Rupert, Mae and Stan
Rupert, Mae and Stan
“Just a bunch of wattle from your far off home” sang Rupert as the ship sailed out of Sydney Heads. Mae smiled at his sentimentality.
“You just wait, Rupert Cuthbert. We’re going to be huge stars in America!”
Rupert smiled back at her, thinking her optimism was what they needed right now. He was going to miss Australia but was excited about the future. Little did he know that less than four years later, he would be divorcing Mae after she left him for Arthur Stanley Jefferson, the future Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame.
Rupert was a vaudeville singer born in Melbourne, Australia in 1880. He had married Mae, or May Charlotte Dahlberg, in Hobart in 1906 when they had both been performing with Mr. Bain’s vaudeville company. Mae was a dancer with the company that had a variety of the usual vaudeville acts that travelled across Australia performing at small theatres in the pre-film era.
Mae was a blue eyed, auburn haired beauty of her day with a fiery temperament. Mae’s temperament was one reason for leaving Australia and the small vaudeville scene there. It wasn’t good to burn your bridges in a small industry where all the company owners knew one another and no matter how talented you were, disagreements over money and conditions soon sour reputations.
In 1913 the couple decided to try their luck in the USA. They boarded the Niagara from Sydney and arrived in Seattle a few weeks later.
By 1916, Mae had joined up with Cissy Hayden to form the vaudeville act The Hayden Sisters. Along with Rupert who sang and acted in various roles with the troop, they toured the west coast of the USA for a number of years. One of the troops they regularly came into contact with was the Fred Karno troupe.
The Karno troupe is famous for being the breeding ground of many of the screen’s first comedic talents. Acts like Charlie Chaplin, Billy Reeves and Stanley Jefferson came over with Fred Karno to the US to tour their vaudeville. Chaplin was the lead performer and when he left in 1913 to make silent films, the company went bankrupt after losing all of their bookings.
Mae and Stanley Jefferson met on the vaudeville circuit around the time she was performing with the Hayden Sisters. Both were on the west coast travelling the circuits and by 1917, Mae and Stanley were living together. Rupert had been thrown to the curb and was still travelling with vaudeville acts but had moved to the east coast where he was less likely to run into his now ex wife and her new partner.
It is believed that Mae came up with the idea of changing Arthur’s name to Stan Laurel. She was highly superstitious and did not like that his name had thirteen letters in it. Stories abound as to how they came up with the surname Laurel but the most frequently reported one is that the laurels earned by Roman generals inspired Mae.
A film producer caught their act in 1917 in Los Angeles and offered the duo a chance to put their act onto film. Together Mae and Stan made their first film called Nuts in May. In it, Mae played a character many reported she was in real life; a dominating, interfering older woman. Stan was offered a two reel contract at $75 a week with the condition that Mae appear in his films.
This film contract did not last as reorganization at the studio cancelled their contract and the pair returned to vaudeville. Throughout the early 1920’s Stan and Mae worked on a number of films with directors such as Billy Anderson. It was one of these films that Stan first appeared with Oliver Hardy, Stan’s later partner.
In 1924, Stan was finally offered a long-term contract with the producer Joe Rock that would enable him to give up his stage work entirely. However this on the condition that Mae not appear in any of his films. It was becoming clear to all around Stan that Mae was hindering his career, especially after Mae lied to Stan about sexual advances that she said Rock had made towards her. Rock offered Mae a cash settlement and a one-way ticket back to Australia. She accepted his offer and returned to Australia. Stan Laurel went on to join up with Oliver Hardy and became one of the early Hollywood legends.
Mae remained in Australia until 1936 when she returned to the US and sued Stan for $1000 week alimony. However the courts rejected this, as the pair had not lived together since 1925.
Not much is known of Mae’s later career. It is believed she become a drama teacher working between Australia and New York. She died in New York City in 1969, penniless in a nursing home. Rupert remarried and lived the rest of his life in New York. He never returned to Australia before dying relatively young in 1935.