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|Postcards From Ocean Avenue: Stan Laurel's Final Years|
By Michael Aushenker
April 1, 2011 -- Long before Facebook…long before cell phones and even answering machines, there was a time when you could pick up the West Los Angeles phone book, find the number of comedy legend Stan Laurel, and reach him at his Santa Monica residence.
Yes, that Stan Laurel, as in Laurel & Hardy, two of the greatest comic actors in recorded history.
During their boom period in the 1920s and 30's, Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy, starred in such classic shorts as “Big Business,” “Sons of the Desert,” “County Hospital,” “Busy Body,” and the Oscar-winning “The Music Box,” arguably their most famous achievement, in which “The Laurel and Hardy Transfer Company” had to transport a piano up a monumentally lengthy flight of stairs and into a house’s second-floor window, complicating the simple task along the way.
However, Laurel and Hardy’s boom went bust as moviegoers’ tastes changed, television upstaged the movies, and Hardy, the heavy-set half of the bumbling, bowler-wearing duo, died at age 65 in 1957. It was soon after that Laurel moved into a Santa Monica apartment building with a sea view.
“Stan and his wife Ida lived at the Oceana from 1958 to his death in 1965 – Ida stayed there a couple more years – and their apartment number was 203,” said Jimmy Wiley, Jr., Grand Sheik of the Way Out West Tent, the Los Angeles chapter of Sons of the Desert, a Laurel and Hardy appreciation society.
Now a boutique luxury hotel, the Oceana on 849 Ocean Avenue still gets calls regarding its famous former tenant of Suite 203 and the first sentence on the hotel’s history at the Oceana website acknowledges that it was the screen legend’s former residence.
Wiley, president of his club for five years and a member since 1974, convenes the Sons monthly at the Mayflower Club in North Hollywood. Back in 1997, on the 30th anniversary of Way Out West, the group toured Laurel and Hardy locations around L.A. One stop was the Oceana.
“The guys at the hotel knew what room it was,” Wiley told Lookout News. “Four of us [split the room cost and] spent the whole night in 203,” inviting other members over to check out the room.
According to Wiley, Laurel’s daughter Lois, who is 84 today, “told us that from the kitchen, they could look out to the pool. When we got there, there were no windows in the kitchen.”
Of the Laurel and Hardy team, Stan Laurel was the British national (the American Hardy hailed from Georgia). He was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson, the son of a manager of a group of theaters, in Lancashire, England, on June 16, 1890.
Exhibiting an early inclination for entertainment, Laurel, at 16, joined Fred Karno's comedy company. Charlie Chaplin headlined the troupe, and Laurel served as his understudy.
While the comedy group didn't last, it did succeed in introducing Laurel to America, where he soon segued onto the silver screen with his first two-reel film, “Nuts in May,” in 1917.
Laurel’s professional partner and common law wife, Mae Dahlberg, suggested he assume the professional surname “Laurel.” The re-branding worked: Hal Roach Studios signed Laurel in 1926.
Due to an accident on the set of “A Lucky Dog” Laurel joined an overweight contract player before the camera. That actor was Hardy, and the chemistry they shared would cement them in the annals of cinema history.
The duo starred in 106 shorts and features together, two of which have been lost. Laurel and Hardy scholars have traveled as far as Russia to search for the missing pair of shorts, “The Rogue Song” and “Hats Off.” “Joe Stalin was a Laurel and Hardy fan,” explained Wiley, who added, “It could be in a can at the studio that’s mislabeled.”
Laurel split with Dahlberg and went through three failed marriages before finding Ida Kitaeva and marrying her in 1946.
Their popularity waning, Laurel and Hardy retired their act in 1950.
More setbacks followed: Hardy suffered a heart attack in 1954, and Laurel experienced a small stroke in 1955; Hardy also suffered a stroke, but this one was much more serious: he became paralyzed and bed-ridden for many months before his death on August 7, 1957.
In 1961, while living in Santa Monica, Laurel was honored with a special Academy Award for his comedy breakthroughs.
What many people remember about Laurel’s days on Ocean Avenue was how accessible he was to fans.
He responded to fan mail personally and by hand, and he hosted a steady stream of visitors at his humble apartment by the sea that included Jerry Lewis and Dick Cavett, and less-famous strangers who had reached him by phone.
“He was very gracious, he would sit and talk as long as they had questions,” said Wiley, who, just as hardcore fan Mark Evanier had recounted on his blog, as a youth could not muster up the nerve to dial that number.
As documented on the website LettersFromStan.com, Laurel reached out to fans via hundreds of postcards and letters. Over his six years in Santa Monica, Laurel, in his correspondence, commented on everything from “The Steve Allen Show” to Jackie Gleason and Chuck McCann.
Photos exist of Laurel in Malibu. Previous to Ocean Avenue, he lived at 25406 Malibu Road.
“He liked to watch TV at night,” Wiley said. “The reception in Malibu wasn’t as good as in Santa Monica.”
Despite a diversity of L.A. locales used in the shorts, hardly any were shot in Santa Monica. The exception may be 1928’s “Two Tars.”
“[In the short], they play sailors taking girls around and they rented a car and ended up in a traffic jam,” Wiley said. “We’ve kind of figured out that it’s near the Santa Monica Airport on Centinela.”
After Laurel died on Feb. 23, 1965, shortly after suffering a heart attack, it was longtime Malibu resident and Laurel’s frequent visitor (and impersonator) Dick Van Dyke who delivered the eulogy at Laurel’s funeral.
“Stan’s influence inspired me to go into show business in the first place, and his influence molded my point of view, my attitude about comedy,” Van Dyke said.
“I had never met the man, but four years ago when I came to California I meant to meet Stan Laurel by hook or crook, and I wangled for a year, any way I could, to get his phone number, his address—anything that could put me in touch with him.
“Do you know where I finally found it? In the phone book, in a West Los Angeles phone book: Stan Laurel, Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica. I picked up the phone and received an invitation to come up there and visit.”“Stan once remarked that Chaplin and Lloyd made all the big pictures, and he and Babe made all the little cheap ones. 'But they tell me our little cheap ones have been seen by more people through the years than all the big ones. They must have seen how much love we put into them.’”
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