John McCabe, 84; Professor Championed Laurel and Hardy

Times Staff Writer

John McCabe, a Shakespearean scholar and show business biographer whose 1961 book on Laurel and Hardy was considered the definitive work that brought the comedy duo the critical respect that had eluded them, has died. He was 84.

McCabe died of congestive heart failure Tuesday at Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey, said his wife, Karen.

"Laurel and Hardy were not embraced by the intelligentsia like the Marx Brothers were," said film critic Leonard Maltin. McCabe's "book helped cement their reputation as the greatest comedy duo of the 20th century."

The affectionate work, "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy," came out of a chance meeting that the author had while studying Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon. After he saw the pair perform at a music hall in England, he flipped a coin to determine whether he would go backstage to meet them.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were kind, cordial and displayed the "innocent gentility that marks their screen characters," McCabe recalled in the book. "It was rather like discovering that Santa Claus really existed."

As he scanned Laurel's fan mail, he got the idea to create the Sons of the Desert, a fan appreciation club that takes its name from the 1933 Laurel and Hardy movie considered one of their best.

"I was determined I would have something much more than a fan club. It would be socially active and yet concerned with scholarship," McCabe told the Chicago Tribune in July.

With tongue firmly in cheek, he modeled the group on the Baker Street Irregulars, the Sherlock Holmes organization of which he had been a member.

The motto -- "Two minds without a single thought" -- was said to have been supplied by Laurel, but another founding member, comedian Orson Bean, said he had a hunch that the line came from McCabe.

"His vision for the Sons of the Desert came through that Laurel and Hardy sense of let's get together, watch a movie and get drunk. They have kept the vision alive," said Bean, who characterized his contribution as little more than lending his name to the letterhead of the group founded in 1965.

The constitution, written by McCabe, decrees that each Sons of the Desert chapter -- called a tent, in keeping with the theme -- take its name from a Laurel and Hardy film and be run by a presiding officer called the grand sheik. Eight of the 10 points on how to conduct a meeting include the word "cocktail."

The organization, which has grown to 200 chapters worldwide, abides by such rules as "The officers and board members at large shall have absolutely no authority whatever."

McCabe held the title of Exhausted Ruler, a classic Laurel malapropism from the "Sons of the Desert" film in which the pair try to sneak home from a convention of the mythical fraternal group.

"The fact that Laurel and Hardy are to some degree household words almost 80 years after they began making films is due in no small measure to Jack McCabe and his work," said Randy Skretvedt, grand sheik of the Unaccustomed as We Are tent in Orange County.

When Skretvedt began working on his 1987 book, "Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies," he sought out McCabe, whom he called "the great guru of Laurel and Hardy scholarship."

The two kept up a correspondence, and McCabe often enclosed what he called "something written in Stan's hand," a news clipping on which Laurel had written amusing notes in the margins.

McCabe was known to have an extraordinary command of the language.

"He was a very graceful and elegant writer, and he had an imposing vocabulary that he used without pretension," Maltin said. "He had a professorial air about him but not pomposity. And that's a rare combination."

As a longtime professor at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., McCabe showed his love of literate mischief when he and two other professors established the Unicorn Hunters. The group got publicity for the small school by staging such events in the 1970s as burning a snowman on the first day of spring and issuing an annual list of banished words.

Both traditions continue, and the word-banishment list draws hundreds of nominations from across the world, the university's website says.

A typical entry from the original list in 1976 was "meaningful: has lost all its meaningfulness."

"Some words were given a temporary, one-year banishment. 'Awesome' was one of those words," said Tom Pink, a university spokesman. "Jokingly, the professors would say that, ideally, it would be a worldwide banishment."

McCabe was a stickler for proper word usage in the classroom too, said Pink, who took speech and Shakespeare classes from him. Speeches were to be given without notes, and if a phrase the professor hated slipped into a final draft, the grade went down an entire letter.

"One of those phrases was 'You know,' " Pink said. "He would say, 'No, we don't know. You tell us.' "

McCabe also wrote 10 other books, including "Cagney by Cagney," an autobiography of the actor that the professor ghost-wrote in 1976. He followed it with an authorized biography in 1997 called "Cagney," which the New York Times review said was "unashamedly written from the point of view of a devoted fan."

Among the other biographies he wrote are "George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway" (1973) and "Charlie Chaplin" (1978).

But the first of his four books about Laurel and Hardy remained his most important published work.

"It changed my life," said Maltin, who repeatedly checked it out from the library when he was a child. "It helped steer me on the path toward my lifelong love of film history."

John Charles McCabe III was born in Detroit on Nov. 14, 1920, the son of an engineer. He was a professional actor from the age of 7, appearing with stock companies in Detroit.

During World War II, he served as a sergeant in the Army Air Forces in Europe with what he called "the melancholy job" of compiling casualty and killed-in-action lists.

He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Detroit, a master's in fine art from Fordham University in New York and a doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham in England. McCabe began his teaching career at Wayne State University in Detroit as a theater instructor in 1948.

In 1958, he married Vija Valda Zarina, a Latvian ballet teacher who died in the early 1980s. The couple had three children.

She once told him, "You can have kids or a clean house but not both," recalled John Rabe, a reporter at KPCC-FM (89.3) who is a family friend. "Jack chose the former and never regretted it."

At the Sons' first international convention, McCabe met his second wife, Rosina Lawrence, who had co-starred in the Laurel and Hardy film "Way Out West."

They were married 10 years, until her death in 1997.

With his third wife, Karen, he lived on Mackinac Island, Mich., which does not allow cars. McCabe rode his bike daily until he started having heart trouble about a year ago.

Visitors to the island knew him as the Shakespearean in Residence, where every summer for 27 years he gave a series of readings at a local hotel. His final performance was July 6.

In addition to his wife, McCabe is survived by three children, Linard, Sean and Deirdre.

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