In order to join the private Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society Facebook group, one is required to submit, in writing, their favorite Laurel and Hardy scene, probably to weed out spammers and trolls. But if you want to gain membership to the Sons of the Desert — the most widespread and official club for “connoisseurs” of the comic duo — you’ll need to contact the corresponding secretary and find your local chapter, or “tent.”
For 55 years, the Sons of the Desert have made it their mission to keep Laurel and Hardy’s legacy alive across the globe. There are more than 100 “tents,” most of which are named after Laurel and Hardy’s films. The Way Out West tent is located in Los Angeles, the Boston Brats tent is, of course, in Boston, and the Unaccustomed As We Are tent is the chapter in Jakarta, Indonesia. A tent called Berth Marks meets at the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, England, where Stan Laurel was born 130 years ago today.
Watching Laurel and Hardy’s movies now, particularly Sons of the Desert, is an exercise in discovery for the uninitiated. Their films display the timelessness of good comedy — wit, slapstick, timing — and the universality of maddening frustration over endless incompetence. Sons begins with the pair causing awkward chaos by interrupting a Shriners-type meeting to squeeze their way to two front seats, and it ends with Stan Laurel’s famous line, once they’ve both been caught lying to their wives about attending a national convention in Chicago: “Honesty is the best politics.” Laurel and Hardy were flanked by plenty of other famous, and acclaimed, comedic actors in their time — Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers — but they’ve inspired a uniquely resilient organized fanbase.
When Ron Cooper wrote about the Sons of the Desert in this magazine in 1971, he was impressed to see a sort of Laurel and Hardy revival underway. Since then, the group only appears to have grown, adding dozens of tents around the world and expanding the fanbase for the comic duo of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Cooper noted Stan Laurel’s approval of the “buff club’s” formation, and his contribution to the Greek motto on the group’s insignia: “Two Minds Without a Single Thought.”
In a 1987 documentary about the Sons of the Desert, its founder John McCabe described the group as “a set of odd, charming, curious, misplaced cherubs.” The farcical organization is run in a similarly absurd fashion as the movie it is named after. The chair is named the “Exhausted Ruler,” a malapropism uttered by Laurel when he means to say “exalted ruler,” and the group joins crossed arms to sing their chant: “We are the sons of the desert/ Having the time of our lives … ” At their biennial conventions, members (which include men and women) share memorabilia, play trivia, drink cocktails at every step (as directed by their constitution), and, of course, watch Laurel and Hardy films.
Gary Russeth, of Harlem, Georgia (Hardy’s birthplace) is the “Grand Sheik” of his local tent, and he runs a local museum. He says he grew up watching Laurel and Hardy on a nine-inch 1947 General Electric portable television set. Speaking to the pair’s enduring popularity, he says, “We have lawyers, teachers, blue- and white-collar people in the Sons of the Desert. It’s a variety of many different groups. I would see these little kids come in, and they’re so smart and they love Laurel and Hardy. It’s basic, like a cartoon. It’s just two funny guys that just constantly have one problem after another. And it’s embellished.”
The Sons‘ 2020 convention was scheduled to occur this month in Providence, Rhode Island, but it was delayed until next year. Laurel and Hardy savants need not dismay over the lack of a formal meeting, though; later this month, Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations will be released on Blu-ray.
Featured image: Way Out West (1937) (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
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