This year marks the 70th anniversary of Laurel and Hardy’s iconic visit to Birmingham Hippodrome. In our latest Hidden Hippodrome blog, Heritage Volunteer Ivan Heard unearths a fascinating discovery about an early theatrical appearance by not one, but two entertainment legends; Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin.
Since I joined the Hippodrome Heritage Project as a Volunteer two and a half years ago, I have been amazed at the colourful history we have discovered. However, my biggest surprise was when I unearthed the remarkable fact that in 1910, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel appeared together on our stage for one week.
It is 70 years ago this year that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy came to the Hippodrome as the world’s most popular comedy duo but we had no idea that Stan had been here before. In his early career as a music hall artiste, he was known under his birth name of Stanley Jefferson and had appeared in 1908 at the Empire Theatre on Smallbrook Street- the Hippodrome’s main competitor as a Variety theatre.
In 1909, Stan was taken on as part of the Fred Karno Company of Comedians, who performed slapstick comedy sketches and appeared at the Hippodrome many times pre-1914. He joined the company in Liverpool at the time when Charlie Chaplin was lead comedian in the Company’s most famous sketch, “Mumming Birds”.
The following week, Charlie led in a new sketch called ” Skating”, based on the current craze of roller skating and Stanley Jefferson was part of the supporting cast. It was in this sketch that the two of them appeared at the Hippodrome in the week of 21 February, 1910. It was this finding that surprised me, because we had not realised it before and it had come to light courtesy of a wonderful book called ” Laurel and Hardy- the British Tours” by A.J. Marriot. So, another strand of Hippodrome history has been made.
There has sometimes been an unproved suggestion that Charlie Chaplin did not appear that week at the Hippodrome. However, John McCabe in his biography of Chaplin puts this doubt aside. The manager of Karno’s company in America had heard of Chaplin’s talent and ” after going to Birmingham to see the new Karno star in ‘Skating'” booked him for a new American tour. So, Charlie Chaplin did appear that week at the Hippodrome, alongside Stan Laurel!
In 1917, Stan went to America to make silent films and it was now that he changed his name to Stan Laurel. In 1927, having worked together in various short films, Stan teamed up with Oliver Hardy in the famous character parts that we all remember them for and the classic comedy duo was created.
In 1932, Laurel and Hardy’s film company sent them to Britain on an extensive tour of public appearances- not performing as such but with some comic patter and ” business”. On Friday, 5 August, the pair arrived at New Street Station to a rapturous crowd of ten thousand fans and, after an afternoon reception at the Council House, they appeared at the Gaumont Cinema in Steelhouse Lane, again to great acclaim. A later visit to the West End Ballroom in Suffolk Street had to be cancelled because of the throngs of fans and Laurel and Hardy returned to their rooms in the Queens Hotel adjoining New Street Station.
It was not until 1947 that the pair were next seen in Britain. By this time, their film career was over and their popularity in America had waned.It was impresario Bernard Delfont who arranged a long tour here of Moss Empires theatres. Their continuing popularity in this country and the Hippodrome’s posters offering the chance to see ” Hollywood’s greatest comedy couple in person” guarunteed full houses all week after the comedians’ Variety show opened at 6.15 on Monday, 3 March.
The crowds turned out, despite it being in the cold and snowy winter of 1947. According to reports, Laurel and Hardy had arrived in Birmingham after one of the heaviest snowfalls of the winter, with strong winds adding to the chill factor. Buses and trams were disrupted and in Hurst Street people queued outside the Hippodrome with snow piled several feet high.One of the support acts, an Australian acrobat named Olga Varona, praised “the wonderful British people in their spirits and love of the theatre”.
Laurel and Hardy did a twenty minute act centred around a sketch called “The Driver’s Licence”. As the Hippodrome orchestra struck up the “Cuckoo Song”, they made their entrance to tumultuous applause. At the end of the sketch, Oliver Hardy addressed the audience, hoping they had enjoyed “our bit of nonsense”. He then sang ” Shine On Harvest Moon” in a warm tenor voice, while Stan did a soft-shoe shuffle and then sang ” I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch”, to which Hardy did a little dance. The pair then wished the audience ” God Bless” and slowly walked off our stage.
The local Press praised the pair’s simplicity and good nature and their “consummate artistry” The Birmingham Mail wrote that ” the act is perfectly rehearsed and perfectly timed”. The Hippodrome audience had loved them and showed them great affection.
By the time of their second visit here in 1952, Laurel and Hardy’s film career had been over for some time and they were out of work. Bernard Delfont arranged another gruelling tour of British theatres and this had an effect on the comedy duo’s already failing health. The crowds were there to greet them but not in such number as in 1947.
They arrived for another week at the Hippodrome on Monday, 5 May and, although the audience received them again with affection and laughter, the local Press thought the sketch they performed- ” A Spot of Trouble”- was “woefully thin but what of it? The old, odd antics are still there”. The man from the Birmingham Mail was more scathing in his criticism, referring to “a lack of gags”. He did concede that “most people will be satisfied to know that Oliver’s size is really as massive as it appears on the screen (he was now up to twenty-two stones) and that Stanley does scratch his own head”.
A third and final tour began in 1953, arriving at the Hippodrome for the week of 30 November. The Mail now said that “the pair were finding the years jading. They showed all the old quirks in a moderate brief farce called “Birds of a Feather” but that was all”. However, theatre Manager Bertie Adams, in his weekly report back to Moss Empires HQ, wrote that Laurel and Hardy had received “a very excellent reception. These comedians are presenting a very excellent show and the comedy they get out of the sketch causes roars of laughter”. Their very last appearance on our stage was at the second house on Saturday, 5 December, 1953.
However, they did make an appearance in the week of 10 May, 1954 at the Aston Hippodrome off Newtown Row. During their stay there, they famously made several refreshment visits to the “Barton’s Arms” pub opposite the theatre!. That date was not bad for “a number two circuit” Variety theatre. By now Laurel and Hardy were tired and in poor health; they cancelled the final few dates of the tour and returned to America.
The pair were brilliant at what they did best-clever, perfectly-timed slapstick comedy. They portrayed endearing characters that audiences the world over warmed to and performed with the minimum of words and an abundance of very funny comic ” business”. Proof of their enduring popularity is seen in public demand for some of their films to be shown again from September on Talking Pictures TV-channel 81HD.
Their three visits to the Birmingham Hippodrome are etched into our heritage and it is appropriate that they are featured prominently in our heritage literature. Now we know the full story and I can only conclude by recommending the book by AJ Marriet on Laurel and Hardy’s British tours, which has inspired this article.
Ivan Heard (Hippodrome Heritage Volunteer)