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Town keeps Laurel and Hardy's legacy alive

HARLEM - A blink-and-you'll-miss-it town in rural east Georgia is the last place you'd expect to find the country's only museum dedicated to the classic comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

But anyone driving along Interstate 20 near the South Carolina state line can't miss the big brown sign pointing to the museum in Harlem, a sleepy hamlet of 1,800 founded 140 years ago along the now-defunct Georgia Railroad line.

Hardy's mustachioed face is everywhere, from the water tower looming overhead to the sign welcoming visitors on the outskirts of town. Ollie's Laundry stands in place of the two-story house where the rotund comedian was born in 1892 just off the town's main drag.

Saturday, Harlem ballooned to more than 20 times its size when 40,000 people arrived for the annual Oliver Hardy Festival, created two decades ago to raise money for the community. When the festival began in 1988, just a handful of booths were set up in Harlem's small downtown. But now the event draws 350 vendors and turns away dozens of others because there just isn't room.

The festival - with its Laurel and Hardy look-alike contests, hourlong parade and rows of country fair-style tents - brings in about $20,000 annually. Most of that goes back to help the museum operate, said city councilwoman Robin Root.

The event headquarters is the two-room museum housed in the town's old post office, which opened in 2002. The museum has quickly outgrown its small space, packed to the brim with hundreds of dolls, comic books, socks and posters donated by fans worldwide.

On one wall hangs a framed menu donated by a fan who had it signed by Laurel and Hardy during a 1942 train trip. On another is a collection of Laurel and Hardy movie posters in several languages.

The museum even has two hats worn by Laurel and Hardy in movies - a pith helmet from 1935's 'Bonnie Scotland' and a fez from 1933's 'Sons of the Desert.'

The silent film actors were paired up in 1927, beginning a career that spanned three decades. They are still considered one of the greatest comedy teams in film history and were one of just a few acts that made the transition from silent films to 'talkies.'

Children drop by after school and join tourists in the museum's back room, munching on homemade cookies as they watch one of Laurel and Hardy's 106 movies often shown there.

'All these kids have grown up on Laurel and Hardy,' longtime museum volunteer Linda Caldwell said. 'If there's a rainy day and they're walking home, they pop in and know which movies they want to watch.'

The town is preparing to raise money to double the size of the museum - where admission is free - and empty out the storage room full of pictures, coffee mugs and other collectibles that won't fit on the crowded shelves.

The guest book bears witness to the museum's international popularity - an average of 500 visitors stop in each month from places like Austria, Peru, Scotland, England and Switzerland, as well as a handful of U.S. states. Laurel and Hardy movies are still shown in European movie houses, making the museum a global destination.

Northern Ireland residents Eric Stewart and his wife, Yvonne, recently dropped by as they toured the South that included Helen Keller's Alabama home and Shiloh National Military Park near the Tennessee-Mississippi state line.

'Our children had enjoyed their comedy,' Eric Stewart said. 'Over the years we got different movies of them.'

Museum workers often collaborate with the world's other Laurel and Hardy museum in Ulverston, England, where Laurel was born in 1890. Both strive to preserve memorabilia of the duo.

'Their movies are nothing but fun, slapstick comedy that the whole family can sit down and enjoy. They're nothing political, nothing satirical,' Caldwell said. 'Ninety-five percent of movies made today are not family oriented. They are mainly blood and guts, which you can't take your family to.'