Museums: That's another fine mess you've got me into: Who could forget Stan and Ollie? Joanna Gibbon travels to Cumbria for the world's only collection of Laurel & Hardy memorabilia
Wednesday 05 January 1994
A cricked neck is the result of looking too carefully at the rivers of smiles. Bill Cubin, the affable founder and owner of the museum, assures everyone that the pictures pinned up are not originals. His love and enthusiasm for the men on celluloid knows no bounds. It is sometimes difficult to insert a question into Mr Cubin's flowing narrative, delivered at high speed.
Because Ulverston is the birthplace of Arthur Stanley Jefferson - later known as Laurel - the museum tends to be dominated by the British side of the Anglo-American partnership. Laurel - who changed his name in 1916 because he felt his own surname was unlucky - was born in 1890 in Argyle Street.
In 1975 Mr Cubin, then a local councillor, had a plaque erected at the house. 'Until then there was no recognition of any kind that Stan Laurel was born there. Even the locals questioned whether he came from the area,' he explains. As a child - 55 years ago - Mr Cubin loved Laurel & Hardy films but felt even then they were being forgotten and overlooked.
Laurel's family moved to County Durham, when he was about seven years old, and then to North Shields, where his father ran a group of theatres; a statue of Laurel was recently erected there. A copy of a letter is displayed at the museum, written by Laurel in 1950, reminiscing about visiting his grandparents in Ulverston. 'I used to go shopping in Market Street with Grandma Metcalfe, that was a big treat for me. Beer's treacle toffee, it sure was good]'
Grandfather Metcalfe, however, was a rather cantankerous old man, given to hitting his grandchildren on their legs with a leather strap covered with horse brasses. Mr Cubin does not shrink from the harsher aspects of life - a replica of the strap is in the museum: apparently, the spirited Laurel threw the real thing out of a train window near Ulverston.
Mr Cubin, whose enormous energy has filled the newly opened third room of his museum - which was founded soon after the plaque hanging ceremony - has even got items from the Metcalfe household on display. A potty, stone hot-water bottles, boot removers and even the comedian's grandmother's rolling pin are all crammed into glass cases. Scattered around are hats of all shapes and size - sadly only a bowler actually belonged to Laurel.
At the end of the room are two life-size wax models of Laurel & Hardy, dressed in sailor's outfits. Mr Cubin tells me to say 'Hello' to the dummies: I obey and one of their hats flies upwards, pulled by a not completely invisible wire. Mr Cubin is proud of a slice of a yellow velvet curtain lined with black material. 'This hung in Laurel's house in Beverly Hills. Apparently he was very afraid of air raids in the war and had all his curtains lined with blackout material,' he explains. Neither of us can work out quite why.
In the third room, Mr Cubin has built a 32-seat cinema with a small screen. He has compiled a video biography of the two comics, including snippets of their films. Laurel went into the theatre in Glasgow and joined Fred Karno's performing circus troupe, with Charlie Chaplin as its star, in 1910. The following year the troupe was in New York, having survived a terrible voyage in a cattle ship across the Atlantic. But it was not until Laurel met Hardy in 1919 that his big break came.
By that time, Hardy - who was born in Georgia in 1892 - had already appeared in over 200 films. The two made films together but did not develop the well-known Laurel & Hardy comedy duo until 1927. They successfully survived the transition from silent movies to talkies and stayed together until 1953, four years before Hardy, an alcoholic, died. His widow, Lucille, helped Mr Cubin's endeavours by providing letters and photographs.
To Mr Cubin, and to many of the 10,000 visitors the museum attracts each year, the strength of Laurel and Hardy's humour is its simplicity. 'The great thing that shines through their work is that it is good clean fun: there is no smut; there are no hidden innuendoes. In America, they are seen as two old guys who have been pushed under the carpet, but they are undoubtedly the finest comedy team the world has ever known.' Laurel, he says, was the brains behind the outfit and Hardy was the foil.
'Many people say their humour is childish but I disagree,' he says emphatically. Recently a young boy visited the museum and laughed so much at a film clip that he fell off his seat. 'He said he loved it when Stan said: 'You can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be lead.' I get so much pleasure from reviving memories and seeing people enjoy themselves,' he says.
Laurel & Hardy Museum, 4c Upper Brook Street, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7BQ, telephone 0229 582292.
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