FOR just one week, the greatest comedy double act in the history of Hollywood lived and performed in Bournemouth.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were at Boscombe’s Hippodrome twice nightly, starting on August 11, 1947.
The duo’s post-war tours of Britain and Ireland inspired the recent film Stan & Ollie, in which Steve Coogan plays Laurel and John C Reilly is Hardy.
Laurel and Hardy’s first joint visit to the UK had happened at the height of their fame, in 1932. Crowds of fans descended on Southampton Docks to watch them arrive that July 23, and they were mobbed again when their train reached Waterloo.
By 1947, Laurel and Hardy’s Hollywood career was all but over, and touring the UK and Europe was a way of bringing in some money. Both had gone through expensive divorces, while Hardy had lost a lot of money at the race track.
They arrived at Southampton on the Queen Elizabeth that February and were interviewed by Pathe News, along with another visiting film star, Barbara Stanwyck.
Despite the waning of their film career, the pair were mobbed by fans almost wherever they went. Austerity Britain continued to adore their comedy and the pair were deeply moved to discover how much they were still loved in the country of Stan’s birth.
The tour began at the Empire in Newcastle that February. Their busy schedule took them to the King’s theatre, Southsea, for a week from August 4, after which they headed straight to Bournemouth.
The venue, the Hippodrome, is still there – now called the O2 Academy.
Advertisements in the Daily Echo promoted shows at 6.35pm and 8.45pm each day – and despite the duo’s popularity, the ads note that there were plenty of seats available.
Laurel and Hardy topped a bill which also included the Three Redheads, Ivor E Keyes, Reading & Grantly, Len Clifford & Freda, Slim Rhyder, MacKenzie Reid & Dorothy; and Olga Varona.
A review in the Echo of Tuesday, August 12, was headlined “Laurel and Hardy – Hippodrome Audience Set ‘Rocking’”.
“Those two first-class slapstick comedians, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, last evening had the large audience at the Boscombe Hippodrome rocking with laughter from the time they made their appearance until their exit,” it said.
“For the majority of people it was the first time they had seen these popular screen comedians in person, and the event was regarded with some importance by both young and old.
“For nearly half-an-hour Stan and Oliver delighted the audience with their simple but cleverly timed actions, such as have amused millions of cinemagoers, Oliver acting as the man of some importance, and Stan as the ‘big cry baby.’ They were assisted in their laughter-making by Harry Moreny.
“There is a first-class supporting bill, which includes dancers, a comic pianist, spring bed acrobats and a flying trapeze act.”
Laurel and Hardy stayed that week at Boscombe’s Chine Hotel, and a signed photograph of the pair is still among the hotel’s prized gallery of showbiz pictures.
The duo made the autographs out to Fred and Wanda Butterworth, parents of the hotel’s current boss, John Butterworth.
“There was a photograph of me with Laurel and Hardy in the kitchen and the chef holding a fish by its tail, but that was stolen from here a few years ago,” John Butterworth told the Daily Echo in 2007.
“It’s a shame, but we didn’t want to pack all this away and not share it with the public.”
Another local who got hold of an autographed picture is Hugh Ashley, whose father Harry was the Daily Echo’s chief photographer for many years.
“When I was very young, my dad gave me an autograph book and started to fill it for me with stars appearing locally. The Laurel and Hardy one is the most prestigious. He asked them for it especially,” said Hugh.
As they revelled in the uproarious reaction to their shows and personal appearances, Laurel and Hardy looked forward to a return to the screen, in a comedy take on Robin Hood – but the movie was to fall through. The film Stan & Ollie uses some dramatic licence to depict this episode as happening in 1953.
The pair’s 1953-54 tour started in spectacular fashion with their arrival at Cobh harbour in Cork. Laurel and Hardy wept with joy as crowds lined the docks and the city’s cathedral bells rang out their theme The Cuckoo Song.
But most of the tour was much less happy. The country seemed gloomier and ticket sales for some of the shows were disappointing, while hopes of an engagement at London’s prestigious Palladium were dashed.
Both men suffered health problems and the tour was brought to a premature end when Hardy, who had tried to keep performing through pneumonia, suffered a heart attack.
Hardy died in 1957 and Laurel in 1965 – but as the success of the Stan & Ollie film has shown, their partnership continues to delight audiences today.