Gary Russeth sits near the door of the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Harlem, usually from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as the museum’s sole volunteer, waiting to tell hundreds of people a month about the comedian duo that impacted his life and gave him an outlet for expression.
Russeth grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota during the 40s. His father was an alcoholic. Russeth said he found an exit from his situation through Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
“It was an escape…kind of like a savior,” he said. “I took, very much, a liking to them.”
Russeth said the duo’s style of comedy drew him. He said he liked how they worked together, the banter, and what they did with their material. They took everyday problems and exaggerated. To compare them to television today, Russeth said he thinks the Big Bang Theory is a new version of Laurel and Hardy.
“I never really laughed at them,” he said. “I just studied them.”
As a young boy, Russeth drew cartoons. By drawing, Russeth said he avoided other kids teasing him, as they showed interest in his work. In school, Russeth said art was his only good point. In general, he said, he was bad at school.
“My worst subject in school was school,” he said.
Once he started 10th grade, Russeth began to work. He said he got a job at a ready mix plant washing trucks and changing oil. Still, he continued with school and graduated from Patrick Henry High School.
Though he had an interest in art, Russeth decided to join the military instead of going to art school since he struggled with art history. Then there was the feeling of inevitability. The war in Vietnam had begun. Many had already left to fight. Russeth said he enlisted because he figured he’d get drafted anyway. He served in the military for four years between 1963 to 1967, doing two tours in Vietnam.
“I tell everyone I graduated from the Marine Corp,” he said.
Russeth got out of the military at 22 and decided to go home. Initially, he said he wanted to work for a telephone company since he had a brother working there already, but they didn’t need anyone at the time. So, he went to a dispatch plant. Russeth met his wife, Jean, while working on a mobile home. After marrying, the couple bought a home in Minneapolis, had a child, then went back to western Minnesota, where he had another child and lived there for 28 years.
While living in Minnesota, Russeth said he had many jobs. Some of his work included assembling machines, driving a tractor for a farmer, and working in sales.
“Having a lack of education, you take what you can get,” he said.
Still, he found success. He made life support equipment for helicopters at the time he retired. And, he said, they are still used to this day.