Stan Laurel - the Hollywood star with firm Sunderland ties
Comedian Stan Laurel remains one of the most instantly recognisable screen actors of all time. Despite having passed away 1965, along with his comedy partner Oliver Hardy he is still about as famous as it’s possible to be.
The North East of England was significant in his life, with Sunderland looming particularly large both personally and professionally.
Stan was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, then in Lancashire but now part of Cumbria, on June 16, 1890. His parents were Margaret and Arthur Jefferson. Arthur was himself an actor, writer and theatre manager at venues around the North East.
Early days as a performer on Wearside
The stage was in Stan’s blood and by the age of 16 he was touring with a travelling theatre. This included performances in Sunderland, which he would look back on fondly, although he would not play the prestigious Empire Theatre until he was an established film star.
It was when he joined the renowned Fred Karno troupe that his career would really begin to ascend. In 1910 Karno, a music hall impresario, took his company to America. One of the team, Charlie Chaplin, who was a year older than Stan, would soon be making legendary silent comedy films.
Stan would take a few years to follow suit and his real fame would not be unleashed until he teamed up with Oliver Hardy in 1927. The rest is well documented and there can hardly be an adult in the West who doesn’t know who Laurel and Hardy were.
Laurel, Hardy and Benny Barron; landlord of the Boar’s Head in High Street East
By the early 1950s their pulling power in cinemas had dwindled. But they still had a devoted following and set off touring Europe with their live theatre show, the background of the 2018 film Stan & Ollie. This included shows at the Sunderland Empire in March 1952 and February 1954.
The poster for the 1954 stint is entertaining in itself. Below the headliners were Derek Rosaire and his Wonder Horse Tony, Paul Arland and his Magic Fish, Harry Worth and dance team Jill, Jill and Jill.
It was during the 1954 run that Stan went to see one of his oldest friends, Sunderland born Benny Barron.
Stan and Benny had first met in 1907 when they appeared onstage together in a touring production of Sleeping Beauty. This included a week at the King’s Theatre in Sunderland – bombed by the Germans in 1943 and later the site of Crowtree Leisure Centre.
Stan as well as Ollie caught up with Benny and the Sunderland Echo was on hand to capture the moment. It is also known that Laurel & Hardy popped into the Dun Cow beside the Empire at some point.
Stan reminisced to the Echo of his early days with Benny: “They were grand times. The money wasn't much, but we were happy all the same.
“I remember playing in Sunderland years ago. Times have changed a lot since then though, but there’s one thing that remains the same – Northern audiences. They’re wonderful.”
While Stan was climbing to the peak of show business, Benny left the boards and became a publican. He was the licensee of the Boar’s Head in High Street East. Stan may well have dropped in there too, but no one knows for sure.
Benny and Stan kept in touch until Benny’s death in 1957. Benny’s granddaughter Pat Cooke still lives in Chester-le-Street and owns several signed pictures of the comedian.
Stan’s sister Olga lived in Roker
Another Stan Laurel-Wearside connection is that his sister lived in Roker during her final years.
Beatrice Olga Healey née Jefferson was four years younger than her megastar brother. She had run a pub in Nottinghamshire with her husband Bill, and a photograph was taken of her with Stan and Ollie there in 1947.
Little is known of her time in Sunderland, which seems remarkable given her brother’s global fame and that it was relatively recent. We do know that she died in her Hartington Street home on March 20, 1976 and is buried in Lincolnshire.
Incidentally, Hartington Street is next up from Brandling Street, where the author James Herriot was born in 1916. Historically it’s a very stellar neighbourhood indeed.
Olga’s estate was valued at £6,750. This might seem modest for the sister of a Hollywood legend, but when Stan died in 1965 he was not especially wealthy. Unlike the super-rich Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were quite hopeless businessmen. Stan’s five marriages can’t have swelled the coffers either.
Stan never visited Hartington Street, although he and Olga were always close. Fear of flying kept Olga away from Stan’s Hollywood funeral.
Beau Chumps – Laurel and Hardy appreciation society in Ashbrooke
Another Sunderland connection to the great comedy duo still exists today in the form of the Beau Chumps “tent” – the Sunderland chapter of the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society, the Sons of the Desert.
Sons of the Desert is the name of a 1933 film the pair made and one of their best. Each local chapter of the society is known as a “tent” named after a Laurel and Hardy film. Each tent has an “Oasis” number.
Benny Barron's granddaughter Pat is an honorary member of the Beau Chumps tent.
They meet on the second Wednesday of every month at 7.30pm at the Ashbrooke Sports Club, West Lawn, Ashbrooke and show films, have quizzes, raffles, discuss Stan and Ollie, “eat pie and peas and above all, have a good laugh”.
Membership and entry is free and all are welcome. For more details visit www.beauchumps.wordpress.com.
:: Our thanks to Mike Jones, Grand Sheik of the Beau Chumps Tent of Sunderland.