A Fine Mess

Monday, March 09, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments

A short trip to visit family in North Carolina turned into a wealth of entertainment when we decided to expand our agenda to include the southern  hometowns of two iconic American comedians.  Harlem, Georgia, twenty miles west of Augusta, was our first stop.  After finding a couple of letterboxes, we made a bee line to the old post office, which houses the Laurel and Hardy Museum.
When we arrived at the museum just after 1 p.m., we saw a pale yellow beater 1980s Cadillac in the parking lot's sole handicapped spot.  The Caddy's open trunk was overflowing with all manner of items, and an elderly man in a broad-brimmed black straw hat was digging through the contents.  Various items littered the ground around the car, on its roof, and on the hood.  He seemed to have a purpose, but we weren't able to ascertain it, nor why he had chosen this particular location for the activity.  
Getting reorganized
As we entered the museum, which survives on donations and a small budget from the city, we walked into a massive collection of memorabilia related to one of America's earliest comic duos.  From the time of their first meeting, Stan Laurel, the slender Englishman, and Oliver Hardy, a chubby native of Harlem, Georgia, blazed a meteoric path to the top of the nascent movie industry.
Laurel and Hardy in Towed in a Hole (1932)
Their slapstick style of physical comedy resonated with fans of silent films, and when talkies came along, they capitalized on the opportunity to create repetitive humorous dialogue—"Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into."
The hometown homage to Ollie and his partner grew out of Harlem's annual Oliver Hardy Film Festival, now in its 27th year.  The event draws upwards of 40,000 fans to the hamlet of 2,800.  The duo starred in 106 films from 1921 to 1951.  And even though they've not had any new films for more than sixty years (three generations' worth), Laurel and Hardy remain contenders whenever a new ranking of greatest comedic duos is issued.
Interior of Harlem's Laurel and Hardy Museum
We learned that there are three museums in the world dedicated to Laurel and Hardy:  the one in Harlem, one in Laurel's hometown of Ulverston, England, and a tiny one operated by a fan in a small German town.
The volunteer who was staffing the Harlem museum today was Gary Russerth, whose middle name is Oliver.  He became a Laurel and Hardy fan as a youngster, continued his loyalty and moved to Harlem after retiring from farming in his home state of Minnesota.  In addition to his volunteer work at the museum, Gary spends his retirement free time on painting, woodworking and paper crafts.  Much of his art is focused on Laurel and Hardy, though he also makes full-size wooden replicas of antique automobiles.
Gary and Roy at the Harlem museum
While we were examining the displays, the gentleman in the straw hat entered the museum and began chatting with Gary, who introduced him to us as LeRoy England Norvell, Jr.  Once the introduction was done, Roy eagerly took over.  An eccentric raconteur who claims a blood relation with Oliver Hardy's mother, Roy told us about his relationship to Ollie as well as his life in Franklin, North Carolina, where he is a bell ringer at a local church.  We had the feeling he would talk as long as we would listen, but we needed to be on our way, so after he autographed a program from last year's film festival (his idea), we took our leave.
One of Gary's handmade full-size wooden car replicas at his home museum
Before leaving Harlem, we felt obligated to accept Gary's invitation to go by his home, where his wife Jean gave us a tour of their private museum.  We were glad we went.  Finally back on the road, we drove on to Charlotte to overnight before our visit with Erika's friend Anita the following day.
Ken's childhood home looking almost exactly as it did 50 years ago
With a bit of free time in Charlotte, we did some letterboxing, drove by Ken's old childhood home, and stopped in at the Charlotte Museum to check out a statue of Hezekiah Alexander, apparently one of my long-lost ancestors, according to sister-in-law Kathy. Alexander, whose 1774 stone house is owned by the museum, was one of five men at the center of Mecklenburg's political and economic struggles during the Revolutionary War years. 
Dianne meets distant relative Hezekiah Alexander
These men, the Committee of Safety, maintained order and kept citizens informed of the turbulent events taking place.  They were instrumental in the adoption by the community of the Mecklenburg Resolves, which denied the authority of Parliament over the colonies and set up basic tenets of governing.  This bold set of anti-British resolutions was promulgated a full year before the Declaration of Independence was penned at Philadelphia by the Continental Congress.   
After our visit with Anita, we drove on to Greensboro for the evening, where we had a terrific visit over Thai food with Heather and Dan, who are in the process of selling their homes in advance of finding one together before their upcoming wedding.
Just an hour northwest of Greensboro, Mount Airy is a town we've talked of visiting for years but just never got there until this trip.  As is obvious as soon as you reach town, Mount Airy is the hometown of beloved actor and comedian Andy Griffith.  The town is believed to have been the inspiration for the fictional Mayberry, where Griffith served as the peace-loving, gun-shunning sheriff for nine seasons in his eponymous television show in the 1960s.
Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife
Mount Airy has become a mecca for fans of the classic sitcom, which even yet continues to add to its legion of supporters, thanks to its frequent reruns.  In response to this warm public interest, the community holds an annual "Mayberry Days" celebration during the last weekend of September, with around 40,000 in attendance.
Many of the businesses who cater to tourists were closed on Sunday morning when we arrived, so we spent some time locating Andy-related letterboxes around town.  In our search, we discovered the heart of Mayberry.  Even though the series was filmed on studio lots in California, Mount Airy has recreated some of the iconic sites in town—Floyd's Barber Shop, Wally's service station, the Mayberry courthouse/sheriff's office, Emmet's Fix-It Shop, and the mayor's office.  Vintage Ford sedans painted like Mayberry squad cars are available for town tours.
Replica of Sheriff Taylor's desk
At the Andy Griffith Museum, we paid the $6.00 admission fee to enter the 1,000-sq.ft. tribute to Mount Airy's favorite son.  Much of the extensive collection of memorabilia came from Emmett Forrest, a childhood and lifelong friend of Griffith.  The ticket seller/docent Phyllis, the only employee on duty, was a wealth of information.  A resident of nearby Elkin, she was able to answer any and every question about Griffith, even reciting the names of his three wives and when he was married to each one.
Goin' Fishin'
Outside the museum, we checked out the Goin' Fishin' brass sculpture placed in town by TVLand, which has reaped huge profits from the show.  The work depicts Andy and Opie as they are seen in the show's opening credits heading to the Myers Lake for some angling.
Sharing the museum building but with a different entrance was an exhibit devoted to Chang and Eng Bunker, the original "Siamese twins."  Born in a rural village in Siam (now Thailand) in 1811, the twins were conjoined at birth, and for life, by a tubular band of flesh connecting their chests.  Due to their unique physique, they became rather well known and when they were 18, the brothers signed a contract with a British merchant to go on tour, where they were exhibited as curiosities.
Twins Chang and Eng Bunker, famous Mount Airy residents
When they were older, Chang and Eng began to manage their own tours and accumulated a small fortune.  With their savings, they settled in Mount Airy, bought some property and took up farming.  When they became American citizens, the brothers adopted the surname Bunker in honor of some friends.  They married two sisters and had 22 children between them.  Many of their descendants still live in the area and hold annual reunions in Mount Airy.  Before leaving town, we paid our respects to this interesting pair at their graves in White Plains Baptist Church Cemetery.
Back through Greensboro, we caught up with Marion for lunch before continuing home, arriving just four days after we left.  Maybe we need to try a few more of these quick getaways.


Part of the Bunker twins exhibit

Looked so familiar though we'd never seen it before

Seems like Andy might walk out the door any minute

We hid a letterbox on Wally's truck.

Went by the Darlins' house but they weren't home
Ultimate experience for Mayberry fan:  Andy Griffith's childhood home as vacation rental

No shortage of stores selling souvenirs to Andy's many fans

The engaged couple

Sibling time