Every now and then I go out to look for Laurel and Hardy. I visit those cement Silverlake steps where they dragged the piano crate in the 1932 Academy Award-winning short, 'The Music Box. I drive through Culver City intersections where they spurred masses of people into hat-stomping (or pants-ripping, or pie-throwing) riots. I recently dined in an Indian restaurant inside a building they passed in an old Ford in their 1929 film, 'Bacon Grabbers.'
"Damn," I muttered. "Missed 'em by 65 years."
Last June 16, Stan Laurel's birthday, I drove to Forest Lawn in Burbank to visit his grave. The spirit of Laurel and Hardy movies, at least, seemed to be with me. I got lost cruising around the cemetery in a car that squeaked like a shrieking peacock, and repeatedly drove right past an ongoing funeral, complete with live harp music. The solemn mourners eyed me with increasing fear at each pass. I resisted an impulse to scratch my head and smile helplessly.
When I finally found Laurel's resting place (after taking a wrong turn that led me to Buster Keaton's), I deposited some sort of mutated snapdragon that was all my budget allowed, and whistled the old Laurel and Hardy theme song, also known as 'The Cuckoo Song.' You know how it goes---ending with that repeating 'COO-koo, COO-koo.' Well---and this is the God's truth---when I finished, the local mockingbirds picked up the 'COO-koos.' I couldn't decide whether it was poignant or eerie. Or funny.
And yes, on the way out, I got lost and squeaked past that funeral again.
I am not alone in my odd pursuit of Stan and Ollie. Lots of other people go out and look for them, too. There are two published guidebooks to sites of their movies: the painstakingly researched Pratfall (Vol. 2), published by the Valley-based Way Out West Tent of the Sons of the Desert, the durable local chapter of the international Laurel and Hardy appreciation society; and Following the Comedy Trail, by Leon Smith, a former LAPD detective who includes both Laurel and Hardy and 'Our Gang' film locations.
Why such interest? It occurs to me, with the anniversary of Oliver Hardy's birth approaching (Jan. 19), that, originality and comedy aside, 'the boys' symbolized bravery, friendship, dignity, perseverance, undying loyalty, and innocence in the face of merciless absurdity and chicanery. I have no argument with Kurt Vonnegut appraising them as 'angels' in his novel, Slapstick. But there's a little more to it. Tied up in my periodic searches for Laurel and Hardy, and in the guidebooks to their old movie sites, is a search for old L.A.---that more innocent series of communities connected by great, formidable Pacific Electric lines.
I love old L.A.. I idealize it. I romanticize it. I revere it as only someone who never lived there can. And the closest I can get to it is by watching old Laurel and Hardy movies. When I see a Red Car go cruising down Hoover Avenue, I drink up the scene, trying hard to imagine what it must have been like to ride on that Red Car. When I see Stan and Ollie haul that piano crate up those pristine steps in that young Silverlake neighborhood, I am there, trying to breathe that less complicated 1932 air along with them.
I talked to Ray Bradbury about all this. He reveres old L.A. as only someone who grew up in it can. He also reveres Laurel and Hardy as only someone who saw them in person can. (While visiting Ireland in the late 40's, Bradbury bought the last ticket, front-row center, to a Laurel and Hardy appearance in Dublin. Afterward, he went backstage and watched them greet friends. "It was," he said, "one of the happiest days of my life.")
Bradbury turned up to read a lovely (and somewhat autobiographical) short story aloud recently at a fund-raiser at the Hollywood Heritage Museum---a fundraiser sponsored by the Silent Society Founder Randy Haberkamp and the Society of Operating Cameramen to place a commemorative plaque at the base of the Laurel and Hardy Silverlake steps.
The story is called 'The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair,' and concerns a pair of lovers who spent most of their dates picnicking at the Laurel and Hardy steps in Silverlake. Careers broke them up, and by chance they passed one another decades later on the streets of Paris. The man merely twiddled his tie at his former love, Hardy-style; the woman, strolling with her family, yelled, "Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" And they parted forever.
The fundraiser further inspired the author to resurrect another of his short stories that concerned Laurel and Hardy---this one unpublished and gathering dust for 30 years---and polish it up.
It's called 'Another Fine Mess,'" Bradbury told me,
about the Laurel and Hardy steps. In it, the ghosts of Laurel and Hardy run up and down the stairs late at night. This woman who lives nearby hears them shouting and yelling at three o'clock in the morning, goes out, can't see anything, and hears the 'music box' tumbling down the steps. She calls her friend, who's an expert on motion picture history, and they both go out and listen. And they say to each other, why are they here? Why are they letting the music box chase them down the stairs, and then come up again? And they theorize, well, maybe they want to hear one last time, 'we love you.' Maybe we didn't give them enough love while they were alive. Could that possibly be? And finally, one of the ladies leans forward, and calls down the steps into the darkness, 'You know, we love you. You don't have to come here and haunt the steps anymore. You can be at peace because you know that my friend here and I love you.' Then they hear the voices going down the stairs, and they have second thoughts. They say, 'well, don't go away forever. Once a year come back here so we can say it all over again, 'we love you.' And then they stand there, both of them weeping, and the sounds disappear down into black and white Los Angeles.
After our chat, I drove out in search of black-and-white Los Angeles---specifically, to the steps. They're surrounded by homes instead of vacant lots now, and are overgrown with bouganvilla and jade plants. The placid and civilized little neighborhood of 'The Music Box' has given way to gang graffiti and bars on windows and backyards full of dobermans. I walked up and down the 131 cracked cement stairs, slavering guard dogs snarling at me. I pictured Laurel and Hardy's delivery wagon in the street below, and Laurel yelling up the stairs at Hardy that a cop wants to talk to 'the other monkey' (meaning Hardy.)
I knocked on a door of the one home that did exist at the foot of the stairs in the old movie, and talked to a nice young guy named Jiro Yamaguchi, a musician who plays classical Indian percussion Thursday nights at nearby Paru's. Yamaguchi said he found out about the steps' significance after moving in. "It's a nice little piece of trivia,'" he said. '"I'm not an avid fan---I like 'em, though."
Yamaguchi told me that people come by "every couple of weeks" to look at the steps, and that "they tend to be a little older." I didn't ask him if he heard any ghosts, but I did find evidence of some of the visitors he mentioned. A gentleman named Mauro Simonini had carefully printed two messages on them, in large black letters. The first read, in Italian: 'A S. Laurel e O. Hardy, con affetto, Mauro Simonini, Livorno, Italia, 16-10-93.' The second referred to them as 'Stanlio' and 'Ollio,' their characters' names in the 1931 'Fra Diavolo.' It said 'A Stanlio e Ollio, i grandissimi con infinito affetto---Mauro.'
Like I said, I'm not the only one who goes out to look for Laurel and Hardy. The Sons of the Desert look for them in their monthly meetings. Ray Bradbury looks for them in a typewriter. Simonini had come half-way around the world to look for them on a flight of stairs. And it occurred to me that being so fondly remembered is a hell of a gift.
So happy birthday, Ollie. Con infinito affetto.