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In Pursuit of a Fine Mess of Memories


Every now and then I go out to look for Laurel and Hardy. I visit the concrete Silver Lake steps where they dragged the piano crate in the 1932 Academy Award-winning short, "The Music Box." I drive through Culver City intersections where they spurred masses of people into hat-stomping (or pants-ripping or pie-throwing) riots. A few weeks ago, I dined at an Indian restaurant inside the building they drove by in an old Ford in their 1929 film, "Bacon Grabbers."

"Damn," I thought, "missed 'em by 65 years!"

Last June 16, Stan Laurel's birthday, I went to Forest Lawn in Burbank to visit his grave. The spirit of Laurel and Hardy movies, at least, seemed to be with me. I got lost cruising around the cemetery in a car that squeaked like a shrieking peacock and repeatedly drove past a funeral in progress, complete with a delicate, tinkly harpist. The solemn mourners eyed me with increasing fear at each pass. I resisted an impulse to scratch my head and smile helplessly.

When I finally found Laurel's resting place (after taking a wrong turn that led me to Buster Keaton's), I deposited some sort of mutated snapdragon that was all my budget allowed and whistled the old Laurel and Hardy theme song, also known as "The Cuckoo Song." You know how it goes--ending with that repeating "COO-koo, COO-koo." Well--and this is the God's truth--when I finished, the mockingbirds picked up the "COO-koos." I couldn't decide whether it was poignant or eerie. Or funny.

And, yes, on the way out I got lost and squeaked past that funeral again.

I am not alone in my odd pursuit of Stan and Ollie. Lots of other people go out and look for them, too.

There are, for such people, two guidebooks to the pair's movie sites: the painstakingly researched "Pratfall" (Vol. 2), written by Bob Satterfield and friends and published by the Valley-based Way Out West Tent of the Sons of the Desert, the durable local chapter of the international Laurel and Hardy appreciation society; and "Following the Comedy Trail," by Leon Smith, a former Los Angeles Police Department detective who includes Laurel and Hardy and "Our Gang" locations.

Why such interest? It occurs to me, with the 102nd anniversary of Oliver Hardy's birth Tuesday, that aside from originality and comedy, "the boys" symbolized love, bravery, friendship, dignity, perseverance, undying loyalty and innocence in the face of merciless absurdity and chicanery. I have no argument with Kurt Vonnegut's appraisal of them as angels in his novel, "Slapstick."

And there's a little more to it. Tied up in my periodic searches for Laurel and Hardy, and in the guidebooks, is a search for old L.A.--that more innocent series of communities connected by great, formidable Pacific Electric lines.

To wit, when I see a Red Car cruising down Hoover Avenue in the duo's "Hog Wild" (1930), I drink up the scene, trying hard to imagine what it must have been like to ride on that Red Car. When I see Stan and Ollie haul that crate up those pristine steps in that young Silver Lake neighborhood, I am there, trying to breathe that less complicated 1932 air along with them. The movies--and their remaining landmarks--are time travel.

I went out looking for Laurel and Hardy again a few weeks ago, at the Hollywood Heritage Museum. It seemed a good place to try. The Silent Society and the Society of Operating Cameramen were hosting a fund-raiser there for a commemorative plaque to be placed at the foot of the "Laurel and Hardy Steps" in Silver Lake. The evening's program featured a few old comedies shot at the steps--including "The Music Box"--and Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury read aloud his old short story, "The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair" (published in "The Toynbee Convector") for the crowd of 50 or so. It concerns two lovers united because they liked to look for Laurel and Hardy. Most of their dates, in fact, are spent picnicking at the steps.

Sensing a kindred spirit, I later phoned Bradbury. The author offered that the museum reading had moved him to resurrect an unpublished 30-year-old short story also focusing on Laurel and Hardy and to polish it up. ("So we'll see now if we get someone to publish this," he said, incredibly enough. "You can never tell.") He summarized the story.

"It's called 'Another Fine Mess,' " Bradbury said. "In it, the ghosts of Laurel and Hardy run up and down the (Silver Lake) stairs late at night. This woman who lives nearby hears them shouting at 3 o'clock in the morning, goes out, can't see anything, and hears the 'music box' (piano crate) tumbling down the steps.

"She calls her friend, who's an expert on motion picture history, and they both go out and listen. And they say to each other, why are they here? Why are they letting the 'music box' chase them down the stairs, and then come up again? And they theorize, well, maybe they want to hear one last time, 'We love you.' Maybe we didn't give them enough love while they were alive. Could that possibly be?"

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