When Laurel and Hardy came to Norwich
14:49 10 February 2014
They were like a blast of warm sunshine during a grim February in Norwich of 60 years ago – a city still being re-built following the Second World War.
Life was tough, money was tight, but the best-loved comedy double act in the world were starring at the Norwich Hippodrome. Yes, it really was Laurel and Hardy – the legends of laughter.
It was said that when the curtains went back at the old theatre on St Giles many in the audience couldn’t actually believe their eyes. The pair they had loved watching at the cinema were actually in Norwich. In person.
This was February in 1954 and Laurel and Hardy had arrived from the USA to tour the country. They were not as wealthy as you could imagine and needed to make more money.
Time was not on their side. They were at the end of their extraordinary careers and it was hard work travelling up and down the country in the winter of 1954 but the reception they got wherever they went was overwhelming. The people still loved them,
The Norwich Hippodrome had been a favourite with Lancashire-born Stan Laurel, who had played the theatre during the early part of the last century with Fred Karno’s “Barmy Army” of wordless comedians.
At the time Stan was busy learning the trade, understudying another promising young clown by the name of Charlie Chaplin. It is reported that Charlie also appeared in Norwich.
Stan, like so many others, decided that America was the place for him and in 1926 he teamed up with a roly-poly actor by the name of Oliver Hardy. No less than 24 feature films, more than 70 shorts and two Oscars followed.
By the time their movie careers were coming to an end Bernard Delfont gave them the opportunity to tour the UK and Norwich was on the map.
It cost a record-breaking sum of more than £1,000 to bring Laurel and Hardy to the Hippodrome.
The Evening News and Eastern Daily Press of the time reported: “The decision to raise the price of all seats by 6d is understandable in the circumstances.”
And what did our man in the stalls think of the show?
“Their act was like one of their best two-reeler comedies shortened a little to suit the stage.
“The pair so resembled their film-selves that when the curtain went up the audience took a minute or two to realise they were seeing their childhood comedy favourites in the flesh,” said our reviewer.
When he spoke to the pair in their dressing room at the theatre he said: “They were perfect gentlemen with very good manners.”
Offstage, we reported, it was Stan who was the guv’nor, in direct contrast to their act.
It was Stan who was the business manager but, according to our man, it was necktie-twiddling Oliver, from Georgia, who had the more genial personality of the two.
“I recall him as a perfect gentleman, with very good manners, and an ability to talk in an engaging way on many subjects besides the stage,” we reported.
“I remember asking him how, with his enormous weight, he managed to have the nickname ‘Babe.’”
“In his delightful intonation and slow speech of the Deep South he explained that after he had a shave by an Italian barber at Jacksonville, Florida, when he was a young man, the barber patted his cheek and just, ‘Just like a baby’ – it stuck,” said our reporter at the time.
During their stay in Norwich the pair stayed in the Royal Hotel at the top of Prince of Wales Road and our photographer snapped them leaving the hotel for the Hippodrome. On the way they said to the driver. “The stage door please – not the front entrance. That’s reserved for ladies and gentleman.”
Within three years Oliver was dead and the 30-year-partnership was finally over. They will never be forgotten.
As for the Hippodrome. It was destroyed 50 years ago, in 1964, in an act of civic vandalism and the St Giles multi-storey car park now stands on the site.
• Were you lucky enough to see Laurel & Hardy at the Hippodrome? Perhaps you have other memories of the much-loved and lost-lost theatre where the likes of Morecambe and Wise, Max Miller and the Goons also played? If so, please get in touch at email@example.com or write to me at Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE.