residents of Harlem are extremely proud of their native son. Picturesque Harlem is a short drive away from Augusta, Georgia, and the Laurel and Hardy Museum is marketed well throughout the surrounding area.
Since its opening on July 15, 2000, visitors from all over the world have come to the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Harlem. In fact, on the first Saturday in October, the town holds the Oliver Hardy Festival, which draws a crowd well over the size of Harlem’s population. However, when it is time for business as usual, this museum is all but forgotten; travelers come and go, and locals drop in for a visit. After school, children stop by for homemade cookies and watch a short or two.
The overwhelming sense of community breathes life into this museum and continually honors the memory and legacy of Stan and Ollie. The museum itself exists due to a heartening responsibility of sharing and preserving the works of Laurel and Hardy. Moreover, its inception was highly influenced by Laurel and Hardy fans. In its infancy, the museum was no museum at all. Rather, people from all over the world would send Laurel and Hardy memorabilia to Harlem. Artifacts of all shapes and sizes were placed on display in City Hall, until there was simply no room left. As a result, through the collaboration of Laurel and Hardy fans, the community of Harlem, and a Mayor of Harlem who was incidentally related to Oliver, Harlem’s Laurel and Hardy Museum was born.
In addition to being a hub for the community, the museum houses an impressive collection of Laurel and Hardy’s works. The museum’s staff will gladly play any film or short for visitors in their theater area. Also, visitors can enjoy viewing the wide array of Laurel and Hardy memorabilia and artifacts, including photos, decorative collectibles, posters, lobby cards, and props, such as a fez from Sons of the Desert (1933). Moreover, the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Harlem is just one wonderful half of preserving the legacy of Laurel and Hardy; the sister museum operates in Ulverston, England, hometown of Stan Laurel.
Outside of the Museum, one can take a short walk and find a plaque marking the spot where Oliver Hardy was born. It is just across the street from Ollie’s Laundry, of all things! Additionally, the town’s water tower features a towering caricature of Oliver’s face.
I strongly encourage you to visit the Laurel and Hardy Museum, especially if you can make it in time for the festival. The Museum possesses knowledgeable and hospitable staff members, a hefty collection of memorabilia, and a charming gift shop. Don’t forget to pose with “the boys” before you leave.
The Laurel and Hardy Museum is located at 250 N. Louisville St., Harlem, Georgia, 30814, and is free of charge.
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