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Watch: Meet the Belfast barber who cut Laurel and Hardy's hair - 'I was terrified'


Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Barber Jim Hanna's memories of his meeting with comedy icons Laurel and Hardy in Belfast over 60 years ago are, rather fittingly for his profession, razor sharp.

Jim (85) cut the hair of the famous funnymen during their visit to Northern Ireland for a sold-out two week run at the Grand Opera House in June 1952.

And he still remembers every detail of the close encounter with his most illustrious clients - from the persistent shaking of his nervous hands before the trimming of their locks to their hugely generous tips afterwards.

Jim will never forget that day in his teens when he was summoned from the barber's shop in Whitla Street where he was working to the Midland Hotel where Laurel and Hardy were staying. The shop had a contract with the hotel to cut the hair of its guests.

But when Jim was told the identities of his prospective clients he initially said no.

He says: "I was too terrified to entertain the thought of cutting Laurel and Hardy's hair. But I was informed in no uncertain terms that I had to go.

"In those days, I was watching these two international movie stars in local cinemas like the Capitol, the Lyceum and the Duncairn Picture House.

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"But the prospect of meeting them in real life filled me with fear."

A reluctant Jim was shaking like a leaf as he made his way to his daunting appointment, but he lived - and loved - to tell the tale.

He says: "We had a small room in the Midland where we cut hair. But Laurel and Hardy wanted me to go to their respective suites instead."

Actors Stan Laurel, left, and Oliver Hardy
Actors Stan Laurel, left, and Oliver Hardy
Jim Hanna gives Belfast Telegraph journalist Ben Tucker a trim
Belfast’s Midland Hotel
Jim Hanna, now in his 80s, cut the hair of comedy legends Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy at Belfast’s Midland Hotel

Jim's knees were still knocking as he rapped on their doors. He says: "I went to Oliver Hardy's suite first. His wife answered and ushered me in.

"The chairs in the suite were too small to accommodate Ollie's extra-large frame, but he perched on the edge of one of them.

"I threw a gown around him and he told me he didn't want a lot off.

"So I took a deep breath and took the clippers and gave him a trim. He went into the bathroom to have a look at what I'd done. I was sweating, but he came back and said 'great'.

"There hadn't been a lot of conversation between us really. He asked me questions and I answered yes or no.

"But after I finished he handed me the 10 shillings fee that I asked for. And he proceeded to give me a pound tip. And that was big money in those days, believe me.

Jim Hanna gives Belfast Telegraph journalist Ben Tucker a trim
Jim Hanna gives Belfast Telegraph journalist Ben Tucker a trim

"Ollie then rang upstairs and I can still hear him saying 'Stanley, the barber's here'. It made me sound like an executioner."

Stan was dressed in a smoking jacket and had dampened his hair in preparation for Jim to work his magic.

Jim says: "He told me that he wanted me to cut his hair short on the top and that's what I did. His wife came over afterwards and said 'marvellous'.

"Just as his partner had done, Stan paid me my fee and gave me a pound tip.

"I thanked him for his kindness, wished him well for his stay in Northern Ireland and went back to my barber's shop full of the joys of spring and I couldn't wait to show my colleagues my two pound notes. No one had ever seen gratuities as big before."

The owner of the shop, Lily Myers, didn't miss a trick. She stuck a poster in the window which said: 'We cut Laurel and Hardy's hair. Why not let us cut yours?'

Two photographs which the Hollywood stars had signed for Jim were also put up, but no-one has any idea what happened to the pictures.

Jim has only one other regret about his date with the famed duo.

He says: "I'm sad that I never got to see them on stage. You couldn't have got a ticket for love nor money.

"Belfast went crazy for Laurel and Hardy during those two weeks. There were always crowds standing outside the Midland Hotel."

Reports from the time say the throngs made Laurel and Hardy virtual prisoners in the hotel, trapped there when they weren't performing at the Opera House.

But Jim remembers one bizarre sortie outside the building.

The renowned Belfast street fighter 'Buck Alec' Robinson, who was a brother of Jim's boss Lily Myers, took them to his home in Sailortown.

But the purpose of the trip wasn't to meet his family - it was to 'meet' the three lions he kept at the back of his house.

"Buck Alec's wife told me later that her husband calmly marched Laurel and Hardy through the house as she was washing the children in a zinc bath. He never mentioned that he was bringing them," says Jim.

Jim Hanna and partner Sheila Garry with their Laurel and Hardy memorabilia
Jim Hanna and partner Sheila Garry with their Laurel and Hardy memorabilia

Buck Alec, who was reputed to have been a driver in the States for gangster Al Capone, was another of Jim's clients in Whitla Street.

Jim is still a massive fan of Laurel and Hardy and loves nothing more than to sit in his home in Newtownabbey and watch his box sets of their most popular films. "Even now I find them hilarious. Their humour is still fresh," he says.

A new movie, Stan and Ollie, which is drawing massive audiences, captures the time that Laurel and Hardy were visiting the British Isles to make money when their movie star was dimming.

"I'm looking forward to seeing it," says Jim, whose skills with a pair of scissors were also employed by another comedian, Belfast's Frank Carson, who also met Laurel and Hardy and who put up a plaque commemorating their 1952 visit at the Midland Hotel, York Street.

But Jim wasn't in the least bit star-stuck as he cut Frank's hair. Which wasn't surprising because the two men were friends. They not only grew up in the Sailortown area of Belfast, but were also youthful members of the Newsboys club in Frederick Street.

Jim says: "We were in the minstrel troupe together. We blacked up and sang and danced in old people's homes and concerts all the time before Frank started performing on his own in halls all over Belfast.

"Even after he became a star in England, Frank always dropped in to see me. And I was honoured to be invited to his 80th birthday party in the Culloden Hotel."

Jim also cut the hair of boxing legend Rinty Monaghan, another of Sailortown's celebrated sons.

"He used to come in after training on Cavehill. We shampooed him to get the sweat off him before his trim and he would have sung a song or two in the barber's chair," says Jim, who's happy that hairdressing has been his life from his time as a schoolboy sweeping the floor in Frank Daly's barber's shop in Great Patrick Street.

Jim went on to serve his time there and "learnt from the very best" in Daly's, which was near 'the bru', the dole office, in Corporation Street, a location which guaranteed a steady flow of clients.

"The men would call in for a shave before going there because they wanted to look well. And they would return later to pay you," laughs Jim, who went on to work for a time for John McKeown, who had three barber's shops in Belfast - the Casino, the Waldorf and Charlie's.

His next job was the one in Whitla Street beside the Midland Hotel. He says: "Ernie Singleton gave me a trial and I was offered a position there and then."

But although he enjoyed his time as an employee in some of Belfast's top barber's shops, Jim had always hankered after a place of his own.

And he realised his ambition by opening his own business - The Spa - in Spamount Street, not far from where he'd been born.

His best known client was footballer George Best. Jim says: "George was only starting out on his international career when he turned up along with his Northern Ireland team-mate Derek Dougan.

"They arrived in a big flashy Ford Consul convertible with red upholstery and even the car caused a stir because you didn't see many like that in Spamount Street." Jim gave George a crewcut long before the footballer let his hair grow out in the style of the Beatles, a transformation which helped earn him the title of the Fifth Beatle after his European Cup exploits in Portugal against Benfica.

After Spamount Street, Jim opened a new barber's shop in King Street in the centre of Belfast. He called it John Clement's at the request of the owner of the property.

Broadcasters Gerry Kelly, Jackie Fullerton and the late UTV newscaster Brian Baird were among his customers.

"I was cutting hair from 7.30 in the morning until 8pm at night. I was a workaholic," says Jim, who only hung up his clippers six years ago on health grounds.

But Jim hasn't retired completely. He still makes house calls to older and infirm people who can't get out of their homes for haircuts.

Jim, who spent six months working in hairstyling in Paris in his 20s, has seen the wheel turn full circle in recent times for barbers.

Dozens of 'old-style' shops have been making a comeback in the UK, the destinations of choice for a new wave of hip and fashion-conscious young men taking a lead from footballers and pop stars.

Jim, who became a tutor for wannabe barbers and an award-winner in hairstyling, says: "Shaving is very popular again with the younger men. There's a great skill in that and I'm pleased to say that in all my days I never drew blood!"

Which was maybe no bad thing, with hardmen like Buck Alec Robinson in his chair.

Jim and his family had close shaves themselves during the blitz in Belfast in 1941.

"During one of the first ones I was lucky enough to get to an air raid shelter in time, but when we came out we couldn't find my father Harry. However, it turned out that he had taken refuge in a butcher's shop, which was the only building in the immediate area that wasn't destroyed.

"I was very relieved to find out that he had survived."

Jim says another blitz by the Luftwaffe at Easter was an even more shocking experience.

"The sirens had gone off and again we reached the shelter. But even though I was only a nipper I was big for my age. And I was asked by the Air Raid Precautions wardens to come outside to help them check on people.

"At one point I saw what I thought were parachutes falling from the sky, but they were landmines which came down over Cavehill.

"The next thing I knew the wind caught them and dropped them onto the Limestone Road and Duncairn Gardens. Many, many people were killed, but I was fortunate in that I didn't lose anyone close to me."

Jim says that he has often toyed with the idea of writing a book about his life.

He adds: "Brian Baird was always encouraging me to get my memories down on paper.

"He even gave me a title for the book. He wanted me to call it The Young Snipper."

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