Gary Russeth sits near the door of the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Harlem, usually from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as the museum’s sole volunteer, waiting to tell hundreds of people a month about the comedian duo that impacted his life and gave him an outlet for expression.
Russeth grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota during the 40s. His father was an alcoholic. Russeth said he found an exit from his situation through Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
“It was an escape...kind of like a savior,” he said. “I took, very much, a liking to them.”
Russeth said the duo’s style of comedy drew him. He said he liked how they worked together, the banter, and what they did with their material. They took everyday problems and exaggerated. To compare them to television today, Russeth said he thinks the Big Bang Theory is a new version of Laurel and Hardy.
“I never really laughed at them,” he said. “I just studied them.”
As a young boy, Russeth drew cartoons. By drawing, Russeth said he avoided other kids teasing him, as they showed interest in his work. In school, Russeth said art was his only good point. In general, he said, he was bad at school.
“My worst subject in school was school,” he said.
Once he started 10th grade, Russeth began to work. He said he got a job at a ready mix plant washing trucks and changing oil. Still, he continued with school and graduated from Patrick Henry High School.
Though he had an interest in art, Russeth decided to join the military instead of going to art school since he struggled with art history. Then there was the feeling of inevitability. The war in Vietnam had begun. Many had already left to fight. Russeth said he enlisted because he figured he’d get drafted anyway. He served in the military for four years between 1963 to 1967, doing two tours in Vietnam.
“I tell everyone I graduated from the Marine Corp,” he said.
Russeth got out of the military at 22 and decided to go home. Initially, he said he wanted to work for a telephone company since he had a brother working there already, but they didn’t need anyone at the time. So, he went to a dispatch plant. Russeth met his wife, Jean, while working on a mobile home. After marrying, the couple bought a home in Minneapolis, had a child, then went back to western Minnesota, where he had another child and lived there for 28 years.
While living in Minnesota, Russeth said he had many jobs. Some of his work included assembling machines, driving a tractor for a farmer, and working in sales.
“Having a lack of education, you take what you can get,” he said.
Still, he found success. He made life support equipment for helicopters at the time he retired. And, he said, they are still used to this day.
In addition, throughout those years, Russeth kept creating. In 1953, he started making models from kits. He also started working on Laurel Hardy figures. From then, Russeth created marionettes, car creations, and other crafts, using plexiglass and wood, among other materials, to make his art.
“I was always making something,” he said.
In 1987, Russeth made a photo op tribute to Laurel and Hardy. The tribute was made of the same materials that make theater flats. Over the years, he’s made 15 sets made for school plays. Russeth would take the tribute to the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Harlem when it opened in 2002. He and his wife would go to the annual Harlem festival and also participated in Laurel and Hardy themed events.
“My life kind of revolves around them,” he said.
After taking the tribute to Harlem, Russeth and his wife decided to move to the city to be by the museum and be at the home of the Laurel and Hardy festival. Russeth had also retired and thought to keep active.
“You got to do something when you retire or you waste away,” he said.
The couple came to Harlem three years later.
“I got tired from shoveling snow off the roof,” he said of moving from Minnesota.
When he first started working at the museum, Russeth said he volunteered a day and a half. As volunteers decreased, his time at the museum increased. Now, he’s there every day the museum is opened. He has volunteered at the museum for 14 years. Russeth still says he feels shy, but also said he loves interacting with the people that come.
He has also not lessened in his passion for Laurel and Hardy since beginning work at the museum. Russeth has started digitizing letters from Laurel, which he said equal 17,075, so that the community can know him better. He also repairs items in a museum. Once, he got a donation of a Laurel and Hardy piece that came in 100 broken pieces. It took him a half a week to fix.
“Once I get started on a project, I can’t stop,” he said.“ I’m a crazy Norwegian.”
Russeth’s latest project is making Laurel and Hardy figures for a doll house. Although Russeth donates some of his creations to the Laurel and Hardy Museum, he also has a museum of his own, filled with Laurel and Hardy artifacts and Russeth’s own creations. The Ollie Also and Stanie Too Fine Mess Old Car Museum of Harlem, Georgia sits behind his house in a big blue building. His wife gives tours of the place. He is still adding things into the museum, though it is jam packed with items. The ideas for creations keep him up at night, he said.
“I dream about them,” he said. “I like the adventure of making something out of nothing.”