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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Destination Guide: The Laurel and Hardy Museum, Harlem, GA

“Well, That's Another Nice Mess...”

My wife and I frequently travel with another couple, our longtime best friends. The outings are always enjoyable, whether they be week-long vacations or weekend getaways.

In the past, I once mistakenly accused my buddy of overplanning. I have since come to the realization that he doesn't really overplan; he just likes to make sure that everybody gets the most out of their investment of time and money. Be that as it may, my comment that he behaves like a general planning a military campaign has come back to haunt me on many occasions.

And so it elicited a great deal of shock and awe when, on a recent trip to Atlanta, my friend unexpectedly veered off the all-too-familiar route along I-20. After getting off at exit 183, the GA-47 E/US-221 S/Appling Harlem Rd/Ray Owens Rd exit, I had to ask; “What are you doing?” In reply, he simply pointed to a small brown informational sign that read, “Laurel and Hardy Museum.”

It's safe to say that I have probably whizzed past that sign at 70 mph a hundred times over the years and had never paid it much attention, other than to perhaps idly wonder why there would be a Laurel and Hardy museum in The Middle of Nowhere, Georgia. Thanks to my suddenly spontaneous friend, I was about to find out.

The sad fact is, nobody pays much attention to Laurel and Hardy anymore. Once the undisputed kings of comedy, they have become largely unknown to anybody born much past, say, 1980. Oh, there are buffs out there, to be sure, and revivals and retrospectives pop up regularly. Through their flawless slapstick routines and impeccable comedic timing, the duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy influenced generations of comics that followed their heyday from silent movies through the early days of the “talkies” and well into Hollywood's “Golden Age.” But mention “Laurel and Hardy” to the average kid raised on “Spongebob Squarepants,” and all you'll get is a blank stare.

Of course, as one born considerably before 1980, I am quite familiar with the iconic images of the befuddled, lanky Laurel and the pompous, rotund Hardy and of their hilarious misadventures that often culminated in Hardy's famous catchphrase, “Well, that's another nice mess you've gotten me into.” (The phrase is frequently misquoted as, “Well, here's another fine mess.....”, but the line was never actually delivered that way by either character.) And even though I was certainly well aware of Laurel and Hardy, I was totally unaware that Oliver Hardy was born as Norvell Hardy in Harlem, Georgia in 1892.

I learned that and much, much more at the “Laurel and Hardy Museum” located on Louisville Street in Hardy's old hometown.

Officially opened in July, 2002, the facility has the distinction of being the first of its kind – the first museum in the United States dedicated to Laurel and Hardy. (Although there is a similar museum in Laurel's hometown of Ulverston, England.)

To say that Harlem is a quiet little town would be like saying that there are a few places to gamble in Las Vegas. And the museum itself is equally unprepossessing. It's kind of a small building on the right – the town's old Post Office – that's easy to pass by if you're not looking for it. But we found it on a quiet Saturday morning, just as they were opening the doors.

First impressive fact: admission is free, although donations are gratefully accepted. Once inside, we were treated to an equally impressive display of Laurel and Hardy memorabilia. Museum staff and volunteers have been busily acquiring incredible mementos of their town's famous favorite son and his partner.

We were the only patrons at the time and, as such, received the full attention of the friendly and enthusiastic volunteer host on duty that morning. Our greeter filled us in on all the details about the museum itself and told us all about the town's annual Laurel and Hardy Festival, held in October and attended by tens of thousands of fans. (Around 32,000 showed up in 2006.)

It was recommended that we spend some time in “Babe's Bijou,” a small viewing room where DVD copies of Laurel and Hardy films are screened for interested folks. We were interested and we were not disappointed. The films brought back wonderful memories. Eighty or ninety years old and they were still fabulously funny in a way that is long lost to modern comedy audiences. I probably could have sat through every movie in their collection.

The walls of “Babe's Bijou” are covered in movie posters, many of them donated by fans and friends when the call went out before the museum's opening. (“Babe,” by the way, was an early nickname attached to Hardy. In an early silent, you can see Laurel mouthing the word “Babe” when calling out to his partner.) Several of the artifacts on display come from the museum's doppelgänger in England. Many others, including photos, books, toys, and even a suit worn by an Oliver look-alike, have been provided by supporters from all over the country and all around the world.

And, of course, there is a gift shop. (Wouldn't be a real museum without one!) We do shotglasses and magnets, and so we bought one of each, but there are lots of neat souvenirs available for purchase at reasonable prices.

As I said, it's a small place and we did it all in a couple of hours. But it was well worth the little jaunt off I-20 to get there. Do as we did and exit at number 183, then follow the signs into town. (It's about five miles.) You'll know you're in the right place when you see the banners along the streets. And Ollie's face on the water tower is a dead giveaway, too. The museum is located at 250 N. Louisville Street and is open 9 to 5 Monday through Friday (closed for lunch from noon til 1), 10 to 4 on Saturday, and from 1 to 4 on Sunday. They have a somewhat underdeveloped presence on the Web at www.laurelandhardymuseum.org, so it's probably best to call (706) 556-0401 to find out more.

(Cue the exit music, “The Dance of the Cuckoos,” and fade to black.)

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