Looking Back Over Thirty Four Years
By Rob Lewis
Where do I start? Thirty four years is a long time to cover. Well! As I said in “Fraternally Yours,” the Helpmates started off with just three of us: myself Rob Lewis) Peter Elkins, and Malcolm Stuart Fellows.
THE THREE FOUNDERS - Pete, Malcolm, and Rob
Our very first effort at creating a Laurel & Hardy magazine was the “Helpmates Newsletter,” copies of which we ran off on a Gestener printer. You had to use a typewriter, with no ribbon, to cut out the stencil for printing.
We later moved on to “litho” printing, which involved me typing it all out, and then taking it to a typesetter who would set it on a long roll of type. A printer would scan it and give the photos back as bromides made up with dots. Then, with a scalpel, I had to cut out all the typeset and images, and paste them up for the printer to make his plates. The “magazine” was delivered back to me in flat-packs of four-sheets. With the help of my family we collated the pages, stapled them with a long-arm stapler, and folded the magazines. As you can imagine, it was quite a task.
Today, with the use of computers, we can dispatch, edit, and immediately return any material we are using in the magazine. “A.J” works on his independently but, any I do, I send to him; he works his magic on it and emails it back to me. Then I email it to our printers “TT Litho” – who we have been with for many years now – and either Paul or Correen does the fabulous designs and layouts that you see in the finished magazine. They then email us back a proof, we pass it, and it goes to the presses, then to a bookbinder, and comes back to my house all finished, and my wife Gill and I mail them out. A process that used to take six weeks of hard labour can now be turned around, from blank pages to end product in, sometimes, less than two.
So what then is the origin of the Helpmates Tent? Well, a handful of us originally held our meetings in my home. I recall making a 6” hole in my lounge wall so I could project the films from the kitchen. Then we went along to Dave Bennet’s house, where he had actually built a 16-seat cinema in his back garden - complete with electric curtains and tip-up seats, salvaged from a local cinema. It was fun, but very cold in the winter.
As membership increased, Pete Elkins and I decided we would hold a slightly bigger event at my sister’s pub, the Railway Tavern - in Higham, Kent. This was a huge success, and two members who were to play a big part in the future of our Tent came along for the first time. They were Jack Stevenson and Joan Robertson.
As our membership expanded we had to change venues, and tried the St. George Hotel, Chatham, to start with; and then, wanting to test the water in London, used the Phoenix Tavern for a while. Jack Stevenson was our emcee; and author and trivia expert Glenn Mitchell, along with his mum and dad, provided the films.
A GANG OF BEER BARONS - Not really! It's the 'Helpmates' first planning meeting for the UK 84 International Convention.
One day, Pete Elkins called me with exciting news that they were building a new hotel next to Rochester airport called “The Crest.” I asked him what was so exciting about that, to which he told me that the Restaurant would be called ‘Oliver’s’ and would be decorated with Laurel and Hardy décor. We did not hesitate to book it up. That hotel is our Chatham base to this day and, although it has changed names several times over the years, is still fondly called ‘The Crest’ by long-standing members.
We have also held London meetings in the “Cock Tavern” pub, Baden-Powell House, and even the theatre owned and run by “The Magic Circle.” In those early days, Del Kempster also organised a few London meetings in his local pub, in Morden.
As well as Pete Elkins, we have had many loyal helpers over the years. We could not have shown all those films without the help of Glenn Mitchell, Charles and Faye Hesslewood, Ray Andrew, Dave Wyatt and of course Richard Ellis Jnr. and Richard Snr. And then of course we will always remember with fondness our dear Joan Robertson, who fastidiously stuck to the task of selling raffle tickets during our events, although secretly it was an excuse for her to wander round and meet with everyone, which she, and they, thoroughly enjoyed. Away from meetings she also did a sterling job looking after our subscriptions.
Although Pete and I put the events together, they were made even more memorable by those who compered the meetings, Jack Stevenson, Malcolm Stuart Fellows, Tony Hawes, and Kevin Doig, and those who have done special film presentations, such as Dave Wyatt, Glenn Mitchell, “A.J” Marriot, and Trevor Dorman. We also had some great Laurel & Hardy tribute acts, over the years. Here are three of the best.
SIMON & RAY
whose performance of “The Driver’s Licence”
sketch could never be bettered.
BUD ‘n’ STEVE
Who specialises in the dance from “Way Out West.”
STAN SLADE & ROB GRAEME
who perform mind-bending magic.
I should mention that, in the early days, there were two other Laurel & Hardy fan clubs running. One was the “Film Funsters” - run by author and TV writer Dennis Gifford. Dennis used to compile “Looks Familiar” - the TV shows hosted by Dennis Norden. Pete and I often accepted invites to attend recordings at Thames TV. On one occasion Dennis introduced us to two people – one of whom would have their life changed by that meeting. The first was Jimmy Marshall a comedian who, at the time, had his own L&H fan club called “Night Owls.” The other was Tony Hawes - who has become known for doing the voice-over for the prizes on the conveyor belt in the TV show “The Generation Game” (remember: “a cuddly toy”?).
Tony told us that BBC orchestra-leader Ronnie Hazlehurst was also a big fan of Laurel & Hardy, as was “The Generation Game” presenters - Larry Grayson and Isla St Clair. Pete and I told him about the Helpmates, and that we were in the midst of planning the first-ever tour to a USA Convention - ‘Hollywood 80’. You can imagine Pete’s and my surprise when Tony told us that Larry and Isla wanted to come to with us on our tour.
LARRY GRAYSON and ISLA ST. CLAIR
A Generation apart, together.
They were very big at the time on TV, so we were quite amazed. We were even more amazed when they encouraged along with them other TV celebrities: wrestler Mick McManus, Peter Dulay (from “Candid Camera”) and the aforementioned Ronnie Hazlehurst.
And boy what a trip it was: attending our VERY FIRST International Convention - hosted by the Los Angeles ‘Way Out West” Tent.’ It was quite daunting for me, as it was the first time I had had to make a speech to several hundred ‘Sons,’ but even more weird having all the celeb’s there, along with our “regular” Helpmates’ members, wearing fezzes. So surreal!
My personal memorable moments were: the Grand Parade of Tents, in L.A. - all walking past the hospital as seen in the film “County Hospital” (actually, the disguised Culver City Hall). Then seeing all the locations such as the “Big Business” house, “Perfect Day” house, and culminating in climbing the “Music Box” steps. Our group even had free VIP treatment around Disneyland, thanks to being with Larry and Isla, who were hosting BBC’s “Disney Time” that year on TV.
Pete and I stayed at Stan’s daughter Lois Laurel’s home for a few nights. One of my greatest thrills was going through all of Stan Laurel’s own scrapbooks. Simply amazing! It was on this trip that Tony Hawes met Lois Laurel; and Ronnie Hazlehurst met Marvin T Hatley; and the seeds were sewn for an LP record.
That was the first of several tours Peter and I organised to the USA Conventions. Later ones were in Minneapolis; Clearwater Florida; and Las Vegas; plus tours to events run by the “Way Out West” tent of California.
Back in England, we have held three big events at Leeds Castle, in Kent, over the years. Our first event there was in 1981. Lois Laurel met Tony Hawes again, and little did we know that there was a romance starting. Lois and Tony later married, and Tony moved to the USA.
Dennis Gifford’s “Film Funsters” Club and Jimmy Marshall’s “Night Owls” merged with the Helpmates Tent, so consequently we inherited quite a few celebrity members. I will always recall being introduced to Bob Monkhouse and being able to thank him for introducing me to the old movies, via the TV show Mad Movies, which gave me my first love of Laurel & Hardy films.
In 1984 we co-hosted the Laurel & Hardy International Convention - in partnership with Bill Cubin’s “Berth Marks” tent. We ran the events based down South, while Bill organised events in and around Stan’s hometown of Ulverston. It was a mammoth undertaking for us. We had three coach-loads and one double-decker bus-full of members solely from the USA, plus our own members and, WOW! did we pull out all the stops?
Over just a few short days we held an evening at the National Film Theatre; hosted a river boat trip up the Thames to Hampton Court – where, we recreated the maze scene in “A Chump at Oxford.”
A-MAZE-SCENE GRACE! HAMPTON COURT MAZE.
On another night we staged “A Night in an English Music Hall”, at the Players Theatre, in Charing Cross Road, London. The next day we took everyone on a mystery tour - which ended up in Oxford. Pete and I hired a huge room inside an Oxford college where we screened “A Chump at Oxford” (what a twist). John McCabe held a master class there, and we ran a Trivia Quiz.
The next day was very busy with a trip to the Romney, Hythe, and Dymchurch Railway, in Kent, where we all boarded the longest train of coaches ever pulled by “Dr Syn” - the same loco that had pulled the coaches Stan and Babe had boarded back in 1947.
WAS MY VALET
Jack Stevenson acting as valet to Stan Laurel’s former valet, Jimmy Murphy
The train ride was followed by a civic lunch at the Lees Cliff Hall, Folkstone, after which guests were bussed to Canterbury for a couple of hours, while Pete and I raced ahead to Leeds Castle to set it up for one of the most memorable ‘Sons’ events ever.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO LEEDS
of the Desert assemble for a group photo, before taking their seats for
a fabulous evening of Entertainment at Leeds Castle, Kent.
Highlights included the Deborah Capron Dancers doing the ‘Honolulu Baby’ routine, followed by a full Kentish evening.
HUBA! HUBA HUBA! - The Deborah Capron Dancers performing “Honolulu Baby”. Copied many times since – never bettered!
SMART FELLOWS – THEY FELT SMART. Meanwhile, these three gentlemen were so busy
Scholarly Overtones, outside, that they missed all the action - inside. Professor Stanley Unwin, “Mi Lord’ Malcolm Stuart Fellows,
and Professor John McCabe.
With the southern events over, we took everyone to Ulverston for more fun. The whole week, North and South, was filmed by a Granada TV crew, with the late- Leslie Halliwell along to provide the commentary for the resulting TV documentary.
In 1988 we jumped aboard "A.J" Marriot's coach to Amsterdam, to become the first party of Sons to attend a European Convention, and spent three “Perfect Days” with Bram Reijnhoudt’s Tent.
1990 was the Helpmates’ busiest year: with THREE Crest Hotel events; two London Meetings; and a Film Show at the Scala Cinema, King’s Cross, hosted by Dave Wyatt. In June 1990 we took a large party of Helpmates to the Stan Laurel Centenary celebrations in Ulverston, and then in July took no fewer than seventy-two Sons to the USA for the Laurel & Hardy International Convention, in Florida. Most Tents would struggle to get that many to their local venue – much less one three-thousand miles away.
Bill Winfield and Del Kempster going around Busch Gardens, Florida,
asking if anyone has seen Mae. They later got arrested for having no visible means of support.
“A.J” Marriot interviewing Laurel & Hardy co-star Trudy Marshall – from “The Dancing Masters.”
“A.J” later confirmed that Trudy did the interview in just one-take.
In 1991 we were back at Leeds Castle, this time with the full BBC Orchestra, conducted by Ronnie Hazlehurst. Lois and Tony Hawes were Guests of Honour. Between 1991 and the present there have been many more Helpmates’ meetings and trips, too numerous to include here. We even had one to Eurodisney.
We are proud that many of our members were inspired enough by our activities to go off and form their own Tents. They include: Del Kempster (Live Ghost); Stephen Neale (Them Thar Hills); John Ullah (Laughing Gravy); Alison Grimmer (Looser Than Loose); Roger Robinson (Saps at Sea) and “A.J” Marriot (Birds of a Feather). It's good to know that we still get visits and/or have regular contact with them.
I have just cherry picked some of my personal highlights. Everybody has their own personal stories to tell, but I am just pleased to be part of the Sons’ history. ‘The Laurel & Hardy Magazine’ has many famous names who subscribe, and the Helpmates have had several celebrities who have attended meetings. As well as those mentioned previously, we have welcomed from the “World of Television” Stanley Unwin, Ernie Wise, Jeffery Holland and David Jason; and from “The World of Laurel & Hardy” biographer John McCabe; Rosina Lawrence (‘Mary Roberts’ from Way Out West); Dorothy de Borba (Our Gang); and Henry Brandon (‘Barnaby’ from Babes in Toyland) to name but a few.
BABES WAY OUT WEST at MAPLINS
Hardy co-stars Henry Brandon and Rosina Lawrence
getting a “Hi-De-Hi” greeting from Jeffrey “Spike” Holland.
The greatest praise and the fondest memories, however, lie with the many regular members who have subscribed to the magazine, and attended our many events during those years. What is particularly pleasing is that members from those early days are now bringing their children along to meetings. You can definitely say: “We have grown up together.”
It’s been a great, and memorable thirty four years, and I look forward to those yet to come. Back in 1978 I recall Peter Elkins asking, "How are we going to keep finding new stories about the Boys?" Well that was 30 years ago and we are still turning up new finds! To all those of you who have supported us since our inception, we send a sincere “Thank you,” and hope that the magazine will continue for some years to come. Sadly several Key 'Sons of the Desert' and co-stars are no longer with us, but their memories will live on via the 'Sons of the Desert'.