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Johnny Vardeman: Young Harris has another alumni star in Oliver Hardy
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

“Stan and Ollie,” the movie about comedians Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel opened in the United States Friday although it apparently isn’t scheduled for area screens immediately.

It is of interest to North Georgians not only because of the popularity of the comedians, but North Georgia has a legitimate claim on one of them – Oliver Hardy.

He and his family had connections to Madison, Morgan County, Atlanta, Athens and Young Harris. Hardy was born in 1892 in Harlem, Ga., which is between Thomson and Augusta, which you might not think of as North Georgia, but it’s just east of Atlanta, and Atlanta is considered North Georgia. 

If you are Laurel and Hardy fans, there’s a free museum in Harlem with plenty of the comedians’ memorabilia and films. The historical marker there tells a brief story of Hardy’s North Georgia connections:

“Harlem became the birthplace of the rotund member of one of Hollywood’s greatest comedy teams when Oliver Hardy was born January 18, 1892. After his father died and was buried in the Harlem Cemetery the year of Oliver’s birth, Mrs. Hardy took the family to Milledgeville where she became the manager of the Baldwin Hotel. Young Oliver was enthralled by the visiting troupes of performers who stayed there. Later, as manager of the town’s first movie theater, Hardy performed regularly.

“After attending Georgia Military Academy, the Atlanta Conservatory of Music, and for a short time, the University of Georgia, Hardy left Georgia in 1913 for the newly established film colony in Jacksonville, Fla. After working at various studios, he left for Hollywood in 1918. ‘Babe,’ as Hardy became known to friends, worked for several years as a supporting actor until he was accidentally teamed with a young Englishman, Stan Laurel. Laurel and Hardy remained partners and friends until Hardy’s death in Hollywood in 1957.”

The marker doesn’t mention that he attended what is now Young Harris College, which can lay claim to other celebrities, among them former Georgia Gov. and U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, who also taught there, Ronnie Milsap and Tricia Yearwood, both famous country singers. Yearwood’s husband is Garth Brooks, also a popular country musician.

Hardy apparently was only about 13 years old when he attended Young Harris, which was just getting its feet on the ground to educate the youth of Appalachia. Jean Rogers Peeples of Gainesville remembers her grandmother, Cora Butt Wellborn, talking about attending Young Harris with Hardy. Mrs. Wellborn was in class with him and told about how nice he was and what a good singing voice he had. She graduated in 1907.

An article in the Atlanta Constitution in 1933 told a story about Hardy and one of his classmates at Young Harris. A photo taken at Young Harris in 1906 shows him with a group of his friends, including Ben Hawkins. Hawkins said he left Young Harris for Atlanta with Hardy and loaned him $3.50, which he said he would pay back the next day. That didn’t happen, and in the following years, Hardy rose to fame as a comedian and movie actor. Twenty-seven years after the two parted, Hawkins decided to remind Hardy of the loan, which he figured would then amount to $20.18, including interest.

Hardy responded, but with a check for only $3.50. Hawkins also sent him a walking cane made for Hardy while they were at Young Harris.

The movie, “Stan and Ollie,” is about the final years the two comedians were together. It’s a fictional account of a 1950s tour of the United Kingdom. They had long ago reached their peak as a team and even their friendship wasn’t what it used to be. 

Reviewers point to the actors’ (Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly) skill at recreating Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick comedy. The film has received several favorable reviews, and it and its actors already have been nominated for numerous awards.

* * *

The home where Oliver Hardy was born in Harlem still stands, but as “Ollie’s Laundry,” an automatic laundry.

Oliver is usually referred to as “the rotund one,” to distinguish him from his much leaner partner, Stan Laurel. It is said that Hardy began to become overweight as a teenager, already weighing 250 pounds at age 15. 

Though Oliver Hardy Sr. is buried in Harlem, his famous son, Oliver Jr., had his ashes interred in a North Hollywood, Calif., cemetery when he died Aug. 7, 1957.

More local history coming in this column next week.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. E-mail

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