Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born in his grandparents’ house on 16 June 1890 in Foundry Cottages (now Argyll Street) in Ulverston, Lancashire. His father, Arthur ‘A.J.’ Jefferson, was a theatre entrepreneur from Bishop Auckland, and mother Margaret (Madge, née Metcalfe), was an actress from Ulverston. He had four siblings.
His parents were both active in the theatre and were always very busy. A.J had served his time as an actor, director and playwright, basing himself in the North East where he went on to variously own and manage theatres in Bishop Auckland, Consett, North Shields and Blyth. Madge was an actress of some distinction, regularly appearing in A.J’s melodramas which were very typical of the day, but were great audience pleasers.
In his early years, Stan lived with his maternal grandmother, Sarah Metcalfe in Ulverston. A sickly child, he wasn’t well enough to join his parents at their home 66 Princes Street, in Bishop Auckland until well into his second year, though he is now thought to have not actually lived at that address with them; Tony Hillman, Grand Sheik of the Hog Wild tent of Bishop Auckland tells us that “…He was brought over on the odd time for a brief visit. We know that because of records of him being baptised at St Peters Church [across the road on Princes Street] when his sister Beatrice Olga was christened. At that time his parents were living at 22 Waldron Street, where there’s a plaque on the house.”
There is also a plaque commemorating Stan’s Christening in St Peters Church.
Young Arthur attended King James I Grammar School in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, and following the family’s move to 8 Dockwray Square in North Shields in 1895, he went to the King’s School in Tynemouth, Northumberland.
Years later, Stan said of this period:
I was more or less born a comedian, I think. I can’t recall a time when I was kidding around in class (or out of it) and that, perhaps, more than anything else made me the dreadful student I was. In the early dads, Dad and Mum were always on the move and I spent much time in boarding schools where suspect I found relief from loneliness in being the class clown. This must have been an inborn talent inherited from my Dad who, although he acted principally in melodramas, loved and wrote comedy and acted in farces as well. I was much interested, by the way, in getting a copy of my birth record from Somerset House, which a fan sent me not long ago. In addition to all my birth statistics, I notice that my dad put down for his occupation: “comedian.” Seeing that pleased me very much.
As a schoolboy, I was even encouraged by the teachers to be funny. One of the masters in particularly, a man named Bates, used to invite me down to his room at night where he and other teachers would get together over several spots of whiskey and let me entertain them. I enjoyed that but I’m very much afraid it affected my progress as a scholar. In any case my boyhood idols were people like Dan Leno the great music hall comedian who could be droll and ridiculous and pathetic all at the same time. I made up my mind not long after we moved permanently to Glasgow that I would become a professional comedian even though I suspected my dad would not approve.
From ‘Laurel and Hardy’ by McCabe, Kilgore and Bann, 1975
With the theatre business contracting in the North East the Jefferson family moved to Rutherglen, some three miles from Glasgow in the summer of 1905 where Stan completed his education. The school he attended was opened in 1886 and was called Stonelaw School. In 1905 it was extended and became Stonelaw High School. In 1925 there was a name change to Rutherglen Academy.
Stan left school in early 1907 and was put to work in his father’s Metropole Theatre as gallery ticket collector. Most evidence points to Stan appearing at the Panopticon in 1907 and shortly after (1st July) signing a contract with the Levy and Cardwell Juvenile Pantomime Company.
Despite Stan appearing as a newsboy at age seven in his father’s production of Lights of London, A.J., knowing the challenges of being an actor at that time, encouraged Stan to look instead at theatrical management when he took over the lease of the prestigious Metropole Theatre in Glasgow. Stan left school in early 1907 and was put to work in as gallery ticket collector with the unwritten understanding that one day, he would take over from his dad. However, young Stan had other ideas…
With a natural affinity for the theatre, Stan gave his first professional performance on stage at the Panopticon in Glasgow at the age of sixteen, unaware that A.J. was in the audience! At this and similar venues, he would polish his skills at pantomime and music hall sketches and he would draw his standard comic devices, including his bowler hat, blank look and nonsensical mannerisms from this special environment.
Seeing his dad in the rear of the Panopticon after his first performance was something of a shock, but he need not have worried. A.J. had underestimated the depth of Stan’s passion for the stage, so he contacted his friends in the business and Stan was quickly offered the role of assistant stage manager, fill-in and call boy with the Levy and Cardwell Juvenile Pantomime Company signing a contract on 1 July 1907.
In 1907 and 1908, the company performed Sleeping Beauty and Stan played Ebeneezer, working with Benny Barron from Sunderland, with whom Stan never lost touch, even visiting with him in the 1950’s. He also played Percy in The House That Jack Built, getting a mention in the Seaham Weekly News! He continued working his way up the ladder and was picked up by Fred Karno’s troupe of actors in 1910 as ‘Stan Jefferson’ having earlier been billed as ‘He of the Funny Ways’.
The troupe also included a young Charles Spencer Chaplin. The music hall continued to nurture Stan, occasionally deputising for Chaplin as his understudy in the Karno show ‘Mumming Birds (aka A Night in an English Music Hall)’. Karno was a pioneer of slapstick and Stan was later known to have said, “Fred Karno didn’t teach Charlie [Chaplin] and me all we know about comedy. He just taught us most of it“. It was in this act that he was able to continue to nurture his superb pantomime skills as at one time or another, he played almost every role.
Stan and Chaplin arrived as friends and room-mates in the United States together with the Karno troupe and toured the country. Chaplin though was quickly spotted and offered a contract in pictures by Mack Sennett and with Chaplin as the main draw, bookings tailed off as a consequence of him leaving.
During the first world war, Stan registered for military service in America on 5 June 1917, as required under the selective Service Act. He was not called up; his registration card states ‘resident alien’ and deafness(!) as exemptions.
Between 1916 and 1918, he teamed up with Alice Cooke and Baldwin ‘Baldy’ Cooke, and they became his lifelong friends. Both would appear in Laurel and Hardy films on several occasions. It was around this time that Stan met Mae Dahlberg who became his partner both offstage and on. Even though he couldn’t recall the reason in later life, he soon adopted the stage name of ‘Laurel’ at Dahlberg’s suggestion that his stage name Stan Jefferson was unlucky, due to it having thirteen letters. Perhaps the idea came from one of Stan’s many guises – an act called ‘The Rum ‘uns From Rome’. Roman patricians were known to occasionally wear laurel wreaths on their heads…
The pair were performing together when Stan was offered $75 a week to star in two-reel comedies. After making his first film Nuts in May, Universal Studios offered him a contract, Stan creating his first screen persona, Hickory Hiram. Among the films in which Dahlberg and Laurel appeared together was the 1922 parody Mud and Sand. Amongst many other performers, Stan worked coincidentally alongside one Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy in the silent film short The Lucky Dog (1921).
By 1924, Stan had given up the stage for full-time film work, when producer Joe Rock engaged him for 12 two-reel comedies. The contract – initiated by Rock – had one unusual stipulation though; that Dahlberg was not to appear in any of the films. Rock thought that her temperament was hindering Stan’s career and he was proved correct, as in 1925, she started interfering with his work. Rock offered her a cash settlement and a one-way ticket back to her native Australia which she accepted. Stan and Dahlberg had never married but had lived together from 1919 to 1925.
Stan then signed with producer and Studio owner Hal Roach, where he began directing films, including a 1926 production called Yes, Yes, Nanette in which Oliver Hardy had a part credited as Babe Hardy, as Oliver was known to his friends. Stan’s intention by now was to work primarily as a writer and director – behind the camera, as his attention to detail was already well established by and as he excelled in this.
The same year, Oliver Hardy, already a member of the Hal Roach Studios Comedy ‘All Star’ players, was injured in a kitchen accident with a leg of lamb and hospitalised. Because he was unable to work on a scheduled film, Get ‘Em Young, which Stan was to direct, Stan was persuaded by Roach to fill in. As a consequence, Stan found that he was able to combine roles both in front of and behind the camera, and made a return to the screen, but as actor director.
In early 1927, Stan and Babe Hardy appeared together in several short films, including Duck Soup, Slipping Wives and With Love and Hisses; not as a team as such and occasionally, they didn’t even have any scenes together, but the two quickly became firm friends and their reading of each other, mutual regard and chemistry soon became obvious. Roach Studios’ supervising director Leo McCarey saw this, particularly noting the audience reaction to them and discussed teaming them up with Hal Roach, and then with Stan and Babe. Stan was happy provided he could continue with the degree of control he was used to and Laurel and Hardy team became a team later that year, with the first ‘official’ Laurel and Hardy comedy being The Second Hundred Years (although Duck Soup had given the boys much of their character and Do Detectives Think? had given them their ‘look’. )
“After a picture was assembled, we previewed it and if no re-takes were needed, we started to prepare the next story. If [Hal] Roach was anxious for us to get started, we’d go into production almost right away after finishing a picture, and complete the script as we went along. We would start out with an idea, go along working on it as we were shooting, and then we would frequently deviate from the original idea. We worked hard, but there was no real pressure. It was fun, particularly in the silent days.” — Stan Laurel
Together, the two would deliver a huge body of short films, initially silent, though in 1929, Unaccustomed As We Are became the first Laurel and Hardy sound short – in fact it was the very first ‘talkie’ released by the Roach studios. With the onset of sound, the careers of many silent stars quickly faded as few were able to adapt to the new medium; some had voices that did not suit their personas and others were just poor actors anyway. When it came to the challenge of sound from a Laurel and Hardy perspective though, they didn’t just hit the ground running, Stan and Babe simply gave it a polite nod and carried on at their own pace.
Stan was involved in all aspects of the team’s work. He would create, direct, produce, edit and cut the films and Babe was more than happy with this arrangement; his passion was on the golf course. Quite often, Stan would wait until the end of a hard days work to film Babe’s exasperated looks to camera – when he was desperate to be away and play a few holes! Stan insisted the boys’ comedies were shot in sequence to maximise the opportunity to develop gags on the set.
Laurel and Hardy appeared in their first feature in one of the revue sequences of The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and the following year they appeared as the comic relief in the lavish all-colour musical feature The Rogue Song. Their first starring feature, Pardon Us, was made in 1931 and this was also the first feature released by the burgeoning Hal Roach Studio. Their 1932 three-reeler The Music Box, won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject. They continued to make both features and shorts until 1935, when Thicker than Water became the final Laurel and Hardy short subject.
In 1932, Stan went on a holiday to the UK. However, the Roach publicity department – never one to miss an opportunity – persuaded Babe to accompany him. The reputation of various golf courses in Britain being very persuasive. Stan and Babe were mobbed wherever they went, meaning the visit was hardly a holiday though Stan did get the chance to visit his old home in North Shields as well as his dad A.J. and his stepmother at their home in London.
It was on this tour that Stan’s friendship with Ollie blossomed. Although they previously had always maintained a very good working relationship, they spent little time together outside of the studio. This changed during the tour, and the two became the best of friends.
“Babe was like a brother to me. We seemed to sense each other. Funny, we never really got to know each other personally until we took the tours together. When we made pictures it was all business even though it was fun. Between pictures we hardly saw each other. His life outside the studio was sports, and my life was practically all work, even after work was over. I loved editing and cutting the pictures, something he wasn’t interested in. But, whatever I did was tops with him. There was never any arguments between us, never.” — Stan Laurel, at the time of Babe’s death.
Tragically in 1933, Stan’s younger brother Edward, or ‘Teddy’ who had moved to the States to be with Stan, died while under anaesthetic in a dentists chair.
Despite their huge success however, throughout the 1930s, Stan was continually in dispute with Hal Roach which resulted in the termination of his contract more than once. Roach very cleverly maintained separate contracts for Stan and for Babe that expired at different times, so the boys were never able to negotiate a joint contract which would give them more control over their careers and a fairer share of the revenues that their work was generating. Stan had marital issues and significant alimony payments (as did Babe) which meant that neither could afford to run his contract down and then wait for the other’s to end.
In 1939 however, enough was enough and Stan did just that. Babe remained at the studio and was ‘teamed’ (with Stan’s blessing, not as incorrectly portrayed as an ongoing disagreement in the 2019 biopic Stan and Ollie) with Harry Langdon for the 1939 film Zenobia, which was also known as Elephants Never Forget. In an attempt to try and bring Stan to heel, Roach began planning a series of films co-starring Babe with Patsy Kelly to be known as “The Hardy Family”. But Stan sued Roach over the contract dispute.
Eventually, the case was dropped and he returned to the Roach studio, though in the meantime, Stan and Babe had made The Flying Deuces for independent producer Boris Morros. The first Laurel and Hardy film back with Roach was A Chump at Oxford. Then they made Saps at Sea, which would be their last film for the studio that made them so famous.
Stan didn’t know this at the time, but this effectively marked the end of their ‘classic’ era.
Both of their contracts expired in April 1940 and off they went on an American tour from September through to December. In each of the twelve major cities they performed in, reviews were favourable and the crowds were enthusiastic.
Besides Mae Dahlberg, Stan had four wives and married one of them twice! His first wife, Lois Neilson, married Stan on 13 August 1926. A daughter Lois was born on 10 December 1927 and in May 1930, a son Stanley was born two months premature but he sadly died after only nine days. Stan and Neilson divorced in December 1934.
In 1935, he married Virginia Ruth Rogers. In 1937, he filed for divorce, confessing that he wanted to reconcile with ex-wife Lois, though Lois was none too keen on the idea… At the same time, Mae Dahlberg returned to the US and sued Stan for financial support. Dahlberg’s legal suit hardly helping Stan’s position with Rogers. The matter was settled out of court.
On New Year’s Day 1938, Stan married Vera Ivanova Shuvalova (known as Illeana), and Ruth accused him of bigamy, but their divorce had been finalised a couple of days before his new marriage. This marriage was very volatile, and Illeana was more than occasionally arrested for being under the influence, at one point even accusing Stan of trying to bury her alive in the backyard of their San Fernando Valley home.
He and Illeana separated in 1939 and divorced in 1940. Illeana surrendered all claim to the Laurel surname on 1 February 1940 in exchange for $6,500. In 1941, Stan remarried Virginia Ruth Rogers but they were to divorce for the second time in early 1946.
In 1941, a new company, Laurel and Hardy Feature Productions, signed with 20th Century-Fox to make ten films over five years. However, Stan and Babe were simply being hired as on-screen comics, not as the creative forces behind the film. This came as a huge shock to Stan, who little realised that the sheer size of the Studio machine meant that he’d have significantly less control over the Laurel and Hardy productions than he’d enjoyed at Roach, and that the films would be shot out of sequence, to minimise the budget. This would have the effect of removing any possibility of improvising and developing gags on set, as this would also affect continuity as many scenes that would follow in the final film were already ‘in the can’, not having considered any improvised business. The first film for Fox was Air Raid Wardens, where even the addition to the cast of old foil, Edgar Kennedy, didn’t lift the quality of the production to the levels delivered when at the Roach studios.
When – to Stan’s surprise – the films proved successful, Laurel and Hardy were granted a little more freedom and gradually were able to re-use some of their established material – within limits. For example: Stan suggested the sleeper car sequence from Berth Marks be brought up to date in an airliner. This was dismissed on grounds of cost. They had made six Fox features when the studio cancelled their contract, having abandoned B-picture production in December 1944.
Laurel and Hardy Feature Productions had also signed another contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in 1942, resulting in two features, but these were no better to the Fox efforts.
Stan and Babe also did lots of good work for the USO during the World War II, visiting troops far and wide, often in perilous locations, but they both felt compelled to do so, neither having been able to sign up in either war.
On 6 May 1946, Stan married Ida Kitaeva Raphael. This was a fulfilling and happy marriage and they remained married until his death. As Ida herself said, “No more divorces for Stan Laurel!” Stan was truly happy in this marriage, perhaps for the first time.
Personally, Stan was known to be quite shy; comedy was both his hobby and his job, he only had one other interest and that was fishing, though he did raise ducks at his ranch in the San Fernando valley and tried (successfully, apparently) to cross a potato with an onion! Stan did like the occasional practical joke too. One day, someone recognised him and said “aren’t you…” and Stan replied “Oliver Hardy”. “Right” said the chap. “Whatever happened to Stan Laurel?” To-whit Stan replied sadly “He went barmy.”
Stan returned to England in 1947 when he and Babe went on a six-week tour of the United Kingdom performing in variety shows. They were initially unsure of how they would be received, but they were again mobbed wherever they went. Stan visited his birthplace, Ulverston in May, and the duo were greeted by thousands of fans outside the Coronation Hall. The press noted: “Oliver Hardy remarked to our reporter that Stan had talked about Ulverston for the past 22 years and he thought he had to see it.” The tour included a Royal Variety Performance for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in London.
The success of the 1947 tour led to impresario Bernard Delfont persuading them to spend much of the next seven years touring the UK and Europe. These tours inspired the Book ‘Laurel and Hardy the UK Tours’ by AJ Marriott which in turn led to the movie Stan and Ollie, which was released in 2019.
Around this time, Stan found out that he had diabetes, so he encouraged Babe to find film work by himself again, which he did, taking parts in pal John Wayne’s vehicle The Fighting Kentuckian and Frank Capra’s Riding High which starred Babe’s golfing buddy, Bing Crosby.
In 1950, Stan and Babe were invited to France to make a Laurel and Hardy feature film. A Franco-Italian co-production titled Atoll K, the film was a disaster. (It was released as Utopia in the US and Robinson Crusoeland in the UK.) Both were ill during filming, Stan being hospitalised on more than one occasion, with his on-screen appearance being particularly disturbing.
Stan had to rewrite much of the script to make it fit their style. Happy to return to the United States, they took their time recovering.
In 1952, they toured Europe again, even more successfully than in 1947, featuring a new sketch by Stan which was based on Night Owls, one of the 1930’s short subjects. They returned in 1953 but during this tour, Stan fell ill again and was unable to perform for several weeks. He said at the time; “Tell them I’m available, but I can only play statues”
Laurel and Hardy made two live television appearances: in 1953 on a live broadcast of the BBC show Face the Music, and in December 1954 on NBC’s This Is Your Life. They also appeared in a filmed insert for the BBC show This Is Music Hall in 1955, their final appearance together.
In May 1954 on tour in the UK, Babe had a heart attack and they reluctantly cancelled the tour. In 1955, they were looking forwards to making a television series with Hal Roach jr to be called Laurel and Hardy’s Fabulous Fables based on children’s stories. The plans were delayed after Stan suffered a stroke on 25 April 1955, from which he made a good recovery. But as they were planning to get back to work, Babe had a massive stroke on 14 September 1956, which resulted in him being effectively bed-bound.
Oliver ’Babe’ Hardy died on 7 August 1957. Stan was distraught at being too ill to attend the funeral but said, “Babe would understand”. People who knew Stan said that he was devastated by Babe’s death and never fully recovered from it. He refused to perform on stage or act in another film without his friend, although he continued to socialise with peers and of course, his fans.
In 1961, Stan Laurel was given a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award for his pioneering work in comedy. He was again ill and unable to attend the ceremony, so the treasured Statue was accepted by Danny Kaye on his behalf. Stan called it ‘Mr Clean’ as it reminded him of a domestic cleaning product of the time!
Stan had achieved his lifelong dream as a comedian and had been involved in nearly 190 films. He lived out his final years in the Oceana Apartments in Santa Monica, California. He was always gracious to fans and spent much time answering every item of fan mail on his own typewriter, frequently enclosing signed pictures of himself, and with Babe. His phone number was listed in the telephone directory, and fans were amazed that they could dial the number and speak to him directly.
Jerry Lewis was among the numerous comedians to visit Stan, who offered suggestions for Lewis’ production of The Bellboy (1960). Lewis paid tribute to Stan by naming his main character Stanley in the film, and having Bill Richmond play a version of Laurel as well. Dick Van Dyke told a similar story; When he was just starting his career, he looked up Stan’s phone number, called him, and then visited him at his home. Van Dyke played Laurel on “The Sam Pomerantz Scandals” episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Stan was offered a cameo role in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), but turned it down. He did not want to be on screen in his old age, especially without Babe. He said, “…the kids just wouldn’t like how I look anymore”.
Stan was a heavy smoker his entire life – Hal Roach once remarked that he and Babe “were like a couple of freight train smoke stacks” – until he abruptly stopped in 1961. He was one of several popular British actors in Hollywood who never became naturalised US citizens
Stan Laurel had a heart attack and died four days later on February 23rd 1965 aged 74. Just before he died, he said to his nurse, “I wish I was skiing” to which the nurse replied, “I didn’t know you skied, Mr Laurel”. He replied “I don’t, but I’d much rather be skiing than this…” Minutes later he slipped away in his armchair.
At his funeral, silent legend Buster Keaton said, “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest. I wasn’t the funniest; Stan was the funniest.” Dick Van Dyke gave the eulogy as a friend, protégé, and occasional impressionist of Laurel during his later years; he read “The Clown’s Prayer”.
Stan had earlier said, “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I’ll never speak to him again” typical of a man who loved life and “brought gladness to the world he loved.” He is interred in Forest Lawn–Hollywood Hills Cemetery and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7001 Hollywood Blvd.
Stan’s wife Ida joined him on her 81st birthday, January 26th 1980 and daughter Lois died on 27 July 2017, aged 89.
Great Granddaughter, Cassidy, is very active in the Sons of the Desert, and said of the Biopic Stan and Ollie:
“I loved the film! It shows how in love my great granddad was with his work… his passion for life and his gift he shared with the world… he was a true class act. Ollie was his best friend and they spent many years being the best of friends… this movie is a fantastic display of the love, magic and life lessons we all can relate to and go through… it’s a love story and makes me proud to know the boys are finally back on the big screen for all the world to see and hopefully will encourage them to go watch and research their original films that my great granddad not only starred in but helped write and direct.”