Thousands celebrate comedian

The city of Harlem opened its arms to the world Saturday as thousands of people from across the nation and across the Atlantic gathered for the 19th annual Oliver Hardy Festival.

City officials said the crowd of about 37,000 featured guests from more than 30 states and Great Britain.

Mayor Scott Dean said the festival is a chance to showcase Harlem "globally."

The festival pays tribute to Hardy, Harlem's most famous native son, and his comic sidekick, Stan Laurel.

Hardy, born in the city in 1892, made more than 100 films with Laurel.

The festival featured a parade, screenings of Laurel and Hardy films and about 350 arts, crafts and food vendors.

Birmingham, England, residents Martin and Julie Higgins returned to Harlem on Saturday for their second festival, having attended their first 17 years ago.

"We've watched their films dozens of times and it still makes us laugh," Mrs. Higgins said. The couple also brought their three children to experience the festival.

Feeling a little homesick, British transplants Mark and Viola Goodacre and their two daughters, now living in North Carolina, said they felt right at home with thousands of other Laurel and Hardy admirers. Mr. Goodacre said his family used to attend a Laurel and Hardy film festival in Birmingham.

"We were missing that, but we wanted something locally," Mr. Goodacre said. In England, the comic legends retain their popularity, and Mr. Goodacre said he fondly remembers watching their films as a child.

"It's like people keep rediscovering them as time goes on," he said.

Saturday's festival was a special one for Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Greg Preast, and not just because it was his first.

Three weeks ago, while stationed in Iraq, Petty Officer 1st Class Preast was elected Grand Sheik of Harlem's Berth Marks Tent of the Sons of the Desert, an international group devoted to Laurel and Hardy.

A lifelong fan, the Grovetown resident said he was unaware of Harlem's connection to Hardy until he stumbled across the city's Laurel and Hardy Museum.

As Grand Sheik, he said, he will try to energize area fans of Laurel and Hardy and help continue efforts to keep interest in them alive.

"Good humor never goes out of style," he said.

Reach J. Scott Trubey at 706-868-1222, ext. 109 or jeffery.trubey@augustachronicle.com.

WERE YOU SPOTTED?

See more than 450 photos from the Laurel and Hardy Festival in downtown Harlem at spotted.augusta.com.