Serious Hilarity
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 8, 2002. Photo by Nick Krug)

It's an 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 - is gathering.

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 whatsoever."

"And it says so right in the constitution," Steinberg agrees. "Come to think of it, since I became grand sheik, I have done less work."

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 this together."

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 international conventions?"

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 there
     Childhood's joyland, mystic merry Toyland
     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.

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