Some 500 people from the United States and abroad gathered here this weekend to celebrate the lives and works of the sleepy-eyed little Englishman and the fat man from Georgia: the late Stan Laurel and the late Oliver Hardy.
And if the meetings rarely began on time, and nobody knew where the buffet line started or ended, and the projection machine showing all Laurel and Hardy comedies had the disturbing tendency to breakdown - wasn't that somehow, in some way, appropriate? In the 105 films, silents and talkies, that the remarkable pair made together from the 1920s to the 1950s - when did anything ever go right?
The group honoring the boys called itself The Sons of the Desert after a 1933 movie of the same title, one of the best Stan and Ollie ever made. In that one, they told their wives they were going to Honolulu for Ollie's health, and then would up living it up in Chicago at a convention of their fraternal order, The Sons of the Desert.
So, naturally, in 1978, when the faithful gathered for their first international convention, they had to be near Chicago. From Friday through Sunday, they billeted themselves in a motel in the northern suburb of Des Plaines.
Hal Roach, who produced so many Laurel and Hardy masterpieces, couldn't make it because of his wife's health problems, but there were other special guests on hand - enough to keep the masses in a perpetual paroxysm of autograph seeking. The widow of Oliver Hardy, Lucille, was there with her present husband, Ben. Ben, a little red in the eye from only two hours of sleep the night before, excused himself and tumbled fully clothed on the bed while his wife reminisced.
Lucille, 64, wearing lemon-colored slacks and a white top, said, "I was working as a script girl on the Laurel and Hardy movie, "Flying Deuces" when I met Babe. That was Oliver's nickname. Really, I thought he was pompous at first. I said something or other about a scene and he said. 'All right, dear, I know what I'm doing." But as time wore on, I found out he really did know . . . He had such brown, expressive eyes, and he was very shy and quiet and he was never the clown off stage. Really, he was more intellectual. He was an avid reader of history, novels, autobiography.
"He'd had an unhappy marriage before, and I don't think he wanted to marry again, but we met and it happened."
Lucille married Ben, a retired businessman, in 1960, three years after Hardy died. "I've been lucky twice," she said. "Some people go through life never lucky in love once, and I've made it twice."
Ben propped open one red eye. "Hear that?" he said. "Geez, who couldn't get along with that woman?"
Let us take just one of those, the movie "Be Big," made in 1933 and considered an above average effort for the "boys," as they still are affectionately called. Oliver, the big one, couln't get a riding boot off his foot. This was becaues Stan, bewildered little Stan, had put on Oliver's boots, leaving Oliver with Stan's. Stan worked to help his friend, and the two ended by thrashing around on the floor like scrapping dogs. Oliver halted the tussle, and in a voice rather dignified under the circumstances, said, "Let's get together. There's nothing to getting a boot off. Let's just concentrate and use our brains. Rome wasn't built in a day. Remember: A task slowly done is a task surely done. Understand?"
"Sure," Stan said, "a cool head never won a fair lady." A cringe from Oliver. What was that he just said? The battle resumed.
As for Stan Laurel, he was remembered as more the hard driving professional than his partner. Oliver couldn't wait to leave the set and play his beloved golf; Stan remained near the set, spending another six or seven hours editing film. Anita Garvin, 71, who appeared in several of the boys' movies said, "Stan was always thinking. He had more on his mind than that blank look might indicate. His mind was going every minute. He'd try out a joke on me and see how I liked it. What did I know? And he never let up."
Oliver had no children; Stan had one, Lois, 50, who was called to the podium to say a few words Saturday night. After the banquet hall darkened, and the yellow spotlight hit her full, she said, "This is overwhelming and beautiful, and I'm looking forward to meeting you all again when we meet in Los Angeles in 1980. Please, all of you, come."
At which point, a whoopee cushion went off.