In the 1935 film "Sons of the Desert," Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy tell their wives that they are sailing to Hawaii for Hardy's health--in order to sneak off and attend the national convention of their lodge, "The Sons of the Desert." But they are eventually spied by their enraged spouses in a newsreel, joyously singing the lodge anthem (to the tune of "Give My Regards to Broadway"):
"We are the sons of the desert, having , the time of our lives. . . ."
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are long departed from this world, but the Sons of the Desert are still meeting and singing that anthem.
"I worked for Bill Patterson, who started the L.A. chapter in 1967. I got involved in sending out the mailing list, going to the first meeting to take minutes, and sort of fell into it that way," said Lori Jones McCaffrey of North Hollywood. "And I found that I was quickly up to my eyebrows in the nuts and bolts of running the tent. And still am."
The "tent" she speaks of is the "Way Out West" tent of the Sons of the Desert, an international society devoted to preserving and celebrating the work of Messrs. Laurel and Hardy, founded with Laurel's blessings in 1965. McCaffrey has been the most consistent driving force behind the Way Out West Tent (named for Laurel's favorite Laurel and Hardy film) during much of its last 20 years of meetings in various halls in the San Fernando Valley. She has organized and managed a group that has become not only an appreciation society, but a sort of alumni gathering for those who worked with "the boys," as they are affectionately known, and many other veterans of Hal Roach Studios comedies. (The tent meets every six weeks at the Mayflower Club in North Hollywood, a private club for British expatriates.)
Over the years, filing into local Sons meetings has been everyone from Hardy's widow and assorted members of "Our Gang" to the very head of the Roach Studios himself, Hal Roach--who is now 96 years old.
There are about 125 tents across the country and around the world, but the Way Out West Tent is special. As former Way Out West "Grand Sheik" Bob Satterfield--another of the tent's driving forces-- put it: "Because we're so close to where all the films were made, and where so many of the veterans live, we're considered the 'tent of the stars.' "
Laurel and Hardy's films are rarely seen on television anymore, so what is this undying affection?
"It's a hard question," said McCaffrey, a wedding coordinator by trade who met both her first and second husband at Sons meetings ("Stan would approve," she laughed.) "And there's a thousand different answers. . . . Laurel and Hardy represent a simple, gentler time. Even though every time they opened a cupboard, everything fell out on them, that was really the worst that happened to them."
Even when Babe Hardy "pokes Stan in the chin, and Stan cuts off his tie," she added, "it's never really malicious, somehow. It's always like two children who really love each other, fighting over who gets the biggest piece of pie. And I think that appeals to people especially now, in this world, where people flip you the bird because you tried to make a left turn, or whatever."
They were all there at the Airport Hilton Hotel in Burbank one recent Sunday night: Henry Brandon, who played the evil Barnaby in 1939's "Babes in Toyland" (which starred Laurel and Hardy); little Angelo Rositto, the famed dwarf actor who played Elmer the Pig in the same movie; Roy Seawright, the special effects man nominated three times for an Academy Award (he made Laurel's thumb ignite in "Swiss Miss"); actresses Vera Ralston and Marie Windsor, both of whom starred with Hardy in "The Fighting Kentuckian" with John Wayne in 1951; Della Lind, the blonde namesake songbird in "Swiss Miss"; Peggy Cartwright, a member of the very first few silent "Our Gang" comedies; Dorothy (Echo) Deborba, another "Our Gang" veteran, and various other co-stars, professional associates of "the boys," and Roach alumnae. The occasion? The "tent of the stars' " 19th annual banquet.
And there, right smack dab in the middle of them, was Lois Laurel Hawes--Stan's daughter. "Next year," she said proudly, "will be my father's 100th birthday, and there will be quite a celebration over the world. . . ."
And how would he feel about the modest gathering in Burbank?
"I think they would be awe-struck! They're really more popular today than they were when they were making films."
Lois Hawes joined the group in 1976, and her then husband-to-be, Tony Hawes, a veteran comedy writer (for the BBC and television) joined in 1980.