Randy Skretvedt was 5 when he saw his first Laurel and Hardy movie on TV one Saturday morning in 1964.
"It was 'Swiss Miss,' and I just laughed and laughed and laughed," Skretvedt recalled. "More so than liking them for their gags, it's the characters and their relationship to each other that intrigued me. They really do say something quite profound about friendships and relationships. You just don't get that with the Three Stooges."
Now 28, the Buena Park resident has lost none of his childhood affection for the classic comedy duo, who are the subjects of his just-published book, "Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies" (Moonstone Press; $14.95). Consider:
- With the exception of two "missing" films, the 1982 Cal State Fullerton graduate has seen all 105 Laurel and Hardy movies, some of them as many as 50 times.
- He served eight years as the "grand sheik" of the Orange County chapter of the Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy appreciation society, and he still supplies the films for the group's monthly meetings in a Huntington Beach savings and loan.
- Over the years, he has collected enough Laurel and Hardy memorabilia to auction off two-thirds of his collection in 1985 and still have enough to completely fill his bedroom--everything from tacky Laurel and Hardy lamps, toys and statues to rare posters, photos and lobby cards.
But the most telling example of Skretvedt's affection for Laurel and Hardy are the seven years he spent researching and writing his 462-page Laurel and Hardy tome, which is billed as "the definitive book on the world's greatest comedy team."
Filled with more than 275 rare photos and illustrations, the book gives an insightful look at the making of Laurel and Hardy's screen comedies from the point of view of the actors and technicians who worked alongside "the boys," as fans refer to their beloved Stan and Ollie.
"The idea of the book as much as possible was to get the day-to-day workings of the studio and what it was like be on the set making movies with Laurel and Hardy," Skretvedt said. "They went about it in such an unorthodox way, I wanted to get as much detail as possible."
Among the duo's unorthodox film-making practices, Skretvedt said, was shooting scenes in the sequence in which they appear in the finished film, unlike the usual method of filming scenes out of order.
50% of Script Tossed Out
"The reason they did this is they would habitually throw out about 50% of the script: When they got to the set the props and sets themselves would suggest better gags than the stuff they had written, and they never knew how their ad-libbing would change the story," Skretvedt said.
Laurel and Hardy also rarely rehearsed their scenes before the cameras rolled, he said. "They liked to capture the spontaneity of the first run-through and get that on film: They wanted that freshness."
But perhaps the most unusual practice of all, Skretvedt said, "is that Stan . . . was really the man who ran the whole show on the set. The director was very much secondary in importance to Stan Laurel."
Skretvedt, co-author of an unauthorized biography of Steve Martin in 1980, was praised recently in Publisher's Weekly for his "revealing look" at Laurel and Hardy, and for providing "unusual insights into the complex art of creating comedy."
Skretvedt said the book grew out of his involvement with the Sons of the Desert as a teen-ager in the mid-1970s.
He remembers being enthralled by occasional guest speakers who would show up at the meetings--people who had actually known and worked with Laurel and Hardy, such as actress Anita Garvin and former Hal Roach Studio musical director T. Marvin Hatley, who wrote Laurel and Hardy's musical signature, "The Coo Coo Song."
"They would tell these great stories, and nobody was doing anything to preserve it," Skretvedt recalled in a recent interview. "Finally, I said, 'Well, if nobody else is going to do it, I'll do it.' "
He began tape-recording the meetings, and, by the time he entered Cal State Fullerton as a communications major in 1979, he had amassed a sizable library of tapes. He also had an idea for a book.
"I felt a real need to preserve the firsthand accounts of the people who worked with Laurel and Hardy, and that was my main drive to write the book," he said.
"I just felt this was a real important part of film history that hadn't been documented yet. There had been many people who interviewed Stan Laurel, but that's just one aspect of the story, and it just seemed like this opportunity was waiting there for me, and nobody else was taking advantage of it."
Hal Roach Interviewed
Over a period of three years, Skretvedt interviewed about 60 people, including the colorful studio boss Hal Roach, then 89, and now a still-vigorous 95.
"That was the biggest thrill, talking to these people," he said, then recounted an interview with Australian comedian Clyde Cook, who told him, "I'm 88, but I can still do this," and then proceeded to wrap his leg around his neck.