For my third entry into my Stanley series, I want to share a few excerpts from the last and probably my most favorable biography i’ve read on Stan Laurel. My Dad has a large pile of Laurel and Hardy books that I want to get through over the next few years – But as for the biographies, this is the last one I have on Stanley – ‘The Comedy World of Stan Laurel’. Oliver ‘Babe‘ Hardy will be next in my queue.
Among Stan’s papers after his death, I found an engaging document written by his father, Arthur J. Jefferson, known to his contemporaries as “A.J.” This splendidly overwritten memoir of his son was A.J.’s attempt to get back in what he called “the writing game” – a game he had engaged in during his years in Northern England and Scotland as theatre lessee, manager, comedian, and playwright. Stan’s mother was Madge Metcalfe, A.J.’s helpmeet in many ways, who was the leading actress in the Jefferson companies which toured the English provinces during the turn of this century.
A.J.’s biography of Stan was written in 1939 at the height of Stan’s fame, and the old gentleman was determined that it see print. Stan gently discouraged the project because the document was written in florid Victorian style covering rather less than a third of Stan’s life, and was interspersed with windy disquisitions on irrelevant matters like A.J.’s trip to Canada following a visit with Stan in 1936. What this mini-biography (titled Turning the Pages) holds of value is the telling of a few engrossing stories of Stan’s childhood. A few excerpts from Turning the Pages give some pleasant insights into Stan’s earliest years.
“Stan was born in Ulverston, Lancashire, June 16, 1890, at the home of his grandmother – a dear “little old lady” of fragrant memory — who, due to his mother’s protracted illness following his birth, ‘mothered’ him until he was about five or six, when she brought him to our home in North Shields — where, incidentally, I was controlling the local Theatre Royal and various other theatres in nearby districts, and touring various plays (dramas) written by myself. I mention these facts merely because they, fairly obviously, have a bearing on Stan’s ultimate choice of a career.
“As Stan grew older, it became increasingly apparent that his young mind was obsessed with the idea of one day ‘following in father’s footsteps’; spending all his pocket money on toy theatres, Punch and Judy shows, marionettes, shadow-graphs [actors posing behind illuminated screens], magic lanterns, etc. – anything providing scope for entertainment.”
A.J. then writes at tedious length of Stan’s brother, Gordon, and his sister, Olga, and their “enamorment of the stage,” together with Gordon’s ultimate success as a theatre manager and Olga’s retirement, despite her skill in playing “Delilah-type” roles, into marriage (Stan had another brother, Teddy, not at all interested in show business, who revered automobiles. He worked contentedly as Stan’s chauffeur for years. Teddy died, incredibly, in a dental chair – the victim, Stan told me, of a mis-diagnosis.) He goes on:
“But to resume my narrative: when about nine years of age, Stan begged me to convert the attic of our home in North Shields – exceptionally large and suited for the purpose – into a miniature theatre, to which I agreed, calling upon my local theatre staff to carry out the work (in which they evinced great interest) – producing very creditable results: stage, proscenium, wings, etc. and footlights (the latter being oil lamps with reflectors – safer than gas, we thought). With seating for about 20 to 30 people: in brief, a perfect replica of the average small theatre at that period. Stan, assisted by several ‘dying to act’ boys and girls, was hard at work inaugurating the ‘Stanley Jefferson Amateur Dramatic Society’ – featuring said S.J. as Director, Manager, Stage Manager, Author, Producer, and Leading Man.”
Stan wrote a series of roles for himself, A,J. said, which combined both heroism and comedy. As to admission fee:
“. . . when cash was not available, subscriptions were payable in kind: any articles useful in the general staging effects – carpets, rugs, curtains, crockery and domestic articles in general suitable as stage props. Concerning these non-cash contributions, it happened that the boy selected to enact the villain parts – by name, Harold, son of a local butcher – had nothing to offer except two white mice which Stan accepted mainly due to the fact that Harold’s features (of the bulldog type) insured not only giving due effect to the many ‘curse yer’s’ lavishly interposed in villain’s parts but also guaranteed acceleration of sympathy for the heroics of the leading man – which Stan had piled up for his own declamation. Promotion details being completed, and the cast selected, rehearsals commenced in real earnest of a play (written of course by Stan) with a plot which was a flagrant copy of various plays, including some of my own, which he had witnessed at various of the theatres I had managed through the years.
“I forget the play’s title but it was abnormally blood-thirsty, introducing as its program stated, ‘Excitement! Struggles! And murders!” Stan, of course, being the one who tracked down the assassin and brought him to justice. At length after very full rehearsals, and the Hon. Sec’y of the Society having duly extended written notices of the opening night date, price of tickets, etc., to all in the neighborhood likely to be interested, the eventful night arrived. There was a very satisfactory response from the neighborhood. Every seat (any shortage in that direction resulted in a remorseless foray by Stan and his assistants on every room in the house) was occupied – by an expectant and acutely interested audience. That audience saw many of their own familiar household articles on stage, of course. Old home week as it were!
“Following a brilliant selection by the orchestra (a musical box emitting what was evidently intended to be the tune ‘Blue Bells of Scotland,’ unfortunately not heard beyond the first row of seats), the curtain rose, and the play commenced – each performer receiving rapturous applause as he or she made his or her entrance, the density of the ovation depending largely upon the numerical strength of the parental cliques involved – Stan being especially honored – probably due to the fact of its being an open secret that he occasionally distributed free passes to my theatre, the Theatre Royal, to his favored friends.
“The first act, ending with Stan”s oath to ‘track the monster to his lair’ evoked tumultuous applause and quivering excitement. The second act during which Stan true to his oath ‘cornered his prey’ called upon that monster to surrender, which the said villain denounced by Stan as the ‘epitome of all the vices’ laughed to scorn. The second act ended in a life or death struggle, rousing the audience to a high pitch of excitement, the parents taking sides with their respective offspring, and the juvenile females with the boy they favored most. The audience egged the actors on with cries of ‘Stick it, Stan!’ or ‘Good lad, Harold!’ (Stan had lifted this fight bodily from the famous fight in the late John Lawson’s – of beloved memory-play, Only a Jew, the great fight between the Jew and the Gentile.) Stan and Harold threw missiles, anything handy and some of them quite foreign to the environment at each other; then they cast off their outer garments in the struggle; clinched several times followed by a joint fall, and then came the stereotyped rolling and rolling over the stage, backwards, then forwards! (Note: In the ‘good old days of the drama,’ no struggle was a acclaimed by the gallery unless accompanied by the contestants adopting these tactics, the number of rolls depending on the prolongation of applause.)
“But there was an unexpected climax to this fight. Stan and Harold threshed and kicked about so strongly that they knocked over one of the paraffin oil lamp footlights and within seconds the side curtains which were of very flimsy fabric were blazing furiously! This caused a state of panic among the audience, some of whom made valiant efforts to war the curtains down. Now, it so happened that an urgent business appointment in Newcastle in connection with my theatres had prevented my being present to compere the opening proceedings. (I heard about all this later on.) I
arrived just at this exciting moment. On opening the door to the room I heard shrieks and the cries of ‘Fire!’ and I was almost knocked over by the excited throng as they trooped down the staircase. Picking up one of the chemical fire extinguishers which I had about the house, I dashed up and succeeded in quenching the flames, which by this time had got hold of the wooden framework of the stage. Calm being restored, a roll call confirmed that only Stan and Harold had suffered any burns. Genuine troupers both, the boys had continued their mighty struggle all the way through the fire, and were totally oblivious to the flames which were surrounding them! They persevered in their fight until pulled apart by their respective mothers. Soon afterwards, amidst regrets, expressions of sympathy and handshakes, our audience dispersed. My doctor was called and outside of singed eyebrows, Harold was fine, and was forthwith dispatched by cab to his home.
“But poor old Stan! He had suffered more than a few burns. His grief at the play‘s ending was truly tragic but a good night’s rest seemed to restore him to normal, and indeed his superficial burns were quite soon healed. However, there was still trouble a-brewing. A few days later, Stan received a severe letter from Harold blaming Stan for the loss of his eyebrows and also demanding the return of his subscription – the aforesaid two white mice. Stan naturally held entirely opposite views and he consulted me about how he should deal with the matter. I reminded him that a soft answer, as the old saying goes, turneth away wrath, and I advised a diplomatic letter to Harold, suggesting that Stan let me see the letter before posting. This was the result:
I think it is very unkind of you to write me like this. The fire was all your fault; if you had let go of my throat when you saw my face going all red, we shouldn’t have rolled over as far as the lamps. You have lost nothing over the accident. I have lost my theatre. Dad is having it all done away with for good and all — and all my pocket money since it started. I am sorry about your eyebrows being burned off, of course, but they will grow again. And don’t forget that I got some nasty burns too – as well as being nearly strangled to death by you. You once told me that the men in your father’s slaughterhouse had once let you help them to kill a pig. I didn’t believe you then but I do now. In fact, after the way you tried to kill me, I should believe you now if you told me that you had killed a cow all by yourself.
“Disapproving of that final sentence in the letter, I insisted upon its cancellation, insisting that he should hold out the olive branch. Consequently, in place of the offending sentence, Stan wrote: ‘I cannot agree to returning your two white mice but I’ll tell you what I will do. If they get married and have babies, I will divide them with you. If you want to be friends I do, if you don’t, I don’t. Stanley.”
A.J. was unable to remember if the white mice ever cohabited profitably but he was certain that the Stanley Jefferson Amateur Dramatic Society was no more. It was, said the old man, “consigned to the limbo of defeated aspirations.” Once in response to a question of mine, “Were you always interested in comedy?” Stan gave an interesting reply.
“Always. Even as a little kid. I can remember just as clearly as yesterday when I was at school in Bishop Auckland a certain teacher named Bates. It was a boarding school, and after the kids had gone to bed, Bates would come and take me into his private study where he and a couple of other masters were relaxing – with a bottle. Bates would then have me entertain them with jokes, imitations, what the hell have you – anything for a laugh. I must have been awful but they seemed to get a big kick out of it, and I played many return engagements there.
“I can’t remember now mostly what I did but I certainly had this talent for clowning right from the beginning, more or less. I don’t think playing to Bates and the other masters helped my education any as I was given a lot of privileges- and a lot of my backwardness in class was overlooked which many times since I’ve regretted. As it happened, my career turned out well but once in a while I wonder what would have happened if I had been a good student. Perhaps I might have been a better comedian if I had been better in the book-learning department.
“Anyway, those were happy days at Bishop Auckland. I remember one of those teachers – a German, and naturally he was the German master – who didn’t seem to like me at all. He had the habit of carrying a pencil crosswise in his mouth, and when I couldn’t answer his questions in class, he used to go into a frenzy. He’d chew that pencil up into pieces and spit them out of his mouth in disgust. One night in Bates’s study I was stuck for something to do, so unfortunately I gave an imitation of the German master and his pencilchewing business. This killed Bates who demanded I do it over and over again. Well, the German master was present, and it sure didn’t kill him! Naturally I hadn’t meant to antagonize him, but he really became my enemy after that. What I did I did trying to make the masters enjoy themselves. Anything for a laugh!”
Stan’s appearance before the Bates coterie whetted his appearance for larger audiences. His dad’s manuscript continues the story.
“During August 1901, I took over a long lease of the Metropole Theatre, Glasgow. This was formerly the old Scotia Music Hall famed now as the starting point in the career of Sir Harry Lauder, but which was in 1901 newly rebuilt on modern lines. This new lease demanded my full personal attention so I moved my family from North Shields to Glasgow, and it henceforth became my headquarters for the next twenty-three years. Meanwhile Stan had grown apace and upon the completion of his schooling, it was arranged that he should take up duties at the ‘Met,’ as my theatre was popularly known locally. I wanted Stan to qualify first as the Met’s assistant manager, and ultimately its manager.
“But it was soon apparent that the seeds of Stan’s ambition which had been sown in North Shields and Bishop Auckland to become an actor were still actively germinating. He performed his business duties at the Met satisfactorily but he had no real heart interest in the business side of the curtain. In his spare time and without my knowledge he had written himself a comedy music hall monologue, and, again without my knowledge, had prevailed upon a friend of mine, proprietor of a music hall in the city, to give him an opening date for a trial show.
“Before I left home that eventful night, Stan asked me to release him from duty, having been invited to a party, to which I naturally assented. As the show at the Met began that night, it was a very fine evening I remember, and for some incredible reason I decided to take a stroll. What moved me to do so I cannot imagine, for from my earliest days in management, I had and have always adopted the policy of always being on the spot in my theatres, ready for any emergency. It may have been telepathic contact with Stan; I cannot say – but whatever the explanation, I answered the call of my whim, and strange to relate, my footsteps led me in the direction of my friend’s [Albert E. Pickard] music hall. We hadn’t met for quite a long time, and on my arrival he was standing in front of the hall. After the usual greeting, he said, ‘You’re just in time. Stan is due on in about five minutes.’
“My amazement needs no stressing. However, I didn’t give it away (my friend thought I knew all about Stan’s appearance), and we went in and sat in the front stalls. Very soon Stan’s number, billed as an ‘extra turn,’ went up. On he came wearing a pair of baggy patched trousers (new trousers of mine, cut down, patches added), and also my best frock coat and silk hat. (Known as a ‘topper’ in those days.) He did his act, the details of which I cannot now remember, and he got a very good reception and scored a genuine success, finishing up to loud laughter and applause and even shouts of ‘Encore!’ The shouts brought him back, and he beamed the now popular Laurel smile, but in bowing his acknowledgments, he spotted me!
“Giving a subdued yell of horrified astonishment, he dropped my topper which thereupon rolled toward the foot-lights. Stan pursued it, tried to grab it and in so doing kicked it accidentally into the orchestra where one of the musicians made a rush to retrieve it and stepped on it, squashing it thoroughly! Then Stan made a dash for the exit but his luck was out. As he ran off he came in contact with a steel hook fixed in the wings for a trapeze act and the hook ripped off half the skirt of my beautiful frock coat. Exit . . . loud applause! My music hall friend was greatly pleased with the act. He said that the ‘business’ of smashing the topper and the tearing of the coat was extremely funny! Groaning inwardly, I departed for the Met, feeling certain that Stan, who was always a very plucky kid, would return and face the music. He did – very forlorn, very apprehensive of the reception that he would get from me. Imagine, therefore, his astonishment and joy when I received him with open arms and congratulations and promises to help him achieve his ambition.”
It was, in truth, one of the greatest moments in Stan’s life and he was not ashamed to weep in gratitude and relief. A.J. began to Cast about for means to help Stan become a performer. There was little for Stan in A.J.’s own company because the Jefferson theatrical companies specialized in melodramas not far removed in plot and tone from the play Stan had written for himself in North Shields. In any case, Stan had tasted the fullness of laughter and it became from that time the theme of his life.
In 1932, Stan was asked by the publicity department of Hal Roach Studios to write a biography for their use. This document which outlines his professional life he titled Theatrical Career of Stan Laurel. In it, he told of his experiences as a young comedian, beginning with the adventure in Pickard’s Music Hall in Glasgow and his dad’s pleasure with the act.
“But Dad thought I wasn’t experienced enough yet to branch out as a single, and suggested I’d be better off with some comedy company, playing strictly comedy parts. He then secured me an engagement with a very famous company, namely, Levy and Cardwell’s Juvenile Pantomimes who produced shows similar to the satirical and clean burlesque shows in the U.S., only the actors were all youngsters, aged six to eighteen. This was burlesque in the old sense of the word – where you satirized a well-known story. I remained with the company for two seasons playing comedy parts and also became assistant stage manager. When the show closed after the second season, I rearranged a new single act and branched out in vaudeville, playing in small English variety houses. During this time my dad produced a successful vaudeville sketch, Home from the Honeymoon(Which Stan was later to transmute into the hilarious Laurel and Hardy three-reeler, Another Fine Mess (1930).), which was played in the big time houses (Moss Empire’s). After several weeks run he had trouble with one of the comedians in the sketch, so he replaced him with me for the balance of the season.”
Stan played in his dad’s sketch until a prominent musical comedy producer of the day, Edwin Marris, gave him a contract to appear in the vital role of the stable boy in a hit production, Gentleman Jockey. Following this and another engagement as the comedian in a melodrama entitled Alone in the World, Stan made another and very momentous change.
“I returned to vaudeville again as a single act when I was scoured by a very famous comedy producer, Fred Karno. In his company was Charlie Chaplin who was their principal comedian. After I was with this company a couple of months Karno sent down a script for a new show he wanted to produce with the company the following Monday in London.
We were all given our parts; Chaplin, of course, had the star part. We immediately went into rehearsal, and towards the end of the week Karno came personally to witness a rehearsal. This production was Jimmy the Fearless. At the last minute Chaplin told Karno he didn’t like the show and refused to open in it. Karno then picked me out of the troupe and gave me the part, which I rehearsed Saturday and Monday, and opened in London on Monday night.
“The show was a terrific hit. Chaplin sat in front and watched my performance for one whole week, then decided he would play the part. I still continued with the troupe playing second comedian, also understudying Chaplin in a repertoire of about ten Karno shows. In 1910, the troupe was booked to play in America.”
Billed as “Fred Karno’s Comedians,” the group opened in New York in an act called The Wow-wows, a burlesque on the initiation ceremonies of a typical fraternal order. The Wow-wows was not particularly successful, as Chaplin had warned Karno, but the tremendous pantomimic skills of the Englishmen more than offset the inadequacy of the material and the Karno group was engaged for a tour of the prestigious Sullivan and Considine vaudeville circuit across the United States. On this tour they played the actionful A Night in an English Music Hall, a broad satirization of English variety acts, which gave Chaplin the chance to show off his talents at their brightest. Stan at this time had asked Karno for a raise in salary, and upon refusal, left for home where he wrote a sketch, The Rum ‘Uns from Rome which he played with various partners to indifferent success in England and on the Continent.
In 1912, the Karno troupe was re-engaged to tour the United States on the Sullivan-Considine circuit and Stan was hired again as Chaplin’s understudy with the raise he had asked for originally. It was during this tour that Chaplin was signed by Mack Sennett to make films, thus permitting Stan to play the lead comedy roles in the company. But trouble impended at Philadelphia where Karno had signed a twelve-week contract with the Nixon-Nirdlinger circuit.
“In this contract it was understood that Chaplin was to appear in the shows, but even though Chaplin had left the company for picture work, the company proceeded to Philadelphia, our manager informing the Nixon—Nirdlinger people that Chaplin wasn’t with the company any more but also advising them that I was equally as good as Chaplin. They didn’t agree to this arrangement. It was then suggested by our company manager that if they let us play one week with me in the part and if they weren’t satisfied, they could cancel the balance of the contract. This wasn’t agreed to either: they wanted Chaplin. It ended up, however, with their agreeing to accept the contract if Karno would bring over from England the principal comedian from the London Karno company named Dan Rayner. We laid off three weeks waiting for him. He came, we opened but the show was a flop, and after we played a couple weeks, the contract was canceled and the troupe disbanded. We got what work we could as individuals. I remember getting a day’s work at a vaudeville house doing a shadowgraph act called Evolution of Fashion, about a drunk in a cafe. It was almost like a movie — acting in shadow pantomime before a white screen. As to the disbanded Karno troupe, those who wanted to return to England were given tickets, while those who didn’t want to go could stay here. A fellow in the act and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Hurley and I, decided to remain in this country and produce an act of our own. We proceeded to Chicago figuring to try out an act there and try it in and around the Midwest, planning if it was a success to bring it to New York. I wrote this act which I called The Nutty Burglars. We produced it in Chicago and played there and around there for several months.”
The Nutty Burglars was a slight piece. The title characters are two noisy types who enter an apartment with larcenous intent. During their assault on a corner safe they are interrupted by a piquant maid. They immediately pose as icemen and she accepts the explanation. One of the burglars flirts heavily with her which allows his confederate to continue with the burgling. This thief lights the fuse on a hand bomb to blow the safe open. The climax of the act is the hasty passing of the sputtering bomb from one burglar to another before it is hastily thrown out the window. Explosion off – and a cop enters in black-powdered rags to arrest them. Stan described the act as “But no plot, just gags, anything for laughs.” Despite its slightness, the act was taken under contract by a particularly astute booking agent, Gordon Bostock, who enhanced its playability considerably.
“Bostock dressed it up, making it big time. He rehearsed the act personally and changed its name, calling it The Keystone Trio. He had me discard the character I was portraying and made me play it in the tramp character of Charlie Chaplin, just then becoming very popular in the Keystone Comedies. He also had Mr. and Mrs. Hurley change their characters to Chester Conklin and Mabel Normand, also great stars at Keystone, hence our being known as The Keystone Trio. The act proved to be a terrific hit.
Since Chaplin and I both had the same kind of strong pantomime training, I could do his tramp just as he did it. The act and material remained just as I had written it, but with the new characterizations there was an added novelty touch which sent it over with a bang. Then differences arose between Hurley and me which caused a split. Hurley wanted to play the tramp role and he simply wasn’t qualified to do so. Hurley quickly copyrighted the act, not telling me about it, claiming it as his material as a means to stop me from doing the act with another couple. He replaced me in the act with another fellow, Ted Banks. Then the theatre managers discovered I was not in the act, and it had become an inferior act anyway. They couldn’t get further bookings and The Keystone Trio folded forever. It was then I produced a three-person act known as The Stan Jefferson Trio.”
At which point, one is delighted to allow a gracious and spunky lady, still ebullient in her late eighties, to tell the story of her meeting Stan as well as something of the history of The Stan Jefferson Trio. Presently a Hollywood resident, Alice Cooke has vivid memories of her days with Stan.
“He was a delight. That’s the only word I can use about him. He was the most generous and thoughtful man I have ever known in my entire life – a long one.