Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hollywood's comedy team of Laurel and Hardy never had a more devout fan than my father. Whenever one of their 106 shorts or 23 feature films turned up on TV--which was often during the 1950s--my Dad would park himself in front of the TV.

Me--I preferred the Three Stooges.

Only later in life did I come to appreciate the artistry of Oliver Hardy. Sure, Stan Laurel was the slim, slapstick funnyman of the duo. It's just that I preferred the other guy. To this day I'm convinced nobody in the history of comedy performed funnier "takes" than the slow-burning, long-suffering Hardy.

And only later in life did I come to learn that Oliver Hardy's show business roots dug deep into Florida's sandy soil.

He was born Norville Hardy in Harlem, Georgia, on January 18, 1892. Young Norville expressed no interest in school. It was the silent films that he loved, and as a teen he secured a job as a handyman in a Millegeville, Georgia theater.

In 1913 a friend returned from a Florida vacation with news of a film studio opening in Jacksonville, barely 200 miles away. Hardy quit his job and moved south.

In Jacksonville Hardy's rich baritone earned him a job at the Orpheum Theater, where nightly he sang and told jokes for $40 a week. By day Hardy volunteered to run errands at the Lubin Film Studio, located in the old Jacksonville Yacht Club building. Within weeks Hardy was appearing in bit parts. Four months later, in August 1914, he received star billing (as "Babe" Hardy) in Back to the Farm.

The nickname, which Hardy would keep the rest of his life, was acquired at a barbershop next door to Lubin's, where the Italian proprietor greeted the hefty Hardy each morning with: "You-a nice-a babe-e-e."

Hardy filmed dozens of ten-minute comedies--known as "shorts"--for Lubin, but the firm went belly-up in August 1915. Hardy and his new bride (the Orpheum's piano player) performed instead at Jacksonville's posh Burbidge Hotel, where Babe earned a reputation as city's most popular entertainer. Hardy, his wife, and their pet monkey--also named Babe--moved into a suite at the Atlantic Hotel and acclimated themselves to life in Jacksonville. Babe even joined the local Masons.

In 1916 Lubin was purchased by the Vim Comedy Company, and over the next two years Babe appeared in 50 Vim shorts. Here Hardy honed the comedic techniques that would define his career: the fuss-budget tie-twiddling, the exaggerated double-takes, the exasperated stare into the camera lens.

One afternoon in the Vim offices Hardy happened upon a sheet of paper he was definitely not supposed to see. It was a ledger listing salaries of Vim's various actors. One problem: the ledger indicated Babe was making much more than he actually received. Where, he wondered, was the extra money going? The Jacksonville Times Union reported that "company auditors" were investigating "a large shortage of company money." When it was revealed that an unscrupulous partner was skimming funds, Vim Comedy Company tumbled into financial turmoil.

Vim folded in the spring of 1917 and reformed as King Bee Films, but the episode finished Jacksonville's silent-film industry. By the end of the year King Bee had moved to New Jersey. Most of the old Vim players--Babe Hardy included--migrated west, to Hollywood, where it was rumored there was money and fame to be had. A year later, Babe--now billed as Oliver Hardy--teamed with a skinny funnyman named Stan and the chemistry clicked.

Their artistry endured. Nearly a century has passed since they first appeared together: the overweight fussbudget, master of the comedic "take," and his undersized head-scratching dumbbell companion.

Sure enough, Oliver Hardy ended his career firmly entrenched in the Hollywood firmament. But his roots ran pure southern.

--Ken Brooks, Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 20