You're having a laugh: New Laurel and Hardy movie mirrors duo's Belfast visit
The legendary comedy double act broke all box office records at the Grand Opera House in the summer of 1952. Alex Kane, a life-long fan, recalls an era when Hollywood stars were treated like royalty
One of my great regrets is that I never got to see Laurel and Hardy live on stage. In the late-1960s, when I would have been 14 or 15 years old, my dad Sam used to take me to Belfast for a trip around Smithfield's secondhand bookshops. We always had lunch in the Kensington Hotel (it used to be on College Square East), followed by a trip to the nearby Classic cinema. That's where I first saw Stan and Ollie - those were the days when cinemas still showed a few shorts between the B feature and the main film.
And I can still see the tears rolling down my dad's face as he roared - and it really was a roar - with laughter. It was perfect, beautiful comedy. And I roared with him. I still roar when I see them, as did my children Megan and Lilah when they saw them for the first time almost half-a-century later.
We all belong to the Another Fine Mess Tent, a local Laurel and Hardy fan club, which is just one of maybe a hundred or so around the world. Not a bad legacy for two comedians who started separately in silent cinema, were thrown together in Putting Pants On Philip in 1917 and went on to become the best-known double act ever. Look at the work of popular comedians ever since and you will still see the influence of the boys.
I remember being astonished when my dad told me he had missed the chance to see them when they had been in Belfast for two weeks in the summer of 1952. Tickets, it seems, were gold dust; in a letter to a fan, written while he was in Belfast, Laurel confirmed that they had broken all box office records since the Grand Opera House had opened in December 1895.
In 1952 not many people owned a television. Cinemas were still the main source of reasonably priced entertainment and Belfast had dozens of them in the 1950s, many of which had seating for 1,000-plus. Laurel and Hardy had always been a huge draw and were enormously popular with children and family audiences. There wouldn't have been many people in Belfast - or across Northern Ireland - who would never have heard of, or seen them on the big screen.
In an era when Hollywood stars were, quite literally, secular deities and when film fan magazines sold in their millions, Stan and Ollie were gods.
So, their coming to Belfast for two weeks in June 1952 really was like a visit from Mount Olympus. They stayed in the Midland Hotel, which used to be on York Street in the heart of the old Sailortown area. One observer noted that they were more like prisoners than guests, because the hotel was under constant siege from fans for most of those two weeks.
A young Frank Carson, who lived and grew up nearby, bumped into them very briefly when they were leaving the hotel for another event. "I thanked them for the many years of happiness they'd given me. I can still see them as they waved me goodbye," he said.
In a letter with a Midland Hotel letterhead, written to a friend on June 24, Laurel wrote of his time in Belfast: "Being our first time here, they went all-out to give us a true Irish welcome and didn't miss a thing. Business, as you can imagine, was enormous - we broke house record here. We are laying off this week, so decided to go into hospital here for a rest and check-up, so am able to get a chance to clean up my desk with the mail - away from the maddening crowd.
"Had a birthday last week. Eda (his wife) arranged a surprise party for me at the theatre - after our act. The orchestra struck up Happy Birthday and the whole company came onstage and audience joined in. Three cakes in dressing room, they couldn't get all the candles on one! Plenty to drink. A regular come ye, come all, with the stage hands, musicians, theatre staff etc. Even the Lord Mayor of Belfast - so a good time was had by all."
Everywhere they went they were mobbed. The areas around the Grand Opera House and the Midland Hotel were always thronged. They travelled to and from events in a taxi and with a driver who always had "a neat black uniform and a shiny peaked hat".
They even managed to meet the legendary 'Buck Alec' Robinson, who used to walk around Belfast with a pet lion. And they were always unfailingly polite, taking time for autographs and photographs (which took a lot longer to set up than the mobile phone selfies we are used to today). Quite often they would also do a "little bit of business", re-enacting some gags from their films for a group of people who had gathered around them.
People wonder why they spent so much time on the road from the late-1940s to 1954. They were both in their 60s when they arrived in Belfast and in failing health. The touring took its toll on them and it was beginning to show in their performances.
Theirs was a very physical comedy (as it was for that generation who began their careers during the silent area), which probably explains why Stan had to spend some time in hospital while he was here. But both needed the money. They had been married about eight times between them, their post-Second World War films weren't appealing to a new audience, and they never enjoyed the huge salaries of some of their Hollywood peers. In a letter written from Belfast, Laurel admits: "We have to leave here in October, otherwise we are liable for tax on this present whole trip, plus the States."
The people of Belfast knew none of this at the time. Newspapers, even if they were aware of it, chose not to write about it. All they knew was that Stan and Ollie were in town for two weeks. Even if they hadn't been lucky enough to get tickets to see them on stage, they might still be lucky enough to catch sight of them at the stage door or at the Midland Hotel, which hundreds of them tried to do every day.
There is a lovely story about their encounter with a busker outside the Grand Opera House: "Oliver Hardy got out of the taxi and made his way to listen. Next, Stan Laurel came to Oliver's side. They listened intently to Charlie's rendering of a beautiful song. When he had finished, Hardy gave him a half-crown coin (at that time it would have bought you a fish supper, or admission to a city centre cinema). From that time on Charlie had the distinction of being the only person in Ireland of having sung, in person, for the pleasure of two of the world's greatest and most-loved entertainers."
With the exception of Charlie Chaplin (whom I never really warmed to), most of the stars who began their career in silent cinema are now forgotten. Stan and Ollie roll on. The new film with Steve Coogan and John C Reilly will introduce another generation to their work and give them a chance to marvel at what they did.
Every step, every word, every aside to the camera was beautifully choreographed and brilliantly executed. At their peak - from the early-1920s until the mid-1940s - they brought joy to huge audiences, who were in real need of something to laugh at (it was a very troubling era of history).
They still bring that joy. The mere mention of their names raises a smile on millions of lips. They have entered that rare pantheon of immortals who don't really need an introduction. We know them. We like them. We want to share them with our children.
I like to think there maybe is some sort of afterlife, in which my dad and I will see them: still working their magic and still making us roar with laughter.