In the 1935 film "Sons of the Desert," Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy tell their wives that they are sailing to Hawaii for Hardy's health--in order to sneak off and attend the national convention of their lodge, "The Sons of the Desert." But they are eventually spied by their enraged spouses in a newsreel, joyously singing the lodge anthem (to the tune of "Give My Regards to Broadway"):
"We are the sons of the desert, having , the time of our lives. . . ."
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are long departed from this world, but the Sons of the Desert are still meeting and singing that anthem.
"I worked for Bill Patterson, who started the L.A. chapter in 1967. I got involved in sending out the mailing list, going to the first meeting to take minutes, and sort of fell into it that way," said Lori Jones McCaffrey of North Hollywood. "And I found that I was quickly up to my eyebrows in the nuts and bolts of running the tent. And still am."
The "tent" she speaks of is the "Way Out West" tent of the Sons of the Desert, an international society devoted to preserving and celebrating the work of Messrs. Laurel and Hardy, founded with Laurel's blessings in 1965. McCaffrey has been the most consistent driving force behind the Way Out West Tent (named for Laurel's favorite Laurel and Hardy film) during much of its last 20 years of meetings in various halls in the San Fernando Valley. She has organized and managed a group that has become not only an appreciation society, but a sort of alumni gathering for those who worked with "the boys," as they are affectionately known, and many other veterans of Hal Roach Studios comedies. (The tent meets every six weeks at the Mayflower Club in North Hollywood, a private club for British expatriates.)
Over the years, filing into local Sons meetings has been everyone from Hardy's widow and assorted members of "Our Gang" to the very head of the Roach Studios himself, Hal Roach--who is now 96 years old.
There are about 125 tents across the country and around the world, but the Way Out West Tent is special. As former Way Out West "Grand Sheik" Bob Satterfield--another of the tent's driving forces-- put it: "Because we're so close to where all the films were made, and where so many of the veterans live, we're considered the 'tent of the stars.' "
Laurel and Hardy's films are rarely seen on television anymore, so what is this undying affection?
"It's a hard question," said McCaffrey, a wedding coordinator by trade who met both her first and second husband at Sons meetings ("Stan would approve," she laughed.) "And there's a thousand different answers. . . . Laurel and Hardy represent a simple, gentler time. Even though every time they opened a cupboard, everything fell out on them, that was really the worst that happened to them."
Even when Babe Hardy "pokes Stan in the chin, and Stan cuts off his tie," she added, "it's never really malicious, somehow. It's always like two children who really love each other, fighting over who gets the biggest piece of pie. And I think that appeals to people especially now, in this world, where people flip you the bird because you tried to make a left turn, or whatever."
They were all there at the Airport Hilton Hotel in Burbank one recent Sunday night: Henry Brandon, who played the evil Barnaby in 1939's "Babes in Toyland" (which starred Laurel and Hardy); little Angelo Rositto, the famed dwarf actor who played Elmer the Pig in the same movie; Roy Seawright, the special effects man nominated three times for an Academy Award (he made Laurel's thumb ignite in "Swiss Miss"); actresses Vera Ralston and Marie Windsor, both of whom starred with Hardy in "The Fighting Kentuckian" with John Wayne in 1951; Della Lind, the blonde namesake songbird in "Swiss Miss"; Peggy Cartwright, a member of the very first few silent "Our Gang" comedies; Dorothy (Echo) Deborba, another "Our Gang" veteran, and various other co-stars, professional associates of "the boys," and Roach alumnae. The occasion? The "tent of the stars' " 19th annual banquet.
And there, right smack dab in the middle of them, was Lois Laurel Hawes--Stan's daughter. "Next year," she said proudly, "will be my father's 100th birthday, and there will be quite a celebration over the world. . . ."
And how would he feel about the modest gathering in Burbank?
"I think they would be awe-struck! They're really more popular today than they were when they were making films."
Lois Hawes joined the group in 1976, and her then husband-to-be, Tony Hawes, a veteran comedy writer (for the BBC and television) joined in 1980.
"I actually wrote for them," Tony Hawes said. "The first time I met them was in 1947. I wrote a radio show for them, and we were going to do it every Sunday at the Paris Theater in London. It had all been signed, sealed, delivered, and it was going to happen. And then Stan said, 'We're never going to be able to do this, because Babe just isn't well enough.' We did the pilot, which never aired, for BBC radio, and they went back to America. Don't know where that pilot is anymore. I'd love to know."
Hawes lingered in the lobby discussing other lost Laurel and Hardy treasures--chiefly "The Rogue Song," an MGM Technicolor 1932 film featuring Lawrence Tibbett, and a silent film called "Hats Off," in which Laurel and Hardy haul a washing machine up those same stairs they later dragged a piano up in the 1932 Academy Award-winning short, "The Music Box"--then adjourned to the main hall to have dinner and to lead the Sons in the evening's toasts.
Quoth Hawes to the assembled mass, a few minutes later:
"The first toast goes to Stan Laurel/who was funny, but never immoral/He would not swear or curse/Or do anything worse/Than wiggle his ears in a quarrel!
"Toast! To Mr. Stan Laurel!"
This was followed by a similar, if more personal, tribute to golfing aficionado Hardy:
"A portly young golfer called Ollie/Had a frame that was rotund, but jolly/With his clubs on his back/He would swing, and he'd hack/While he rested his waist on his trolley!
"A toast! To Mr. Oliver Hardy!"
And so it went. Toasts and introductions. Short, humble speeches by the ladies and gentlemen of honor, some off-color tales by the gentleman, a cheesy raffle, a Laurel and Hardy short called "Thicker Than Water," (in which a blood transfusion swaps their personalities).
Some fine Laurel and Hardy anecdotes were swapped over drinks, and some touching moments took place on stage--chiefly the honoring of Anita Garvin Stanley, and the late "Our Gang" member and longtime Son "Sunshine" Sammy Morrison.
Stanley is a minor history entertainment in herself. A Ziegfield Follies girl before coming to Hollywood, she worked with Laurel and Hardy individually before they teamed up, and acted with them in both shorts and full-length features, bringing a potent comedic presence of her own.
In films like "Be Big" and "Blotto," where she was Mrs. Laurel, she provided a formidable female foil for the duo. A Son for the past 13 years, Stanley was wheeled to the stage and presented with the tent's lifetime achievement award for 1988 (she couldn't attend last year, and this year's recipient was the late Morrison, who was honored posthumously.)
Lest the moment grow too sentimental, though, she called upon an intact, wry trouper spirit, and quipped:
"I don't think I've ever been so moved in my life. . . . Now, if I could move my legs, everything would be fine!"
One of the people laughing was a little girl just 7 years old. Seated at a table with Lois Laurel and Tony Hawes, she was fairly well lost in the crowd of so many bald and white-haired heads.
Yet later, when she took the stage to draw raffle tickets, grinning, there was something that made her stand out; something familiar. Maybe it was in the chin, or maybe the ears, or maybe her smile, but it was a face that seemed to have some of the charm of--some of the warmth--of Stan Laurel.
And well it should have. This was Stan's great-granddaughter, Cassidy.
"Oh, I love them" she said during a brief interview. "They were really funny. I'm probably my great-grandfather's biggest fan. I'm real proud of him."
Spoken like a true Son of the Desert.