The Sons of the Desert keep Laurel and Hardy's spirit alive
By Donald Liebenson
Dec 30, 2018 | 4:00 AM
For the members of Sons of the Desert, the recent release of “Stan & Ollie” is akin to a new “Star Wars” episode for armchair Jedis.
Sons of the Desert is the official international appreciation society celebrating the lives and films of the comedy team Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Members are ecstatic this holiday season about “Stan & Ollie,” starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in the title roles.
Who would have thought in 2018, when Laurel and Hardy have long been off the pop culture radar, that a major motion picture with a heralded cast would be produced about the duo?
A dozen members of A Haunting We Will Go, one of the august but irreverent organization’s 100-plus global chapters — or as members call them, tents — donned fezzes or signature derbies in honor of “the Boys” to attend the film’s North American premiere last month at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
“Everyone was absolutely thrilled,” reports Ray Karch, the tent’s grand sheik. “John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan created such a powerful illusion that we all felt we actually saw Stan and Ollie on screen, and it was truly wonderful to have that magical feeling again.”
But then again, who would have thought that the Sons of the Desert — formed in 1965 “to perpetuate the spirit and genius of Laurel and Hardy,” according to the group’s constitution — would still be around to offer fans of the comedy team a safe space to enjoy their G-rated humor in the company of kindred spirits? Certainly not Orson Bean, the last surviving founder.
“Not for a moment could I imagine the Sons of the Desert would still be around,” he said with a laugh in a phone interview. “I am astonished.”
Laurel and Hardy, fortuitously partnered by producer Hal Roach, made just over 100 shorts and features as a team. Sons of the Desert takes its name from their 1933 feature — one of their best — which finds Laurel and Hardy as members of the titular fraternal organization who lie to their wives about attending its annual convention (unlike the movie, wives — indeed all women — are welcome to join).
The founders included John McCabe, author of the seminal 1961 biography “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy,” Bean, cartoonist Al Kilgore, comedian Chuck McCann and John Municino. It is said when the legend becomes fact, print the legend; the founding of the Sons of the Desert has at least two.
“I loved them as a kid, and when I became a stand-up comic, I used to study them,” Bean recalled. “I bought a 16-millimeter projector and I invited friends to watch [their films]. I think it was Chuck who said that Laurel and Hardy were underappreciated, so we said, ‘Let’s form this club.’ We got together once a month, got drunk, and watched Laurel and Hardy movies, which seems appropriate in this day and age .”
McCabe, who became friends with Laurel in 1953 after seeing him and Hardy perform onstage in England (the tour dramatized in “Stan & Ollie”), claimed inspiration to create Sons of the Desert came from Laurel’s fan mail. "His fans wished there was some way to honor Laurel and Hardy,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2005. “There was nothing really to perpetuate their fame. I was determined I would have something much more than a fan club. It would be socially active and yet concerned with scholarship."
Laurel himself not only gave his blessings but provided the organization’s motto (“Two minds without a single thought”) and suggested a design for the logo, which, he joked, would lend the proceedings a “half-assed dignity.” Laurel died in 1965; McCabe in 2005.
The Sons of the Desert constitution prescribes meetings to follow a set routine that includes several rounds of cocktails, after-dinner speeches, and toasts to Laurel, Hardy and their frequent “eternally ever-popular” costars, Jimmy Finlayson, Mae Busch and Charlie Hall; the screening of a Laurel and Hardy film; an after-film critique; and finally, as suggested by Laurel, “All members are requested to park their camels and hire a taxi; then return for 'One for the desert'!"
The Sons of the Desert have their own anthem, courtesy of the film: “We are the Sons of the Desert / Having the time of our lives / Marching along, two thousand strong / Far from our sweethearts and wives / God bless them.”
There are 111 tents, 72 in the United States and 39 international, according to Scott MacGillivray, the group’s corresponding secretary (California has the most with 13). The individual tents are led by a grand sheik (or “exhausted ruler” to quote a Laurel malapropism from“Sons”). Founded in 1967, the Way Out West tent, based in Hollywood, counts itself among the first five tents established. It has a mailing list of roughly 200 and is open to the public.
“Tents do things their own way,” observed Jim Wiley, whose parents became members of Way Out West 44 years ago when he was 1. The group meets every other month. “There are tents that do not do the toasts or sing the song,” said Wiley, who remains involved with the group. “Some tents are far more social, and some are far more academic. We stick pretty close to the rules for a club that has no rules.
“We do have an occasional guest, such as an author. We used to have people who were in the films, and they would share their memories. We have a full bar in our meeting place, but we don’t emphasize the drinking. We don’t follow the constitution that carefully.”
Another Hollywood-based tent, Hollywood Party, “do the toasts proudly,” notes Grand Sheik Stan Taffel, who is also president of Cinecon, an annual film festival that focuses on silent films and early talkies. From his personal film collection comes “the widest breadth of Laurel and Hardy motion pictures [for screening] available, some not even available on home video,” he said.
Like many baby boomer Laurel and Hardy fans, he discovered the team’s films on television. “Brats,” in which Laurel and Hardy had dual roles as their own children, was the first to make an impression on him. The year, he recalled, was 1966 B.C. (before cable), when content-starved networks tended to show Laurel and Hardy films during after-school hours.
He would eventually become grand sheik of the founding tent in New York and started his own when he moved to Los Angeles in 1997. Hollywood Party meets five times a year at the Hollywood Heritage Museum. But what began as a way to honor Laurel and Hardy has evolved into a community, Taffel said.
“It is as much about the people who come to the meetings. I have friends all over the world because of Laurel and Hardy.”
Not surprisingly, he says he is more excited about “Stan & Ollie” “than I’ve been about any movie in a long time.” That delights Reilly, who has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance.
Growing up in Chicago, he too watched Laurel and Hardy movies after school and on “Family Classics,” a family film showcase. His father was a fan, and when VCRs were introduced, “Sons of the Desert” was one of the films in his collection, Reilly said in a phone interview. He jokingly thinks of himself as an honorary member of the organization.
“I’m definitely simpatico with them,” Reilly said. “[It] is testament that what Laurel and Hardy did was so profound. I love Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and I’m sure there are fan clubs [for them], but Laurel and Hardy tapped into some kind of quintessential human experience. They’ve moved everyone from little kids to Samuel Beckett. I’m honored to be part of this.”
Wiley hopes “Stan & Ollie” serves to introduce a new generation to the team. “Any time Laurel and Hardy are mentioned, people say, ‘I like those guys; hey, is there still that club?’ and they might check it out. The films stand up; the comedy is timeless. We have members who came in as a lark and keep coming back. And there are plenty of members who own all the films; they just want to watch them and laugh with a crowd.”
Adds Karch, “Current humor runs toward being dirty or denigrating someone. Laurel and Hardy are not mean-spirited or super violent; they’re just funny. I encourage members to bring kids to our meetings, and they laugh.”
In comedy, timing is everything, and at a time of seemingly unprecedented discord and fractious partisanship, Bean says the time is right for a Laurel and Hardy revival. “The Titanic’s going down and the band is playing,” he joked. “And Laurel and Hardy are still making us laugh. Thank God for the Sons of the Desert. That’s who’s been keeping them alive.”