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The Ulverston shoe-mender
#1
As you'll know, Stan was born and raised in his early years in the home of his grandparents, a small terraced house in the little town of Ulverston, in the north-west of England. It's not so well known that his grandfather ran a business in the town, which was a public workshop for repairing shoes. There was always a shoe-mender in any row of shops in those days, and it was normal for people to have new soles and heels fitted there, as their shoes wore down.
For one thing, everyone did a lot more walking in those days, and the other factor was that shoes were very expensive. They were made by craftsmen, from best leather, almost entirely by hand, and a normal ("regular") pair could cost a week's wages for the average British working man.
Stan's grandfather was George Metcalf, father of Margaret, always known as Madge. She became a famous and acclaimed actress in the theatres around the north of England (theatre was regional then) and over the border with Scotland. She married Arthur Jefferson, another theatre performer who did some acting and comedy, but also did a conjuring act as Bobby Baxter.
George Metcalf's workshop was in the Newland Bottom area of Ulverston, a longish walk or short cycle ride from the Ellers area of Ulverston, where his home was situated, in Foundry Cottages, which later became Argyle Street.
Originally, the workshop had used gaslight and pedal power for the mechanisms, but was connected to electricity during Stan's lifetime in the town.
As soon as he was able, Stan went to the shop with George, where George's wife Sarah maintained a constant flow of tea and cakes - but for the boy it was the pungent smell of fresh leather and the whirr of grinding, sanding and polishing wheels driven by great swinging and flowing belts, that held the fascination. The shelves buckled under the weight of pairs of men's ladies' and children's shoes awaiting repair or finishing, and one category appealed to the boy's natural sense of humour - shoes without heels.
He would always look around for a few pairs of heel-less shoes - normally ladies' - slide his little feet in and waddle around. Everyone who saw the performance was greatly amused and the boy knew he had found an original comedy routine; however it was not so original as Dan Leno (George Galvin) had already used the idea to emphasise the poverty of his tramp character. Either way, it became the origin of the "down at heel" concept.
Later, Stan used shoes with no heels to perfect his comedy walk in his early silent short films, like Hustling For Health, but the technique became more famous with his room-mate and colleague with the Fred Karno London Komedians company. The star performer was Charles Chaplin, for whom Stan was the understudy. The company's entertainment mainstay was a comedy sketch called A Night At An English Music Hall (better known in London as The Mumming Birds). Chaplin played a drunken audience member, and New York audiences loved it. But they craved for more, something different. Karno decided to diversify with a more dramatic show called Jimmy the Fearless, but Chaplin was by no means fearless. He was too unsure of his ability to play a non-drunk role, so Stan Laurel took the part instead, and the show was an enormous success. Furious, Chaplin retook the part from Stan, but his fears were well founded and there was an outcry for "the other guy" and audiences walked out of the performance.
Backstage, Chaplin sought Stan's wisdom, and confided to him that he was trying to create a ground-breaking character - hilarious, instantly recognisable, role-model status, unique and fan-base building. Stan immediately thought of Leno, who had died some 10 years earlier. Stan found that a lot of Chaplin's ideas mimicked Leno - and he remembered the heel-less shoes and explained the technique to Chaplin. Always innovative and original, Chaplin saw the potential of the idea, and began to practise it, adding the one-legged skidding turn, various pratfalls and variations. The Little Tramp was taking shape, very largely thanks to Stan Laurel. A big difference from Leno, who wore a high-class "top-hat" for his main character, was Chaplin's bowler hat (or derby) which also became iconic for Stan and his partner Oliver Hardy; it may also have been Stan's idea for Chaplin.
Stan's formative years in Ulverston (he left there at the age of 5) therefore had a lasting effect not only on the boy, but also on a film industry born roughly at the same time as Stan, on world comedy and on the whole entertainment industry, as Chaplin became so iconic. Though as we all know, the real credit should go to a humble shoe mender in north-west England who had a young grandson to look after whilst giving his customers a new pair of heels.
 
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