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Sons of the Desert at 50

nullThe 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-360I’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

John, Al, and other friends decided to launch an
organization to celebrate L&H and took their cue from the comedy team’s
1933 movie Sons 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

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.

11 comments

  1. Jon Mirsalis says:

    I got my start in film collecting due to the Cleveland BIG BUSINESS tent. They were hosting a series of summer movies and I went to see KING KONG. When I learned that the 16mm print was owned by a 15 year-old kid (Rick Greene), I said, "I can own that too!" That started me on the addictive path to film collecting.

  2. Ali Stevenson says:

    Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy drastically changed my life. I had no idea, when I first read it in 1980, that I would eventually meet so many wondeful people, travel to the U.S. and Europe, edit the ITJ, marry Dave, and move to the United States. I made sure Jack McCabe was aware of all this!
    My mother found the book in a secondhand shop. It was £1 well spent.

  3. mike schlesinger says:

    Scary, oh-crap-we’re-all-getting-old thought: It’s been 50 years since the tent was founded…a mere 38 years after the boys became an official team!

  4. Lou Sabini says:

    Leonard, I was there that night and got to meet Ida Laurel as well. William K. Everson announced that evening that he was currently writing a book called "The Films of Laurel and Hardy." I remember seeing you with your Tit for Tat Tent. Such a wonderful evening. Thanks for bringing back those great memories…

  5. frank allen says:

    As a Laurel and Hardy fan from the UK thanks for that Leonard

  6. Craig Calman says:

    Wonderful anniversary. Sure hope you mention my book about Hal Roach who started Laurel & Hardy on their journey together. Newly updated and with an Index. "100 Years of Brodies With Hal Roach" (BearManor Media)

  7. George P Mazzey Sr says:

    Just great times with The Sons of The Desert.

  8. R. L. StIne says:

    Wonderful piece, Leonard

  9. Marc Baron says:

    And the 50th Anniversary of Sons of the Desert is being held at the original and only Lambs club – where the tent originated. The Lambs has resided on 51st Street for more than 39 years. We’re congratulate the SOD on its 50th

  10. JEFFREY ROBERTS says:

    John McCabe was the first author I ever wrote to and the first to reply to me with several notes of encouragement. He seemed to instinctively understand my love of Stan and Babe and how important they were to me young life. Like Kevin, I was too young then to join the Sons but Dr. McCabe said that I was "certainly welcome to join in spirit." Though I never got to meet him, I did renew our correspondence many years later and was able to thank him for that early encouragement. I will certainly do my best to attend the 50th anniversary next month…

  11. Kevin House says:

    I also remember reading "Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy" as a youngster and loving it as you did. Several years later on a trip to Mackinac Island, Michigan, I attended a lecture on Othello given by John McCabe at The Grand Hotel just so I could meet him.

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