John McCabe: Profile of an “Exhausted Ruler”

One of my most prized possessions, even more so than first edition copies of his books like the above, is a reply letter I recieved from author and scholar John McCabe (1920-2005).

I had written to McCabe in his capacity as the world’s greatest Laurel and Hardy authority, I believe, although to describe him that way is to say far too little about him. He was a kind of a pioneer of what we do. In 1961 he wrote the influential Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, the first authorized biography of the team. Both the boys were involved with the book, though sadly Oliver Hardy died in 1957. McCabe had met them during their UK tour in the 1950s depicted in Stan and Ollie. McCabe was getting a PhD in Shakepearean Studies at the University of Birmingham at the time. A former stage actor, he went on to work as a theatre and dramatics professor at a number of universities, including NYU. So he was one of the first people to write a truly perceptive, broad-ranging biography of great screen comedians, one that balanced biographical fact with knowledgable appreciation of their art. This alone would be a landmark contribution — taking this art form seriously.

Then in 1964, along with Orson Bean, Chuck McCann, cartoonist Al Kilgore (who’d illustrated the L&H book), he co-founded The Sons of the Desert, one of the most successful fan organizations in the history of show business. And one of the first to be quite so organized at the national level. It still exists, with chapters all over the country and, I’m guessing, thousands of members, and on the same kind of scale as the fictional fraternal organization (from the eponymous film which it parodies). Sons of the Desert conventions often featured stars and supporting players of the films themselves, while they remained among the living. It’s like comic con for classic comedy, and it’s been happening for over half a century.McCabe’s position in the organization was “Exhausted Ruler”, another reference to Sons of the Desert.

McCabe went on to write several additional books on Laurel and Hardy, as well as several other works which were incredibly useful to me when writing my book No Applause, as well as many of posts here on Travalanche. These include George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (1973), Cagney by Cagney (1976), Cagney (1997), and Charlie Chaplin (1978, revised 1992).

McCabe was a Detroit native who lived for many years on Mackinac Island. It’s where he was living when I corresponded with him a couple of years before he died. In his youth, he had barnstormed with the Jessie Bonstelle Stock Company. Many a subsequent biographer walked on the trails he blazed.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.