In 1994, Dale Walter Sr. and Dennis Moriarty traveled from Canton, Ohio, for their first Oliver Hardy Festival, where they planned to enter the look-alike contest.
The two - who had an uncanny likeness to Hardy and partner Stan Laurel and a down-pat impersonation of the two - were standing in line for the contest when they were told they would not be allowed to compete.
As impersonators, they were too close to their mark.
"They were looking for amateurs who just happen to look like Laurel and Hardy," Moriarty said. "We showed up as an organized team being able to work off each other, support each other and complement each other. I guess we didn't fit their criteria."
Instead, the two were pulled to lead the parade a in a Ford Model A as grand marshalls of the annual festival parade.
The Look-Alikes, as they call themselves, have been back as grand marshals every year since.
On Saturday, the two will be in Harlem leading off the 15th annual Oliver Hardy Festival parade.
Walter is not from the South, but still thinks of the region and Harlem as home.
"Being from up north, we have heard about Southern hospitality," he said.
By the day of the festival, the two will have spent more than a week in the area, appearing on several local television stations, promoting the festival and performing at local schools and clubs.
"It's their enthusiasm and their willingness to do whatever we ask them to while they are here," said Kathy Ham, director of Harlem's Historic, Trade and Tourism department. "Their enthusiasm just spills over."
The two first worked together at an Ohio electric company before they retired and began performing as clowns.
"We started clowning together as Pogo and Sparkie and working together, sharing the spotlight, trusting each other, supporting each other and working off each other," Moriarty said. "Here we thought we had developed something, and it was something Stan and Ollie were doing 75 years ago."
After performing a Laurel and Hardy skit for an Alzheimer's Association benefit in 1992, Moriarty's wife, Judy, noticed the striking similarity between the closed-mouth smile and searing blue eyes of her husband and Stan Laurel.
As Walter and Moriarty diligently studied Laurel and Hardy's history and mannerisms, they found obvious parallels between the on-screen pair's close relationship and life to their own.
"We just hit it off," Walter said. "It was just one of those connections. It is a friendship for a lifetime."
Moriarty, 64, is still working on Laurel's English accent, but has several of his known phrases down, he said. Walter, 67, grew a toothbrush moustache, dyed it black and even signs autographs upside down to imitate his proclaimed hero.
"As long as I can do justice to him, I will continue this way, until the persona is no longer there," Walter said. "We'll do everything we can to keep the spirit of the boys alive."
The Look-Alikes travel around the country, mainly in the North, performing at a handful of appearances each month. They say that the Harlem festival is one of their favorites.
"Ten years ago, when we came down here, it was just a little-bitty Southern town where folks were getting together," said Walter, who got to turn the key at the Laurel and Hardy Museum of Harlem's grand opening last July. "I have seen it grow the way it has, and it is just unbelievable that a town that size, on one given day, can have over 35,000 people. That just boggles the mind.
"I wouldn't miss it, not even if I had to be wheeled down here in a wheelchair or a hospital bed."
The 15th Annual Oliver Hardy Festival will kick off at 9 a.m. Saturday morning in downtown Harlem. Here is a list of events for the day:
9 a.m. - Children's parade
9:30 a.m. - Opening ceremony
10 a.m. - Parade
11 a.m. - Laurel and Hardy skit
11 a.m. to 1 p.m. - Barbecue chicken dinner
1:15 p.m. - Look-alike Contest
6 p.m. - Festival dance at Harlem High School, featuring Furman and the Backstreet Band, DJ Linda Eubanks and Damon Hendrix (Elvis impersonator)
All day - Live entertainment
Showing of Laurel and Hardy movies at the Laurel and Hardy Museum of Harlem
Live Civil War re-enactment
Two-day bicycle tours
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