A short jaunt through Ollies back yard
From an early age (Im now 50), I have immersed myself in 20th Century American culture. Dont get me wrong, I love Ealing Comedies, The Beatles, The Who, Peter Sellers and much much more, but from a moving picture point of view and musically, all roads seem to lead to the USA. My wife Penny and I have been to the USA a number of times but recently spent the best part of a summer driving around some of those 50 states, keen to visit a number of the places that have helped shape our lives through sound and vision. Harlem and the South, Los Angeles and San Francisco were top of the list.
Our first major drive was from Los Angeles to Texas via California, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico and it was everything wed hoped for. Small towns full of charming, polite and interesting people full of enthusiasm for parades and festivals commemorating all manner of things. Here are just a few picked at random:
The Giant Omelette Celebration, Abbeville LA; The Yuma Lettuce Festival, AZ; The Bald Eagle Festival, Alaska; The World Beard and Moustache Championship, Alaska; The Columbus, Mississippi Catfish and Karting Festival and the Summer Redneck Games in East Dublin, Georgia. And as Im sure most of you know, thousands of people descend on the small town of Harlem, Georgia for one weekend a year to celebrate the life of its most prominent son.
One disappointing aspect of British life for me is that we have generally been slow to recognize and celebrate our Modern Culture. There have always been numerous places to visit relating to the lives of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare and yet it seems that the great Bill Cubin had to virtually go it alone in Ulverston and its only through the generosity of fans that a statue of The Boys is about to be unveiled there.
We stumbled across a balloon festival in Ridgway, Colorado, the town where much of the John Wayne movie True Grit was filmed. We spent a delightful impromptu weekend there, dining in the True Grit Café, watching the balloons at sunrise and enjoying The Rockodiles, a local rock band whose lead guitarist was Rusty Weaver, son of McCloud actor Dennis Weaver, whod recently passed away. This kind of thing is everywhere, it truly is fantastic and you never know what is around the corner.
From the outset, it was our intention to visit Olivers home town of Harlem despite it being slightly out of the way. But thanks to some homework before setting off, Georgia proved to be full of juicy treats for the Wyatts: the promise of seeing the great rock bands Little Feat and the Allmann Brothers in and around Atlanta; a visit to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, also in Atlanta; and a special excursion to Macon, the birthplace of Richard Penniman (aka Little Richard) and home to the late Otis Redding from the age of 5. And, of course, Ray Charles, the innovator who changed the course of popular music, was born in Albany, not that far away.
Entering Georgia from Alabama, we tuned into Georgia Christian Radio just in time to hear a gospel choir singing My God is on Time, Every Time. Obviously there have been drastic changes since the late 19th Century but it was exciting to be in the very area where Babe had started to form his own unique personality.
It wasnt long before our first sight of those white mansions reminiscent of the images from Margaret Mitchells Gone with the Wind. (We later visited the Margaret Mitchell museum in Atlanta and were interested but not shocked to learn that Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, the two black actresses prominent in the film version of GWTW, were omitted from the guest list for the prestigious premiere of the movie in Atlanta in 1939, such were the segregation laws at the time. One can only imagine how things were below the Mason-Dixon Line when Oliver was growing up in the 1890s.)
Karen Waters at the Georgia Tourist Office became very animated when we expressed an interest in visiting Jimmy Carters church in Plains, Georgia, to hear the former President preach.
President Carter understands that we ladies dont bring our Sunday clothes on holiday. So long as you dont wear your Daisy Dukes (short shorts), you can wear what you like, she kindly advised us.
As we drove east, we noticed more and more election campaign fliers for Governor Sonny Perdue, and stopping for gas at the Knoxville Stores, spotted a wall full of Allman Brother posters, the owner being a big fan. Wed discovered that in a lot of US states, customers have to pay for their gas upfront. The proprietor here told us that this was because of vagabonds driving off without paying, but he pointed at his new pick-up on the forecourt and said,
Id like to see any bum outlast that baby and I have a gun under the counter; lets see em try it. Are you guys from England? Have a great vacation.
Entering Macon we passed Girl Scout Road and Breeze Street before checking in at the Travel Inn for $35. The budget status of the motel was confirmed by police notices warning against stealing from the rooms and a sign on the door read, Breakfast 6.30-9.30 - No Carry Outs.
That evening, we enjoyed watching the Miss Teen USA pageant, won by Miss Montana who looked as if she knew shed always win even though another, more homely-looking contestant had saved a child from drowning.
[I realize that we are still to reach Harlem in this tale but we are keen to offer a flavour of the South, especially if you havent been lucky enough to go Way Out West - from the UK, that is]
Our route to downtown Macon, the next day, took us on the Major Bobby Jones POW M.I.A. Interchange and we spent a delightful few hours at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. The Hall covered Southern Music extensively and featured Tommy Dorsey, white and black gospel singers, Ma Rainey, Little Richard, Otis, the Allmanns, Brother Ray and many others.
As an example of family planning among the Southern working class even in the mid-20th century, Melvina Spence, museum curator, who has 13 brothers and sisters, told us that her mother had wanted to simply make sure that she would be looked after in her old age.
After enjoying some pittas in the Roly Poly Restaurant we headed to City Park, by the river, to see the wonderful statue of the late great Otis Redding, who enjoyed great success with the Stax Record label before his death, aged 27, in a plane crash. People who have contributed to the funding of the statue, we noted, include: Gladys Whipple, Lakisha Donelly, Tamira Slaughter, Cobretti Wilson, Clarena Hoskins, Donte Finney and DMorea Zyshon.
Whilst we were there, a mile-long freight train passed by on an elevated track - another thrill. We then stopped at a downtown Goodwill Store (charity shop) where we bought some books and shorts. We also met John Franklin, a WW2 veteran whod been based on the Eastern Seaboard guarding German POWs. He recognized our accents and seemed quite excited to meet us. We found this a regular occurrence, especially in the South where people couldnt believe how we had just turned up in their town. Southern ladies would often say things to me like Well, bless your heart, Honey and men would be unfailingly polite to Penny, always removing their hats to greet her. One young lad with a charity box outside a supermarket asked me if I could teach him to talk like I do, as he was sure this would help him get a girlfriend.
It is no surprise that Mr.Hardys genteel manners (honed in the South), especially towards women, were so noticeable up there on the big screen - when he wasnt being cantankerous and awkward, that is!
Back at the motel that evening on Americas Got Talent, we cheered on 14 year old Taylor Ware, from Franklin, a yodeler who had worked in Dolly Partons Dollywood.
The following morning, before making the drive to Harlem, we found ourselves watching a classic Waltons episode, over breakfast. Im quite proud to have recognized the actor Nicholas Hammond (whod played the eldest Von Trapp child, Friedrich, about ten years earlier in The Sound Of Music). He was playing a no-good fop with a fancy car and was attempting to steal John Boys girlfriend, a young Sissy Spacek, away from him.
We then took Route 49 and passed through Milledgeville, a pretty, wealthy-looking college town and the capital of Baldwin County. Crowds of beautiful, bright-eyed students milled about the smart boulevards and we noticed something of an excess of hairdressers and beauty salons. Im sorry to report that Id forgotten that Ollie first became interested in acting whilst residing at the Baldwin Hotel in Milledgeville, so I dont know if his presence there has been recognized in any way.
Passing through the poorer-looking Jewell Community, we spotted several dead armadillos on the road. A number of classic Munsters/Psycho-type properties caught our eye and we made a brief stop in the town of Thomson. One of my old school friends is named Pete Thomson, so in his honour we took a bunch of photos of carpet stores, court houses, and shopping malls with the Thomson name prominent. I can also report that later in the trip we went on a pilgrimage to the small hamlet of Wyatt in Indiana, where we took similar photos of Wyatt Feed Farm and enjoyed hospitality in a bar called Wyatt Beef and Brew where several afternoon drinkers insisted on buying us drinks. Simple stuff, but strangely thrilling!
Eventually we entered the small town of Harlem, Georgia (pop 1814), where ones first view is of a smiling Oliver Hardy on the towns water tower, below which has been printed the legend
HARLEM Birthplace of Oliver Hardy
Near the traffic lights by Main Street, we saw the multi-coloured mural that you may have seen pictured before, painted on the side of the old theatre which is being restored. Not great likenesses to be honest, but no matter, its a lovely tribute all the same. Before we visited the Museum we went to a favourite chain diner of ours, the Huddle House, where we were served by Melissa who was too shy to ask us where we came from, though we noticed her pointing and whispering with a colleague. You can tip me if you really want to, she said sweetly.
We wandered slowly (Ive omitted to point out just how hot it is in the South especially in the months of July and August) over to the museum and noticed an electricians truck outside and a man hanging from an electric pole - hopefully A Lineman for the County, even though we werent in Wichita! Denise, the curator that day, explained that the electric had been down most of the day and by chance had just been restored so we were able to visit and enjoy some films during our stay.
Denise told us that entry was free because families cant afford to pay museum entrance fees but of course donations were welcomed. She told us a little about the history of the museum and we grabbed some leaflets and flyers. The museum had been 17 years in the planning, inspired by the Harlem Oliver Hardy Festival which is held on a weekend in October every year. In 2004 there were 32,000 visitors to the town on that day, with 350+ vendor and craft booths and parades (of course). The whole event sounds truly fantastic, done in a way that only Small Town America can. Memorabilia, books, pictures and the like had been collected by fans over the years, including Denise herself, and the museum was opened in July 2002.
It is a wonderful museum, as youll see from the photos, and when Denise asked us which of the L & H Shorts wed like to see (we were the only visitors that afternoon), we chose County Hospital and The Music Box, the latter ostensibly because we had a plan to visit the steps on our return to Los Angeles.
We chatted some more with Denise and she told us that a local family of Mennonites (modest dress, no cars or television) come in once a month and watch the films all day. Denise has visited the museum in Ulverston and I told her that I visited when Bill Cubin was still alive in 1991 - I actually visited about two weeks after Pen and I had begun courting, and she still has the promise of an Ulverston trip this summer to look forward to.
We said our goodbyes after a delightful visit and headed for Harlem Library where we sat on tiny seats in the childrens section, to use the free internet service. We also chanced upon Ollies Laundry at 125 S.Hicks Street, the site of the Hardy household over 100 years ago. Its felt that the town is slightly embarrassed that the house isnt there anymore, but considering the small size of the town and how little time Oliver spent there, its a tribute to them that theyve managed to put Harlem on the map and it must be fantastic to attend the Oliver Hardy Festival every October.
GALLERY - CLICK ON THUMBNAILS
(Small American towns have no peers when it comes to making the most of a tenuous connection. We spent a weekend in Winslow Arizona enjoying the Standing on the Corner in Winslow Arizona music festival. This stems from one line in the Eagles song Take it Easy, Im standing on the corner in Winslow Arizona, such a fine sight to see. Its a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me. Needless to say a corner has been selected in the town where you can have your photo taken next to a mural of a girl in a flatbed Ford. Eagles tributes and other local bands play at the festival and you can bring the kids along for fairground rides, the petting corner, the hotdogs another great community event that we were privileged to be a part of.)
We then headed in the direction of Atlanta and pulled in at a Super 8 in Madison, Georgia. Im afraid it had slipped my mind that our hero had spent a number of childhood years in the town (though I have read the books!), but we had a nice overnight in the town. We wandered into the historic Downtown (most American towns name their town centres thus as so many of the businesses and stores have now moved out to shopping malls and estates on the outskirts of town. Many, we learned, are now trying to reverse this trend). And it was charming walking around the beautiful tree-lined square and gazing at the huge white stately houses along the avenues. Latonia, serving in the Post Office, wished us well and we set off for Atlanta with the prospect of more wonderful Southern hospitality, Presidential Goings-On, American rock groups and another epic journey north to Chicago.
Six Weeks Later
At the end of our fabulous journey, we arrived back in Los Angeles and checked into the cheapish Guesthouse Inn on Sunset Boulevard. Despite having been in the city before, there was plenty more to see and we had a great couple of days here. The highlights included:
Seeing Jerry Lee Lewis promote his new record in the courtyard of the Virgin Megastore (Jerry will be 74 this year)
Driving up into Laurel Canyon, where Joni Mitchell, and Crosby Stills and Nash and their mates wrote all those great songs circa 1969/70
Standing above the Hollywood sign near Mulholland Drive where we looked over the Hollywood Bowl and the City
Penny having her photo taken with Superman and The Incredible Hulk on Hollywood Boulevard, which was great fun.
Visiting Santa Monica Pier and the Carousel which was used in the film The Sting. I didnt have a clue where Stan used to live when he was in this area.
On our final day, we were determined to visit The Music Box staircase at 927 Vendome Street in the Silverlake area, which wed deduced was not that far from Sunset Boulevard.
On our trip wed been greatly helped by two books written by a chap called Chris Epting. These have the titles Elvis Presley Passed Here and James Dean Died Here The Locations of Americas Pop Culture Landmarks. The Music Box, address and description is prominent on page 200 of the James Dean tome. Yet again, a lady in a Post Office came to our aid and pointed us in the right direction.
Vendome is a quite nice, though not fancy, leafy residential area. Most L & H types know that there is a road at the top of the steps and not a posh house, but I went up for a laugh. We took some photos and read the memorial plaque in the sidewalk with the images of the boys.
We also met Clifford who was pushing a shopping cart containing a number of metal items for recycling. It became clear that Clifford was down on his luck but he was keen to talk at length about Laurel and Hardy, the history of the steps and the sort of people that visit. We also discussed how the USA is not an overtly racist country but that race is a major issue - we had met examples of this over and over again.
I dont know why, as all there is to see is an unremarkable staircase like any other, but it was a thrill to be there over 70 years on from the filming of such a popular twenty minutes of black and white movie history. Im altogether chuffed that, in Harlem and Vendome (and Milledgeville and Madison by accident), wed managed to visit two 20th century cultural landmarks made famous by L & H.
Our Harlem Oliver Hardy Festival sticker is now proudly displayed in the rear window of our car.
Pete Wyatt (plus major contributions and editing from the esteemed Mrs.Wyatt)
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