Columbia County: Going Hollywood
For a brief joyous moment last October, the little hamlet of Harlem (pop. 1,804) became Colombia County's largest city, thanks to the 1892 birth of a child who would grow into one of the funniest men ever to stumble across the silver screen.
On a sun-filled fall day, 34,000 people came to Harlem to celebrate the life and works of Oliver Hardy, the larger half of the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy.
And this July, 800 of the most serious fans of the duo will fill the town for Harlem or Bust 2006, a film and love fest devoted to the works of Hardy and his partner, Stan Laurel. "The 2006 convention will be truly international," says Kathy Ham, director of the City of Harlem Industry Trade & Tourism. "People will come from all over the world to see his films and to see Georgia, too."
The Oliver Hardy Festival began in 1989 during a brainstorming session among Harlem's leaders who were looking for a way "to put Harlem on the map," Ham says. The first festival drew 500 people. Today, the Laurel and Hardy Museum boasts 93 of the original 127 films the pair made during a career that stretched from the World War I era to the 1950s. And the boys are still packing them into Harlem, which now has a tiny theater in the three-year old museum. "You can hear the laughter whether it's second-graders on a field trip or a group from an assisted living facility," Ham says. "I think their appeal lies in the fact that their movies are clean and funny."
"We don't claim to have shaped Oliver Hardy's life here in Harlem," Ham says. "But this is his birthplace. His father died when he was just 10 months old and his mother moved to Milledgeville and then to Madison and then to Hawkinsville."
July's international visitors will be on the move too. Plans call for them to be treated to side trips to Savannah, Stone Mountain and Americus. Americus? "We're going there to ride the train and have a film festival at Americus' historic Rylander Theater," Ham says.
Harlem's place in film history as the birthplace of Oliver Hardy is increasing the population in a more permanent way as well. One Minnesota Laurel and Hardy fan chose the town as a retirement spot after several visits to the annual festival.