auspicious night at the Mei Hua Chinese restaurant in Olivette. The
"Babes in Toyland" tent of the International Sons of the Desert -
the fraternal order of men and women who love movie comedians Stan
Laurel and Oliver Hardy well enough to belong to a fraternal order -
For its December meeting, the group is showing the film for which
it named the chapter, Babes in Toyland. A quorum is forming
around the buffet line. Statuettes of "The Boys" make centerpieces
on the tables. The stars in the heavens are aligned.
Masons, Elks, Odd Fellows: Most fraternal orders have some
special arcane mystery, a holy of holies, known only to the
initiated, and I have come here to learn the Sons'. Over the hubbub
and general boisterousness, the tent's Grand Sheik, Phil Steinberg,
says there's still time before the meeting begins for me to grill
some of the members. He calls over Joe Delmore, who grew up watching
Laurel and Hardy two-reelers in New York. Delmore, younger, taller
and gregarious, is only too happy to help me plumb the secrets.
"The grand sheik," he begins, "does nothing and has no authority
"And it says so right in the constitution," Steinberg agrees.
"Come to think of it, since I became grand sheik, I have done
So far so good. The constitution they're speaking of, by the way,
was partly the work of Stan Laurel himself. In 1965, just before he
died, a handful of New York fans made a pilgrimage to tell him they
were going to form a lodge like the one Stan and Ollie belonged to
onscreen. The aged comedian resisted until they assured him it would
operate in the spirit of Laurel and Hardy themselves, at which point
he offered to share the arcane, mysterious wisdom he had personally
gleaned over a long life.
Strive, he urged them, for "a half-assed dignity." They have been
doing so ever since.
Everyone here has a story. Bill Furman, a big man with a Golden
Age of Radio baritone, decided about 1979 to buy one Laurel and
Hardy film -- "just one" -- but found it so funny he decided to buy
three more, just three, and "of course, it just got out of control
from that point on," he says.
David Hoehler, with slicked-back hair and a soft-spoken manner,
found the "Babes in Toyland" tent on the Internet six months ago and
has been driving here one Wednesday night a month ever since. For a
man of 38, he looks kind of tired for 7 p.m. and no wonder. His home
is in Jefferson City.
Carol Tiernan was snagged by a newspaper clipping, a few inches
about a cream-pie fight the Sons staged outside the Tivoli Threatre.
"I thought that sounded like the kind of people I should hang out
with," although she still hasn't been able to persuade them to do it
again, she says. Her favorite film is Towed in a Hole.
"No," she snaps. "No, don't write that down. I take it back."
It's The Chimp. The Chimp is one of the funniest
movies ever made.
"But to be serious," Delmore breaks in - and he's the only person
to take this particular tack with me tonight - the Sons aren't
eccentrics or oddballs, just busy professionals who have become
friends over 20-some years of watching Laurel and Hardy films
together. Delmore is a programmer; Steinberg is in wholesale;
Furman, known here as the Keeper of the Celluloid, was known to the
Food and Drug Administration as a chemist.
"A lot of this is blowing off steam," Delmore explains. "We have
jobs and stresses. And so we take two, three hours to cut loose like
We nod at one another to let this sink in, as a woman in a
Valkyrie helmet and golden braids strolls by. Then Delmore turns
casually to Steinberg and asks, "Did you tell him about the
It is a rare quiet moment when the owner of the Mei Hua
restaurant, a cheerful man named Jia-Kuang Shi, tells me he's been
observing the Sons here for many, many months now. (He was once a
sports reporter in Shanghai.) Although he doesn't stop to watch the
films himself, he does make a habit of listening from the other
room. So what has he heard?
"You hear a lot of 'ha-ha' - a lot of laughter," he says. "When
it's done, they are a unit."
He presses his fingers together significantly into what looks
like an isosceles triangle. "A unit," he says. "I like that."
I let this sink in, too.
The time has come for the orange beef, black pepper chicken and
discarded fortunes to be cleared away. The five monthly toasts are
read and the monthly jibes traded. Trudy Wellen, of the Valkyrie
helmet, sings an ode to the Boys' co-star Mae Busch.
"It isn't over until the fat lady sings," someone ventures.
"Then it isn't over yet," she swats back.
Steinberg introduces the visiting journalist to the room, as a
spontaneous shout goes up: "Don't tell the truth!" All the jollity
would sound a bit forced if it didn't meet with so little
resistance. As it is, the mood floats upward on its current like a
hundred toy balloons.
But we're here for a movie, and when Furman turns down the lights
and switches on the projector - the rat-a-tat-tat of a hundred
forgotten films in elementary school - the talking dies and the men
and women simply watch. The regulars in their chairs. The kitchen
staff in long white aprons, standing sheepishly in the back alcove.
People from the other dining room who have poked in their heads,
wondering what off-kilter world they've happened upon.
Onscreen, Mother Goose has opened a storybook and begun to sing
Victor Herbert's sad, strange Toyland. There are people in
this room who must have seen her do this a dozen times before, yet
with ceremonial solemnity they sing along:
Toyland, Toyland, little girl
and boy land
While you dwell within
it you are ever happy
Childhood's joyland, mystic
Once you pass its
borders you can ne'er return again
Then Laurel and Hardy appear and, as if the Sons know something
Victor Herbert did not, the laughter erupts anew.