The Laurel and Hardy Museum in Harlem, GA is dedicated to the one of world's greatest comedy duos, Stan Laurel & Ollie Hardy.
Laurel & Hardy Museum, Harlem Georgia, Oliver Hardy Festival, Ollie Also and Stanie Too Fine Mess Old Car Museum
MobileRVing: The Buzz, Your Outdoor Lifestyle Insider, Written by Renee Wright
Harlem Museum Honors Comedy Greats Laurel and Hardy
Bring Your Bowler Hats And A Cheerful Disposition To Witness Silent Shorts & Full Length Feature Films From This Original Comedy Team
“Take our picture!” Gerry and Sally Laurys are posing in the backseat of a cardboard replica of the temperamental Model T Ford featured in “Perfect Day,” Laurel & Hardy’s 1929 talkie. Lifesize cutouts of Ollie and Stan occupy the front seat. “We came all the way from Belgium for this!” Sally adds.
The couple told The Buzz that the visit to the Laurel & Hardy Museum in the little town of Harlem, Georgia, about 20 miles west of Augusta, was a highlight of their visit to the United States. In fact the iconic comedy team is hugely popular in Europe. The only other museums dedicated to the pair are in Ulverston, the English town where Stan Laurel was born, and in Solingen, Germany.
“We have people come in from all over the world,” says Linda Caldwell, director of the museum, and head of the volunteer effort that keeps the doors open. “We get around 400 visitors a month, and our guest book has names from Saudi Arabia, Peru, Japan, Israel… Stan and Ollie have fans everywhere.”
The museum grew out of the annual Oliver Hardy Festival which Harlem initiated in 1989 to honor its native son, Norvell Oliver Hardy, born there in 1892. His widowed mother moved the family to nearby Milledgeville where she ran a hotel. Young Ollie got his first taste of show biz from vaudeville acts staying there.
The festival, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2018, brings in visitors from around the world, including members of the Sons of the Desert fan club, as well as raising funds for community projects. The event has grown over the years with some 35,000 people, many sporting bowler hats, crowding into the little town on the first Saturday of October, for the parade and film showings, live music, local food and craft vendors. A Stan and Ollie look-alike contest is one of the festival’s high points.
But Laurel and Hardy fans brought more than their bowler hats to the festival. Soon the town had a growing collection of donated memorabilia, including rare movie posters, dolls, coffee cups, commemorative plates, movie stills, theater programs, props, costumes, ads for products endorsed by the comedy team, puppets, clocks, and much more, all featuring Ollie and Stan.
“People would come to the festival and say look what I have,” Caldwell explains. “Soon we had over 10,000 objects from all over the world, all donated.”
The town decided it needed a museum to display the huge collection, and in 2002, the old post office, conveniently located on the town’s main drag, became available. The building quickly filled with memorabilia from the comedy team’s career which stretched from 1921 to 1951, spanning the transition from silent films to talkies.
“Laurel and Hardy had no trouble moving from silent to talking films,” Caldwell says. “Most actors of the day couldn’t make the transition.”
The museum displays thousands of L&H collectibles, including a full-size figure of Ethel, the dancing gorilla, from 1932’s “The Chimp,” a rare L&H pinball machine, and several items signed by the actors. Two of the most treasured items are hats worn by the actors on screen, including a fez from “Sons of the Desert” and a pith helmet from “Bonnie Scotland.”
The comedy team made over 100 films during their career, including 34 silent shorts, 45 talkie shorts and 27 full length feature films, all with sound. The museum has copies of almost all of them, and visitors can choose which they’d like to see in “Babe’s Bijou,” the adjacent screening room.
Linda Caldwell says that “The Music Box,” which won the 1932 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, is the most popular. The museum sells a DVD with the film on it, along with three other shorts. Other items for sale include bowler hats and rare collectibles, donated to the museum to be sold as fundraisers.
“Everyone loves Laurel and Hardy,” Linda says. “We had a group of inner city kids come in over the summer, 13 to 17 years old, and they were rolling their eyes, very skeptical. Then they watched ‘The Music Box’ and afterwards they came to me asking to see another. They’ve come back every Saturday to watch movies.”
Another fixture at the Harlem museum is Gary Russeth, a long-time volunteer. Gary and his wife Jean also operate the Ollie Also & Stanie Too Fine Mess Old Car Museum just around the corner. Gary, a master at working in wood, has created full scale models of many of the cars seen in the L&H films as well as the famous train, The General. All are constructed completely of wood, even the engines, which, amazingly, crank.
Far from being forgotten, Linda Caldwell says she’s seeing lots of new Laurel & Hardy fans among the young people of today, who discover the team on YouTube. “We had a couple from Minnesota bring their two kids in the other day,” she relates. “They put on the bowlers and did all the poses from the films.”
These days, Harlem honors Laurel and Hardy all year. In addition to the museum, where you can watch films or take a selfie with the comedians, the town's water tower sports Ollie’s likeness and murals on several walls in the historic downtown which recreates scenes from their films. Ollie is still giving back to his hometown, as well. Funds raised at the festival support numerous community projects and are helping renovate the 1905 Columbia Theatre, where Laurel and Hardy films will play to larger audiences.
A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.