Oliver Norvell Hardy was a successful American comedic actor in silent films and one half of the Academy Award winning comic duo Laurel and Hardy, the double act that began in the era of silent films and lasted from 1927 to 1951. Hardy called Milledgeville home from 1903 – 1913. "It was in Milledgeville that he first became interested in film and developed, by looking at all the denizens (residents) of Milledgeville, some of his comic persona," Dr. Bob Wilson, a local historian and professor of history at Georgia College remarked when asked about the significance of the Oliver Hardy Historical Marker.
Oliver Hardy was born Norvell Hardy on January 18, 1892, 70 miles from Milledgeville in Harlem, Georgia. His father Oliver was a Confederate veteran and married his mother Emily Norvell in 1890; it was her second marriage and his third.
The family moved to Madison, Georgia in 1891 just before Norvell's birth. His father died 10 months after his birth. Emily supported her five children by managing a series of boarding houses, first in Madison, then in Covington and Athens, and finally in Milledgeville beginning when Norvell was 11 years old.
While exploring Milledgeville you may visit a handful of sites frequented by the Hardy family during the 10 years they spent in our community.
At the intersection of South Wayne and West Greene Streets once stood the Hotel Milledgeville. It was a less than desirable establishment when Hardy's mother began managing it in 1903. She moved into the hotel with her two youngest children and oversaw renovating it back to its original importance and grandeur ultimately changing names to the Hotel Baldwin in 1908. The hotel came to a close in 1970 when the building was razed and Magnolia Bank was built on the site.
Hardy attended elementary school at Georgia Military College (GMC). He was then sent to Young Harris Academy for a brief period and then back to GMC. His experiences at GMC seemed to have been full of peaks and valleys. While it was here that he met many of his closest childhood friends, he also suffered unmerciful teasing. The large fourteen-year-old boy weighed close to 250 pounds and was called Fatty Hardy throughout town. It is during this time that through local theatricals in events at Georgia Military College he developed a love for singing and in 1909 the local paper considered Hardy “a sweet singer.”
For a brief period as a young boy Hardy worked at the local newspaper, The Union Recorder. At the time it was located on the ground floor of the Masonic Hall. He was allowed to feed the paper into the hand press which became a regular job. It was thought his career would follow that path.
Hardy often stopped in at 122 South Wayne Street at the once popular City Bakery. The bakery supplied his favorite macaroons and muffins which aided the meagre rations at school.
Hardy and his family attended services at the Methodist Church. In those years the simple, yet classic white frame structure stood on the Statehouse Square.
As a young teenager, Hardy saw vaudeville acts, orchestras, singers, magicians and drama companies on the second-floor auditorium of Milledgeville’s grandly named Opera House.
As a boy Oliver and his older brother Bardy spent hours fishing and swimming in the cool water of the Oconee River. Then tragedy struck this location. In 1909 when Oliver’s oldest brother Sam Tant was visiting and fishing just above the old mill dam on the Oconee River the group decided to go swimming. Sam dove into the water from the limb of an overhanging tree and misjudged the depth. Oliver carried Sam to the shore and managed to get him back to the hotel, but the injury was fatal.
In 1909 after the renovations of the Hotel Baldwin were complete Hardy's mother rented the Old Central Hotel on Hancock St. opposite the then courthouse and re-named it the Hendrix House. After extensive renovations, she opened it as a two-dollar boarding house only for a fire to break out a week after the grand opening destroying all but the main part of the house. Today the building reflects its c. 1935 ownership, The Campus Theatre. It is a typical Art Deco site built by the Martin (now Carmike) chain that once dominated the movie business in small towns throughout the southeastern United States. The movie ads from that era also show that the Campus Theatre regularly hosted the films of the famous former Milledgeville resident.
In 1910, The Palace Theater relocated to the old Chandler Brothers Grocery at 133 S. Wayne Street. Hardy was hired as the projectionist, ticket taker, janitor and manager. Working at the Palace sparked Hardy’s interest in the movies as he became more and more absorbed with what he was projecting on the screen.
Hardy’s mother then rented the Mathews Hotel, a three-story wood frame boarding house on North Wayne Street, in February of 1910. She renamed it the Hotel Wayne and it was Hardy’s home while managing the Palace Theater. While it retained that name for 60 years, after four months she finally decided to give up on Milledgeville and moved to Covington.
Want to know more about Oliver Hardy’s life and comic duo Laurel and Hardy? Consider a visit to the Laurel & Hardy museum in nearby Harlem which contains artifacts, memorabilia, and a theatre room to watch any of the 106 movies they made together. The museum is open Monday – Saturday from 10 a.m – 4 p.m., located an hour and 20 minute drive from Milledgeville at 250 N. Louisville St., Harlem, Georgia.
A special thanks to Dr. Bob Wilson, a local historian and professor of history at Georgia College, for his research and curation of the “Oliver Hardy in Georgia, 1903-1913” article in The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 87, no. 3/4, 2003, pp. 359–388. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40584685, which served as the foundation for much of this assembled blog content.