A brief history of Sons of the Desert (a/k/a The International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society)

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The following article is part of this blog’s self-proclaimed Laurel & Hardy Month. If you’re not sure what the heck we’re talking about, click on the above image to find out!

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Sons of the Desert is a worldwide group also known as “The International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society.” It is named after Laurel & Hardy’s 1933 feature film of the same name, in which “The Boys” lie to their wives in order to attend their lodge’s annual convention in Chicago.

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Origins. A Michigan professor named John McCabe (shown above) first met Stan and “Babe” (the off-screen nickname for Oliver Hardy) when they were on tour in British music halls in the 1950’s. From there, McCabe began a friendship with Stan Laurel that lasted until Laurel’s death in 1965. McCabe also wrote a biography in 1961, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, that was seminal in the “renaissance” of Laurel & Hardy’s film work.

Shortly before Stan’s death, McCabe proposed to Laurel the creation of a small group of Laurel & Hardy “buffs.” (Until his own death in 2005, McCabe was persistent in distinguishing Laurel & Hardy enthusiasts as “buffs,” as opposed to being a “fan,” which word McCabe felt was short for “fanatic.”)

Laurel was delighted with the idea of the Society, and McCabe — with the help of actor Orson Bean (later of TV’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”), kid-show host and Ollie impersonator Chuck McCann, and L&H buff John Municino — formed Sons of the Desert. From a group of about a dozen members who met in a New York lounge in 1965, the Society has grown to hundreds of local chapters located in the U.S. and fourteen other countries.

Tents. Each of the Society’s regional chapters is known as a “Tent” and is named after a Laurel & Hardy film. (The only exception to the film-title rule is a South Florida Tent known as “Boobs in the Woods,” named by Laurel himself as a description of his and Babe’s screen characters.)

The manner of Tent meetings and presentations vary from Tent to Tent, though most Tents try to have meetings at least once a month. Many people have found life-long friends and spouses via their association with the Sons. Most notably, it was through Sons of the Desert that the widowed John McCabe met Rosina Lawrence (L&H’s co-star in Way Out West), to whom he was married from 1987 until her death ten years later.

In 1978, the Sons began holding biennial international conventions, where L&H buffs gather from around the world to share movie screenings, trivia contests, and their love of Stan and Ollie.

Constitution. Following is the Sons of the Desert’s “official” constitution, written by John McCabe and approved by Stan Laurel, who added two minor details to it (as noted within).

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Article I

The Sons of the Desert is an organization with scholarly overtones and heavily social undertones devoted to the loving study of the persons and films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Article II

The founding members are Orson Bean, Al Kilgore, John McCabe, Chuck McCann, and John Municino.

Article III

The Sons of the Desert shall have the following officers and board members who will be elected at an annual meeting:

* Grand Sheik

* Vice-Sheik (Sheik in charge of vice)

* Sub-Vice-Vizier (Sheik-Treasurer, and in charge of sub-vice)

* Grand Vizier (Corresponding Secretary)

* Board Members-at-Large (This number should not exceed 812)

Article IV

All officers and Board Members-at-Large shall sit at an exalted place at the annual banquet table.

Article V

The officers and Board Members-at-Large shall have absolutely no authority whatever.

Article VI

Despite his absolute lack of authority, the Grand Sheik or his deputy shall act as chairman at all meetings, and will follow the standard parliamentary procedure in conducting same. At the meetings, it is hoped that the innate dignity, sensitivity, and good taste of the members assembled will permit activities to be conducted with a lively sense of deportment and good order.

Article VII

Article VI is ridiculous.

Article VIII

The Annual Meeting shall be conducted in the following sequence:

  1. Cocktails.
  2. Business meeting and cocktails.
  3. Dinner (with cocktails).
  4. After-dinner speeches and cocktails.
  5. Cocktails.
  6. Coffee and cocktails.
  7. Showing of Laurel & Hardy film.
  8. After-film critique and cocktails.
  9. After-after-film critique and cocktails.
  10. Stan has suggested this period. In his words: “All members are requested to park their camels and hire a taxi; then return for ‘One for the desert’!”

Article IX

Section “d” above shall consist in part of the following toasts:

* “To Stan”

* “To Babe”

* “To Fin”

* “To Mae Busch and Charley Hall — who are eternally ever-popular.”

Article X

Section “h” above shall include the reading of scholarly papers on Laurel and Hardy. Any member going over an 8-1/2 minute time limit will have his cocktails limited to fourteen.

Article XI

Hopefully, and seriously, The Sons of the Desert, in the strong desire to perpetuate the spirit and genius of Laurel and Hardy, will conduct activities ultimately and always devoted to the preservation of their films and the encouragement of their showing everywhere.

Article XII

There shall be member societies in other cities called “Tents,” each of which shall derive its name from one of the films.

Article XIII

Stan has suggested that members might wear a fez or blazer patch with an appropriate motto. He says: “I hope that the motto can be blue and gray, showing two derbies with these words superimposed: ‘Two minds without a single thought’.” These words have duly been set into the delightful escutcheon created for The Sons of the Desert by Al Kilgore. [The “escutcheon” is shown at the top of this post.] They have been rendered into Latin in the spirit of Stan’s dictum that our organization should have, to use his words, “a half-assed dignity” about it. We shall strive to maintain precisely that kind of dignity at all costs — at all times.

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Theme song. The Sons of the Desert group’s theme song is, again, taken from the film. It was written by the movie’s co-writer, Frank Terry, and is a pastiche of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.” Here it is as sung in the movie (starting at the 0:48 mark).

Lastly, on a personal note, for those who do not have a Tent in their area or who cannot attend live meetings, there are online Tents as well — including mine (which used to be live but whose meetings were discontinued due to low attendance). Feel free to visit my Tent on Facebook — Tent #263, Laurel & Hardy’s Leave ‘em Laughing Tent.

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For more information about Sons of the Desert or Laurel & Hardy in general, visit the Sons of the Desert website at www.sotd.org.

Sources:

Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind The Movies, by Randy Skretvedt (Moonstone Press, 1987).

Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward, by Scott MacGillivray (Vestal Press, 1998).