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Sons of the Desert at 50

The founding “tent” of the international Laurel and Hardy organization Sons of the Desert is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a banquet in New York City on August 8th—but only if enough people sign up to attend. That’s the message that Grand Sheik Jack Roth has asked me to spread. You can learn more at www.sonsofthedesertnyc.org.

Sons of the Desert Window Card-360

I’m sorry I can’t travel back East that weekend, but the mere thought of this event makes me nostalgic, as I did attend the 2nd banquet forty-nine years ago; it was one of the greatest nights of my life. I still have some snapshots,  overflashed with my parents’ Brownie camera, but they do provide some memories of having met Stan Laurel’s widow Ida, Hal Roach’s business manager Ben Shipman, and other people who had a profound influence on me.

One of the turning points of my young life was the publication of John McCabe’s loving biography Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy in 1961. Having grown up watching Laurel and Hardy on TV every day, I was eager to learn about my favorite comedy team and I devoured the book. In fact, every time I returned it to my local library I waited a day and checked it out again. I ultimately wrote a letter to its author in care of New York University, where he taught drama classes, and he was kind enough to respond. He also put me in touch with the artist who drew the exceptional caricatures of Stan and Ollie that appeared on the end papers. That began a close friendship with the brilliant cartoonist Al Kilgore.

Len Maltin and Ida Laurel-2

That skinny kid with the horn-rimmed glasses is me, with Stan Laurel’s widow Ida

John, Al, and other friends decided to launch an organization to celebrate L&H and took their cue from the comedy team’s 1933 movieSons of the Desert, a hilarious look at a fraternal society. Kilgore designed a magnificent escutcheon patterned after the British royal crest and the scholarly McCabe translated into Latin a slogan suggested by Stan Laurel himself: “Two minds without a single thought,” or “Duae tabulae rasae in quibus nihil scriptum est” (literally: “Two blank slates on which nothing has been written”).

Sons of the Desert Crest-Al Kilgore

Al Kilgore designed this magnificent crest, which the scholarly John McCabe preferred to call an “escutcheon.”

Prof. McCabe let me down gently in explaining that, as a minor, I couldn’t be an official member of the Sons, but he did grant me permission to start my own chapter, or “tent,” in my home town. Each branch was named after a Laurel and Hardy film, and thus was born the Tit for Tat Tent of Teaneck, New Jersey. I did get permission to attend the annual banquet with my best friend Louis Black at the historic Lambs Club in Manhattan, and boy, did we have a blast. There was a distinct show-business flavor to the evening, as Orson Bean, Chuck McCann, and Soupy Sales were among the L&H fans who entertained. I had many other memorable experiences in the years to follow, but that first night remains magical in my memory.

If you’re in the New York area and you haven’t participated in the Sons of late, I encourage you to take this opportunity to gather, enjoy yourselves, and watch Laurel & Hardy films—still faithfully projected on 16mm film.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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