Georgia Town Makes Fine Fete for Oliver Hardy

For the past 18 years, the town of Harlem, Ga., has celebrated its somewhat tenuous connection to Oliver Hardy, the plump half of the famed comic duo, Laurel and Hardy. It's the world's only Oliver Hardy Festival.

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The universe depicted in the films of Laurel and Hardy is a wildly unpredictable place. In one movie, The Flying Deuces, Oliver Hardy dies in a plane crash. Weeks later, as his friend Stan Laurel walks down a country road, he hears his dead friend's voice coming from a horse in a bowler hat.

(Soundbite of film "The Flying Deuces")

Mr. OLIVER HARDY (Actor): (As character) Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into.

Mr. STAN LAUREL (Actor): (As character) Ollie, is that really you?

Mr. HARDY: (As character) Of course it's me.

Mr. LAUREL: (As character) Gee, I'm glad to see you.

When Oliver Hardy died for real, Stan Laurel refused to ever appear on screen again in honor of his partner. In a small town in Georgia, Oliver Hardy fans gather every year to honor the portly screen star. Last weekend, NPR's Thomas Pierce paid them a visit.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMAS PIERCE: On most days, there are fewer than 2,000 people in Harlem, Georgia. But today more than 30,000 visitors clog its short main block, enjoying the good weather and what amounts to a typical fall festival. People sit in lawn chairs and watch a parade of go-carts and trailers. The smell of barbeque and funnel cake lingers in the air. But here and there you can spy bowler hats and butterfly moustaches, and on a stage above the crowd are two men who look like they've walked right out of a 1940s film.

Mr. DALE WALTER (Grand Marshall, Oliver Hardy Festival): I'm Oliver Norville Hardy, thank you, and this is my friend, Stanley.

Mr. DENNIS MORIARTY (Grand Marshall, Oliver Hardy Festival): Hello, Ollie.

Mr. WALTER: Well, hello, Stan.

PIERCE: This is the world's only Oliver Hardy Festival and Dennis Moriarty and Dale Walter are the festival's grand marshals. They entertain the crowd with non-stop Laurel and Hardy trivia, how in Poland they're known as Flip Flap.

When a train rumbles through the middle of the festival, it reminds them of a train in a film called Birthmarks.

Mr. WALTER: At the end of the movie, the train stops. The conductor throws Stan and Ollie off the train and they're standing there in their long underwear.

PIERCE: Oliver Hardy was born in Harlem in 1892, the son of a Confederate veteran. To celebrate and benefit from that fact, the town has erected America's first Laurel and Hardy museum. They say it brings in people from all over the world, especially now that there's a sign on the interstate.

(Soundbite of music)

PEARCE: Inside the museum, lights flicker in a back room, where projectors show films for festival-goers. There's only one little kink in all of this: Hardy was an infant, just a few months old, when his mother moved the family away from Harlem.

Mr. GARY RUSSET It's not where you lived. It's where you were born. You know, I mean, you're only born in one spot.

PEARCE: Gary Russet wasn't born in Harlem.

Mr. RUSSET: Moved from Minnesota. Yah, you betcha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PEARCE: What was the reason for moving here?

Mr. RUSSET: Need you ask? To be Laurel and Hardy, of course. I grew up with them. They introduced me to the Model T Ford back when I was about 10 years old.

PEARCE: Russet says when he discovered Harlem, he thought he'd found heaven. And since arriving, he's been busy building Laurel and Hardy marionettes and sculptures and life-size wooden replicas of the Model T Fords he loved in the films. Some of his creations are behind glass in the town museum. But one museum, it turns out, wasn't enough.

Ms. JEAN RUSSET(ph): So this is it.

PEARCE: Gary Russet and his wife, Jean, have been hard at work in the barn behind their house. They've converted it into America's second Laurel and Hardy Museum, open by invitation only.

Jean russet leads the way.

Ms. RUSSET: This is our little hideaway - or Gary's hideaway, put it that way.

PEARCE: This isn't exactly little. The converted barn is full of dioramas and props, and four life-six Model T's.

Peter Cooper, a film collector, steps into the room and looks around in amazement.

Mr. PETER COOPER (Film Collector): How long does it take him to do something like this?

Ms. RUSSET: Well, he...

Mr. COOPER: It's pretty impressive.

Ms. RUSSET: It takes probably just a year, just to figure out what he's going to do.

Mr. COOPER: To design it.

Ms. RUSSET: Yeah.

Mr. COOPER: Just to design.

Ms. RUSSET: Yeah.

PEARCE: Anywhere but Harlem, his devotion might seem strange. But here it's almost expected. Cooper jokes that this whole town is Laurel and Hardy Land. And that seems to be true. Harlem has become a place where Gary Russet and his friends can celebrate their love of old films and slapstick with a festival.

Mr. RUSSET: Hopefully, it will keep going, will keep the boys alive forever, because they were buddies to the end.

PEARCE: It's more than comedy that they're celebrating in Harlem, says Russet. It's a friendship that reincarnated again and again.

(Soundbite of music)

PEARCE: For NPR News, I'm Thomas Pearce.

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