Once again Norvell was the subject of ridicule and mockery over his weight. He was a 15-year-old boy who weighed 250lb (nearly 18 stone/113 Kg.) He had a penchant for ginger beer and cakes – particularly doughnuts, muffins and macaroons – and seems to have made no effort to reduce his bulk. Yet despite his weight he was a nimble, agile young man and he carried this through to the famous films, where he often had to run, fall, jump, climb – and dance – even at 300lb (136 Kg/21 stone).
On one particular warm day, Hardy collapsed on the parade ground in full kit, exhausted. He was conscious,but decided not to “get up and fall in” as he was ordered by military instructor Capt. John Spence. It took four rookie soldiers to carry him off the field.
Not surprisingly, Norvell came to fear school and played truant more than a little. His favourite spot was a local stretch of the Oconee River, upstream of a mill dam. Here, he would fish with a rod and line or simply strip off and enjoy a leisurely swim. Few other people used this secluded spot and he could be alone and safe, far from the cruel ravages of the bullies.
He saved himself from total humiliation however, in a familiar way. The campus staged regular concerts under the auspices of the GMC Players Club, and he exhibited his fine singing voice, interspersing his performances with jokes and monologues. His crowning glory was the lead role in a short musical comedy called Who Killed Cock Robin? in 1907. Reports speak of show-stopping acclaim for his big number, which was witnessed by his half-sister Elizabeth Sage. The shows were directed by GMC President William E. Reynolds and often featured Bardy as a member of a barber-shop quartet. Norvell also escaped the torture of derision by truanting from college and going fishing and swimming in his beloved Oconee River.
Hardy was dissatisfied with the food provided at the college, particularly the size of the portions. On one occasion he absconded and went home, demanding his mother bake him 20 Georgia oat biscuits as ransom for his return. She complied, he went back to school and ate them all in one sitting, according to anecdotal evidence.
Outside school, he would be sent into the street by his mother, wearing sandwich-boards advertising the hotel’s evening “blue plate special”. Locals would stop him in the street, saying: “Hey, Fatty, what’s cookin’ tonight?” He found this humiliating but consoled himself with the pocket money he received in return. He spent a good deal of the money he earned from this – and his allowance – at the Milledgeville Opera House, a real variety theatre, which staged everything from classical operas to Christmas pantomimes. It is likely that Norvell volunteered to sing during intervals and to accompany the magic-lantern slides which were always part of variety shows before (and for some time after) moving pictures arrived.
It was around this time that Norvell visited a tattooist, and had the outline of a leaf etched on his right arm – much to the displeasure of his mother – and to his own discomfort when the arm became infected and swollen. The leaf image was probably the cheapest design available.
Milledgeville had been designed and built in 1803 as the capital city of Georgia, thought to be the only American city purposely planned as a state capital. Although capital status had passed to Marthasville after it was enlarged, modernised and renamed Atlanta, Milledgeville was still an important town with many fine state buildings. These included The Georgia College and State University, which incorporates the former Governor’s mansion, the state penitentiary and the mental institution, starkly named Georgia Lunatic Asylum. As an important state capital, the city had been given priority by the railway builders, who laid a special branch track from the Augusta – Birmingham line plus a special spur to the asylum. (See Appendix III).
There is a widespread belief that when Norvell was aged 8, Charles Coburn’s Great Barlow Minstrels stayed at Emmie’s hotel in Milledgeville, and that Norvell joined them and went on tour as a boy soprano. The records show that the one and only stay by Coburn’s Minstrels at Emmie’s hotel in Milledgeville was when Hardy was 15. By then he was well-known for his singing and might well have appeared with Coburn’s Minstrels in Milledgeville and other nearby towns. But as he was 11 when the family moved to Milledgeville, and Coburn’s Minstrels did not visit until he was 15, there can be no truth in the notion that he went away with the troupe at the age of 8.
In later life when she heard this story, Emmie was mortified. She said the fiction made her appear to be an uncaring and negligent mother who let an 8-year-old boy go off with strangers. Hardy’s niece Mary Sage said in 1988 that the story had been a complete fabrication by Roach’s publicity department. Hardy had mentioned something about the Coburn’s Minstrels – perhaps singing with them in the hotel – and the publicists’ imagination had gone wild. The boy was too home-loving to roam, and he had plenty of chances to sing in the hotel with all the attention upon himself rather than as part of a troupe. In any case, his mother would have had to give permission for him to go away, prepare and pack his things and it would need to be cleared by the school authorities. Also, a guardian would have had to be appointed for such a thing to happen.
It never did. The Hardy family was still living in Madison when Norvell was 8.