As a lifelong fan of Laurel and Hardy, I thought it was about time I tried to find out a bit more about their visit to my home town. I've always know they came here, but no more detail than that. I've been researching and writing this for a few weeks, and much like the Odeon piece, it's grown into a bit of an animal! Apologies for the length of this post, but below is everything I have been able to find out about their time spent here, where they stayed and the places they went, all topped off with that great personalised story at the end.
The duo made their first UK theatre tour in July and August 1932, when they were at the height of their film career. Just three months earlier they had filmed and released 'The Music Box'... the one Laurel and Hardy film pretty much everyone remembers, no matter if they are a fan or not (a whole film devoted to the boys trying to deliver a piano up a ridiculously large flight of steps). By the time Stan and Ollie returned to these shores in 1947 they were in their twilight years. They were still making films... just, but they were by no means classics and the glory days were certainly way behind them. They spent pretty much the whole of 47 in the UK (Feb through to Nov), playing to packed houses up and down the country. This included a 6 week run at the London Palladium, which, incredibly was followed by another 4 weeks at the Coliseum in London!
Having made and released what was to be their final film - the unwatchable Atoll K (AKA Utopia) - the pair, now both in their sixties, returned once again in 1952. Again, the best part of a year was spent in the British Isles (Feb to Sept). Stan and Ida Laurel and Ollie and Lucille Hardy travelled by train from London to Southend Victoria Station on Sunday 3rd August, and on Monday 4th August they began a week long residency at the Odeon cinema in Southend.
Here is a picture of the duo backstage at the Odeon on the 4th August, presenting usherette Eileen Winfield with a 'Courtesy and Service' star!
There were two performances a day at the Odeon (6.30pm and 8.40pm), with an extra matinee (2.30pm) thrown in on the opening day and also on Saturday 9th. Tickets were 5', 3'6 and 2' (25p, 17½p and 10p!). It was very much a variety show, with 7 acts going on before the main event. They were, in order:
The Lonsdale Sisters ('modern' rhythmic dancers)
Lorraine (the singling cartoonist!!)
The Aerial Kenways (highwire\trapeze act)
Archie Elray & Co (ventriloquist act)
The Great Cingalee (silent man of mystery in wonders of the East!)
Jimmy Elliot (animal mimic)
MacKenzie Reid & Dorothy (Scottish accordionists)
So judging by that lot I'd imagine it was a blessed relief when the stars of the show finally appeared on stage!! For their slot, Laurel and Hardy performed a newly written sketch entitled 'A Spot of Trouble'. In the sketch, Stan and Ollie meet at a railway station. They have missed their train, so decide to 'bed down' for the night on a bench (under a sign stating 'no loitering'). A policeman arrives, and threatens to arrest them, unless they are prepared to carry out a staged robbery at the police chiefs house, to enable the policeman to get in his good books.... a predictably chaotic routine ensues!
Here's their entry in the programme:
Not taken in Southend (as far as I know), but here are some photos of Stan and Ollie performing 'A Spot of Trouble' in the UK in 1952:
As with every town they visited, the boys were mobbed everywhere they went, but they were more than happy to spend time with their fans. One girl wrote to Stan whilst they were in Southend to tell him that her surname was the same as his (Jefferson). She got a reply, and an invite to meet the duo! During their week in Southend, a rival theatre (The Regal in Tyler’s Avenue) were running a show featuring 'Burton Lester’s Midgets', and the stars of both theatres met up for a photograph:
Whilst performing in Southend, Laurel and Hardy stayed at the Palace Hotel, the most prestigious hotel in the area - in fact it was the only 5 star hotel on the South East coast at that time. It was a grand Edwardian building directly overlooking the Thames Estuary and Southend Pier, and inside the foyer was a very striking sweeping staircase leading to the upper rooms.
Here are Stan and Ollie standing on the balcony at the Palace Hotel (with what looks to be Southend pier directly behind them):
These two pictures were taken inside the Palace Hotel on Friday 8th August 1952, when a luncheon was laid on in their honour by the Essex Odeon cinema managers:
During the luncheon, Stan and Ollie were asked to present lapel badges to each of the managers:
Whilst staying at The Palace Hotel, Laurel and Hardy visited fortune teller Madame Renee in her booth just below the hotel on Pier Hill. Soon after a signed picture appeared on the wall of her booth which read "To Madame Renee, Many thanks for the excellent reading. Next time we will wash our hands". Stan also managed to meet up with a very old friend whilst stationed on Southend seafront. Stan had worked with Ted Desmond in the theatres before he went to America. It turned out that Ted was now running one of the amusement arcades!
Here's a little background on the place that Stan and Ollie called 'home' for that week in 1953.The Palace opened in 1904 on the site of the Pier Hill fun-fair, and was originally called the Metropole Hotel. Here it is shortly after opening in 1905 (photo taken from the pier):
Here's a couple of postcards featuring the hotel taken in the early 1900's:
During World War I the hotel temporarily became the Queen Mary Royal Naval Hospital. Here's a couple of pictures taken during that period (1914 - 1918):
The Palace was 'the' hotel during the 20's, 30, 40's and 50's, and was always the favourite choice for any visiting celebrities performing in the town. It still continued to be one of the most popular hotels in the area in the 60's and 70's, although it would appear that the quality of the place was in steady decline by this point. By the mid to late 80's it was being used as a Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) hostel.
Here it is in the late 1980's:
For most of the '2000s' its been empty, but around 2006/07 scaffolding went up (and has been up ever since!) and restoration work started. Here is the last picture I have of the Palace before the scaffolding took over (taken in 2006):
And here it is in 2007:
2008, and still no visible sign of any progress!!:
Despite working a 10 minute walk from it, I don't go down to the seafront that often. However I did wander down last week (for the purposes of this post) only to discover that much of scaffolding is now finally off! I took the photos below, and have to say it's looking very nice indeed... although I was disappointed to see that the words 'The Palace' have now been removed from the frontage.
The whole time the restoration has been going on, it has been unclear what the future holds for the building once complete. One story was that the University of Essex (the ones for whom the Odeon was finally knocked down) want it for halls of residence and a conference centre. another said the developer was 'going it alone' and will reopen it as a high class hotel. The new banner draped over the front of the building last week would seem to confirm the latter, with the news that the opening of the Park Inn Hotel, Restaurant and Conference Centre will be announced soon. A real shame to change the name though after almost 100 years.
Anyway, back to Andy's story (you thought I'd forgotten didn't you??!)... Andy and E.F Rice's grandfather, William Barton (aka Sam), was a professional musician and played double bass in a number of bands from the 40's right through to the 70's. He worked in the music halls, in orchestra's and in cabaret bands, as well as touring with the comedian Arthur Lucan's "Old Mother Reilly" show. In the early 1950's William Barton settled in Southend, as that was where a number of his wife's family had relocated to from London. He carried on as a part time musician, mainly in pubs and clubs around the seafront and at some time in the early fifties began working with keyboard player Sid Uren and drummer Harry Day. For the next twenty odd years they played together as the Sid Uren Trio. They stopped performing as a band in the seventies, but remained the best of friends until William Barton passed away in 1979. Harry remained in contact with the family, and even attended Mrs Barton's funeral in 2005. And it was at this funeral where Andy came to hear Harry's brilliant tale....
Harry Day and William Barton were regular musicians at the Palace Hotel in Southend, and were playing there whilst Laurel and Hardy were performing at the Odeon. After the performance one night, Stan Laurel was relaxing in the Palace Hotel bar listening to the band. Inevitably they got chatting, and during the course of the conversation, Harry Day happens to mention that he and his wife have just had a baby. Stan is genuinely thrilled, and incredibly says that he'd like to meet Harry's wife Rose to congratulate her, and toast the baby's health! Harry says OK, but wonders when they could possibly do it? "how about now" says the enthusiastic Mr Laurel! So without further ado the pair set off for Harry's home in Fairfax Drive, Wescliff. It's getting late by this time, and the sound of the key in the door followed by voices initially brings a luke-warm response from Rose.... "Harry, you brought someone home with you?" she warns.... "erm, yes" comes the rather sheepish reply... "it's Stan Laurel". Rose changed her tune pretty sharpish after that and offered them both a cup of tea, to which Harry replied "we're not here to drink tea". A full bottle of whisky was found and the three of them sat up until the early hours of the morning chatting and drinking! Around 4 or 5 in the morning, Stan said that he should be going and Harry drove Stan back to the Palace hotel (I don't suppose drink driving had been invented back then!!).
This story does odd things to my brain! In my mind there are Laurel and Hardy... and there is also the dowdy back streets of my home town - two completely separate things, and it shouldn't be possible to relate them! I drive to work every single day down Fairfax Drive, where one of my greatest heroes once drove too! Amazing! I must say that since learning of this story, I now think of Stan every morning as I drive to work!
Harry Day died in September 2006, and right up to the end he was still living in the same house in Fairfax Drive than Stan Laurel visited more that 50 years previously.
Laurel and Hardy are kept alive and well in the area thanks to the Southend branch of the official fan club - The Sons of the Desert. The Southend branch is called Saps at Sea. Amongst other things they hold regular meetings (showing films, memorabilia etc) on the 2nd Sunday of every month at the Naval & Military Club, Royal Terrace, between 5.30pm-8.30pm. I'm sure they will be delighted to see you, and will no doubt offer you a 'hardy' welcome... (sorry!). Also check out their website to find out how to become a member, and fine out even more about that legendary visit of the boys to Southend - Saps at Sea.