Norbert Aping, born in 1952, is a judge, husband and father. He has made it his job to research Laurel & Hardy in Germany, from their beginnings in the 1920s until today. Here is his story about how he started:
"As a child in the 1950s I first encountered Laurel & Hardy at the children’s matinees in small movie theaters. On Sunday afternoons they showed the comedians’ short films as supporting programs before the main feature. The first two shorts I got to know were "Der Zauberbrunnen" ("Them Thar Hills") and "Dick und Doof in: Die Wundersäge" ("Busy Bodies"), which were distributed at that time in Germany by "Nordwestdeutschen Filmverleih und Vertrieb".
I was stunned! Up to that time I had mostly only seen fairy tales that preceded cultural films, which were mostly incomprehensible to children. And now, two friendly men, who apparently understood that young movie-goers could also make friends with them, stole the show. They had absolutely no inhibitions about making themselves and other adults look completely ridiculous. Hilarious, how Laurel and Hardy stick a plunger on an unfriendly car driver’s forehead and then also "tar and feather" him with sticky beet sugar and feathers from a pillow. And then Laurel’s exaggerated efforts to play barber and free his friend from an unwanted beard that came into being when, during an argument, he pressed a paintbrush full of glue onto Hardy’s chin - where the bristles stuck and could only be removed by shaving them off.
What a great surprise it was when there were suddenly also advertisements for feature films from Laurel & Hardy. Those I had to see. And I wasn’t disappointed, which seems perfectly logical looking back when you hear or read such titles as "Dick und Doof als Salontiroler" (translated into English: Laurel & Hardy as Saloon Tyrolians- English title "Swiss Miss") and "Dick und Doof in der Fremdenlegion" (translated into English: Laurel & Hardy in the Foreign Legion" - English title "The Flying Deuces").
After the two comedians had become an integral part of my visits to the movie theater for many years, I read in "Hör Zu" (a German television magazine), eyes wide with surprise, that Laurel & Hardy were getting their own television show. Full of expectation and excitement I waited impatiently for the 17th of July 1970 to finally come. At long last it arrived. The German broadcaster ZDF showed the now familiar opening credits, and then the "catastrophic piano transport" started. There weren’t just scenes from "The Music Box" in the opening credits, instead the entire film, which I had apparently missed seeing in the movie theater, was now shown. I was completely enraptured by the duo’s humor, as I was 10 years earlier, and my friends were as well. Actually, it is more accurate to say that we all broke out in uncontrollable laughter and ended up lying on the floor.
From that day on, Laurel & Hardy became a must for me and my friends. We never missed a broadcast, and we were disgruntled that there wasn’t one every week.
There were so many films that we had never seen at the movie theater. In some films, Laurel and Hardy didn’t appear together and looked much younger than in the films we came to love them in as "Dick und Doof". At the time we had absolutely no idea that these were silent films that were made before they became the team "Laurel & Hardy". Even these raw films brought us much amusement, the more so as we were entertained by funny lines spoken by a man whose talent we had already come to appreciate: the cabaret artist Hanns Dieter Hüsch. And included in the opening credits was "newly improved by Heinz Caloué and Gert Mechoff". Heinz Caloué was the man behind the lines Hanns Dieter Hüsch spoke.
Whether getting ready for high school graduation or, later, evaluating a lecture, gathering for the ZDF early evening program on Fridays remained a fixed part of our lives. There was no dinner until the new episode had come to a close and we had discussed the parts that had made us laugh.
At that time, we had never lost a thought about the fact that "Dick und Doof" weren’t the real film names of Laurel and Hardy although they addressed each other with "Stan" and "Ollie" or introduced each other as "Mr. Laurel" and "Mr. Hardy". And even though "Dick und Doof" are not very nice names for a pair of such talented comedians, as Laurel and Hardy without a doubt are, it never crossed our minds to associate their German names with something derogatory or disrespectful. On the contrary, the master comedians from our childhood continued to captivate us as young adults. And our parents laughed along with us in front of the TV screen. So Laurel & Hardy could evidently attract all age groups.
During my studies, the "Laurel & Hardy" series on ZDF suddenly ended after 99 episodes, and they said to us after the last episode "please don’t cry". The replacement was "Spaß mit Charlie" (Fun With Charlie), which was funny as well, but the famous Chaplin was not half as amusing as our friends Laurel and Hardy. The waiting paid off, however, with the arrival of "Zwei Herren dick und doof" (Comedy Capers) with the two comedians’ fantastic dance scene from "Way Out West" in the opening credits.
When this series preliminarily ended in 1976 - three more episodes were aired in 1980 - I had just successfully taken my state examination, and my comrades-in-arms had all gone off in different directions. Our regular gatherings had come to an end, the daily routine of our careers demanded our attention. But whenever a Laurel & Hardy film was shown on television, I sat glued to the tube, and so didn’t miss an episode of the feature film series "Lachen Sie mit Stan und Olli" (English translation: Laugh With Stan and Olli) that began in 1975 while I was still studying and continued until the end of 1980.
Towards the end of my studies I bought my first two film books. One of them, "The Filmgoer's Companion" by Leslie Halliwell, I bought mainly because a picture of Laurel & Hardy was on the cover. And then, in June 1980, Goldmann-Citadel released a book that was exclusively about Laurel & Hardy, the German translation of William K. Everson's famous book "The Films of Laurel and Hardy". Everson’s volume about their films became my most-read book. After I read it for the first time, I was especially impressed and astonished by the list of titles at the end - that there were often many different German titles for the same film.
I wanted to learn more about this, but had trouble finding a real starting point. I didn’t have a film projector, so I couldn’t watch either the Super 8 films or the 16 mm films that were available at the time. I had to content myself with the few Laurel & Hardy reruns on ZDF, all of which I recorded, however.
My career and then my family left me with neither the time nor the energy to tax my brain about the deluge of titles for the Laurel & Hardy films or to deal with figuring it out. And the television re-runs of the Laurel & Hardy films started to run dry. Then, at the beginning of 1990 something momentous happened. After going out to dinner with my wife and some friends in Hamburg, we walked past the shop "Zweitausendeins" on the way to the car. I was thunderstruck to see a stack of Laurel & Hardy videos in the display window - but couldn’t buy them right away, because it was after midnight. The next day after work I drove the 60 kilometers to the shop and bought them all, 7 videos from the 8-part English series "Laurel and Hardy’s World of Laughter" that "Zweitausendeins" was getting rid of - as is was not complete and probably also because the quality was not very good. But that didn’t lessen the fun my family had watching the videos, especially my oldest son, who couldn’t get enough of "Stan and Ollie". A couple of years later his younger brother followed in his footsteps.
Until that time, it had escaped my notice that the colored version of "Way Out West" had been available at video stores since 1988, although it was aired at the end of the year by the German broadcaster SAT.1. When I bought the English videocassettes I learned from the salesperson that "Zweitausendeins" was "planning something with Laurel & Hardy" in 1990. I excitedly called the central office in Frankfurt, who referred me to the company "Atlas" in Duisburg, from whom I learned that, in cooperation with "Zweitausendeins", they were planning to release 5 titles on video. I immediately placed an advance order and amazingly enough ended up receiving not 5 videos but 6 in the end. Under the title "Die Teufelsbrüder" there was supposed to be a German version of "Pack Up Your Troubles", but a German version of "The Flying Deuces" was copied by mistake. When the mistake was discovered, I was sent the correct video.
Now I began to compare the films to my German video library and was able to pretty much reconstruct what was actually aired on the Laurel & Hardy television series. Listening carefully to the German voices, I discovered that Laurel’s German voice was spoken by the same actor most of the time, Walter Bluhm, whereas there were at least five different actors in the tapes I had who spoke Hardy’s German voice. I soon had several pages of notes.
To my amazement, I discovered that there was a "Tent" from the "Sons of the Desert" in Germany, the "Two Tar Tents" in Solingen, and joined shortly thereafter. When I bought Christian Blees’ book "Laurel und Hardy. Ihre Leben, ihre Filme" (English translation: Laurel and Hardy. Their Lives, Their Films), I was hooked forever. The book was a kind of continuation of Everson’s book and described the films in more detail. Laurel and Hardy’s presence in Germany in movie theaters and on television was briefly mentioned, but the author didn’t go into detail and there wasn’t any background history.
That’s when it became clear to me that I wanted to investigate "Laurel and Hardy in Germany" from the beginning on. My first step was to take the new book with me on our Summer vacation to Belgium, and I came back with 10 pages of notes. I filled them out little by little and at the beginning of 1995 had completed an essay as well as a spreadsheet with the diverse German versions of Laurel & Hardy films that existed as far as I knew. I distributed bound photocopies with the title "Laurel und Hardy. Eine Odyssee durch ihre deutschsprachigen Synchronisationen" (English translation: Laurel and Hardy. An odyssey through their German dubbing). At first 53 pages long, it grew up to 150 pages before I stopped distributing it.
In the meantime, I had met Heinz Caloulé and had numerous talks with him which led to a structured interview in November 1997 that lasted several days and gave invaluable insight into his television productions. Above all, however, he was, as controversial as he may be among the German Laurel & Hardy fans, an expert on the subject and a serious artist. Heinz Caloulé suggested that I have my research published as a book. I followed his advice and travelled all around Germany looking through archives, private collections and libraries to get to the bottom of "Laurel & Hardy in Germany". Numerous interviews with filmmakers followed. A crucial factor was also the generous support of the "KirchGruppe" ("KirchGroup"), who opened many doors for me. Heinz Caloué’s successor Angelika Zimmermann was a fantastic help to me in this matter.
And, to and behold, firsthand documents about making the German versions of the Laurel & Hardy films turned up from various sources. Over time, my speculation that there were many different German versions and titles became fact: it was a downright jungle I had to fight my way through. And naturally, it wasn’t only 5 actors who spoke Hardy’s voice, but many more.
In the meantime, I am in fact planning to publish my research as a book under the title "Dick und Doof. Die Geschichte von Laurel und Hardy in Deutschland" (English translation: Dick und Doof. The Story of Laurel & Hardy in Germany). My research is practically done. Two thirds of the manuscript is finished, and I hope, in addition to taking care of my job and family, to be able to complete it this year. In my book, I address, beginning in 1924, every German version of every clip, no matter how small, from every Laurel & Hardy film as well as from their solo films, and place them in context with censorship, the economic situation of distributors, the dubbing industry, advertising and reviews. In addition, I have worked out a systematic filmography that will be the most complete ever released in German speaking territories.