On Sunday night, May 4, 1975, Moe Howard, the last member of the original Three Stooges comedy team died from lung cancer at the age of 77. And with him died a comedy of yesteryear made famous by the likes of Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harry Langdon. This was the comedy of old-time slapstick, the exaggerated, the burlesque, the days of the funny looking man who wasn't very bright.
And of these famous clowns, the Three Stooges remained the most productive, with some two hundred films to their credit and an act which spanned nearly five decades. Their comedies continue to be shown almost daily on local television stations across this country and countless others. The familiar slap on the face, bop on the head, and poke in the eyes bring tears of laughter to their most ardent admirers.
The facts behind the teaming of these funny, funny men is not generally known. Moe was born Maurice Harry Howard in Brooklyn on June 19, 1897. He grew up with three brothers, Shemp (born Samuel in 1895), Ben, and Jerome (better known as Curly, born 1903). Moe and Shemp, along with their boyhood friend Charles Nash frequented the local vaudeville and legitimate theaters before their teens, and Moe managed to appear as an extra in many of the silent films being shot on Long Island. At 14, he ran away from home and ended up performing on Mississippi river boats in roles ranging from blackface to Shakespeare. Later he played with various minstrel troupes and finally he and Shemp formed a blackface act that played theaters with moderate success.
Charles Nash had also entered the field of vaudeville. He changed his name to Ted Healy and did different acts with different partners. At one time, Moe substituted as Healy's partner when the original partner was out with penumonia thanks to being constantly doused with water in the act. Another time, Healy found himself hosting a variety of acts at Brooklyn's Prospect. Theater when a gymnast act walked out on him. At a loss, he invited the heckling Moe and Shemp to come out of the audience and onto the stage to try their hand at it. The year was 1921, and the Howard brothers became regular members of Healy's act, leaving occasionally to try their hands at a more legitimate business, but invariably returning to Ted.
The act toured for four years before Shemp decided he needed a change. He and a friend name Jack Waldon wanted to team in an act of their own. They were playing Chicago at the time, and Shemp and Healy went to the Rainbow Gardens Cafe to discuss the matter over a meal. On the bill at the Cafe was a novelty act called. The Haney Sisters and Fine. Loretta and Mabel Haney sang and danced with Larry Fine (Feinberg) who played the violin and did a Russian dance simultaneously. Healy was suitably impressed and after the show went backstage to ask Larry to replace Shemp in his act. The Haney's were breaking up anyway, but Larry was reluctant. He had never done comedy before. Larry said he would think it over. The next night Larry returned to the Cafe only to find that it had been closed because of illegal drinking on the premises. As a result of this, the manager had committed suicide, and Larry was out of a job. He decided to accept Healy's offer.
Larry was born in Philadelphia on October 5, 1902, and while growing up had won many amateur contests in the city with his violin. He eventually entered show business as a master of ceremonies until he met up with the Haney sisters. Mabel Haney soon became his wife, and the act began to tour the country. That night when Larry arrived at Healy's theater, an obliging Al, Jolson pushed him onto the stage where he ad libbed his first comedy to audience enthusiasm. Larry was now a member of the team. Shemp too returned after his act with Waldon had fizzled.
In the following years, the team went through numerous name changes. They were billed as Ted Healy and his Southern Gentlemen and later Ted Healy and his Racketeers. Healy was the undisputed straight man and leader, dressed in a cheap suit and never without his Derby or beat-up Fedora (he was bald underneath). Shemp had naturally parted his hair in the middle, which would hang down over his loving-cup ears whenever he was exasperated. Moe grew up sporting a sugar-bowl haircut and it stayed in the act. He was the squat ugly bully of the team. One night after Larry had had a swim, his naturally curly hair dried into a long frizz which surrounded bald to the middle scalp. Healy and the Howards approved and it became part of his stage character.
The famous slapstick came about accidentally during a backstage card game. Moe accused Shemp of cheating, and when Shemp denied it he found two well-aimed fingers in his eyes. Healy was convulsed with laughter and it was used in the act to exaggerated extents. Only once did they actually hurt each other when many years later Moe's ring caught on Larry's lip during a slap.
In 1930, the boys were playing the Palace Theater in New York. On the same bill was another comedian named Fred Sanborn. A talent scout from Fox. Studios caught the show and signed them for a movie appearance, along with Sanborn. They went to Hollywood and appeared briefly in a an all-star revue called Soup To Nuts that same year. Sanborn was billed as one of Healy's Racketeers along with Moe, Shemp and Larry. The boys fit in well with cartoonist Rube Gold-berg's screenplay and a Fox contract for Moe, Larry and Shemp fell through because of Healy's interference. San-born went on his way, and Healy and his Racketeers returned to New York appearing in Greenwich Village Follies and Earl Carroll's Vanities on Broadway. When Shemp's contract with Healy expired, he jumped at an offer to portray the character of Knobby Walsh for Vitaphone's (later Warner Brothers) Joe Palooka Series.
Healy needed a replacement an Moe suggested his younger brother Jerome (his brother Ben had gone into the insurance business). Healy was uncertain. Jerome's appearance didn't fit in with the others. He had long wavy brown hair and a wax moustache. He was a trifle heavyset which Healy thought might be an asset. Moe assured Healy that the mustache would go and that Jerry would shave his head. After he had done that, Heal was ready to audition him. Jerome had never acted or even appeared before an audience before and his nervous ness caused him to speak in a very high-pitched voice. Healy was delighted and Jerry was hired. He appeared professionally under the nickname Curly. On stage, his cherubic appeal was heightened by a series of grunts and squeals which padded out the time when Jerry forgot his lines.
In 1933, the group tried Hollywood again, this time at MGM. Now calling themselves Ted Healy and his Stooges they appeared in six two-reel comedie of their own (some in experimental color), and turned up in some parts in feature length films starring Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery and Victor MacLaglen. At the end of this small contract, Healy finally decided that he was too big for the group and pursued a solo career as a character actor. He worked steadily until his death in 1937 during a bar fight while celebrating the birth of a son.
The Stooges became the Three Stooges and were offered a straight twenty-four year contract with Columbia Studios' newly formed short subjects department. This contract was renewed each year by a simple handshake. Their first short was entitled Woman Haters, and they were billed under a rising contract starlet named Marjorie White. With their second film, Punch Drunks, they were credited with the story and were clearly the stars. Their third short, Men In Black, a spoof on a recent Clark Gable hospital picture, was nominated for an Academy Award for the best short subject of 1934. It lost to Walt Disney's cartoon The Three Little Pigs, the last time cartoons and shorts were entered in the same category. Undaunted, the team filmed a spoof of college football called The Three Little Pigskins, featuring a young unknown named Lucille Ball.
The Stooges filmed their comedies for release eight times a year, many filmed close together so that they would have time to make personal appearances at theaters and night clubs. The act was pretty much the way it had always been — Moe the bullying leader, Curly the ignorant innocent, and Larry the middle man who more or less went along and got in the way. On film they tackled such subjects as the popularity of quiz shows and the nature-nurture controversy. In the early forties, many of their films had a nationalistic, patriotic theme, with Moe parodying Hitler. People like Lloyd Bridges, Walter Brennan, and Jock Mahoney used the Stooges' comedies as stepping stones to their later successful careers. Many of their films were directed by famed comedian Charley Chase who had appeared in a number of acclaimed comedies on the Hal Roach lot (Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang). The Three Stooges were in their salad days and soon became the most popular item the studio had, outshining staples like Andy Clyde and Leon Errol.
It was in 1946 that an overseas tour was discussed. Even though Curly's vitality had been sapping, his popularity remained intact, and after finishing their last film for that year, they would be off. But Curly's poor health coupled with the required immunity injections caused him to have a stroke. While he convalesced, Moe and Larry had to finsh the short on their own. It was entitled Half-Wits Holiday (a remake of one of their earlier films), and during its climactic pie fight, Curly was conspicuously absent. Curly remained ill and it was obvious that a replacement had to be found. Finally it was agreed that Shemp would come back to the team. While he had been away, he had appeared in many Universal films with Abbott and Costello, W. C. Fields, and for a while had had his own short subject series at Columbia.
The Stooges continued as before, making their comedies and also personal appearances. In Shemp's third outing Hold That Lion, Curly made a token appearance as a sleeping train passenger. But for the next six years, Curly had to be cared for by a private nurse around the clock. He suffered another stroke and died in January, 1952.
Shemp's comedies with the team took on slightly different styles. Many were comedy-thrillers which were popular at the time. Running time was trimmed down to sixteen minutes from the previous eighteen. A few of the team's earlier scripts with Curly were reworked for Shemp. Sometimes stock footage from earlier flims was used and only a few new sequences had to be filmed, and these were then released as brand new shorts.
When 3-D came out in films, the Three Stooges made two of their comedies in that technique. Only one was released to theaters. Other experimental comedy ideas were tried, but failed. Only the familiar Three Blind Mice theme song they had been using seemed to remain intact. Outdoor shooting was eliminated, using redecorated sets from Columbia's major features. The Stooges continued to have success in spite of these handicaps.
Then one evening in November, 1955, Shemp suffered a heart attack in the back of a taxi cab while on the way to the boxing matches with some friends. He died before reaching the hospital. Columbia had enough of a backlog of shorts to release for awhile, but the future of the act came under serious discussion. Four shorts were released consisting of stock footage with a few new sequences featuring mostly Moe and Larry. A double was used for Shemp, but his face was never seen. Moe and Larry considered calling themselves The Two Stooges when Columbia suggested they use comedian Joe Besser for the third. Besser was born in St. Louis in 1908 and began in show business as an assistant to magician Howard Thurston. He worked his way up to his own local radio shows, Broadway shows and revues, small parts in films, and finally his own short subject comedies at Columbia. Moe and Larry agreed to this arrangement, but Besser was kept under separate contract to ensure that he could continue to also work solo when he wanted to.
Besser appeared as a Stooge in sixteen comedies released over a two-year period (1957-1958), but the care and work put into the team's earlier films had all but disappeared. This was a shame, for Besser was a fine comic who had appeared as a foil to the best in the business including Jack Benny and Abbott and Costello. But the material supplied to him as one of the Three Stooges just didn't have the familiar sparkle or any definite character relationship to Moe and Larry. Almost half of the Besser shorts used scripts from older Shemp or Curly films that couldn't be counted among their best when they made them. The others concentrated on a science fiction and space monster theme that just didn't work. When their contract with Columbia expired in 1957, it was not renewed, even though the studio continued to release their backlog of films well into 1959. Joe Besser, of course, could continue to work solo, but Moe and Larry were in the public eye as a team and they seemed to have no place to go.
In 1958, Screen Gems, the television subsidiary for Columbia, packaged 78 of the Stooges' films with Curly and sold them to television. They were an immediate success to a whole new generation of viewers. Moe's son-in-law. Norman Maurer, an enterprising young man who had formerly been a comic book artist, came up with ideas to book the Stooges at theaters and nightclubs across the country to cash in on the TV success. Moe and Larry were enthusiastic, but Joe Besser presented a problem. He had taken other film offers and he didn't want to travel because his wife was ill. Again they needed a third for the act and former Philadelphian Joe De Rita was hired. De Rita had been a former burlesque comedian for entrepreneur Harold Minsky, and even though he was over fifteen years younger than Moe, he was quite, rotund, and he agreed to shave his hair. He went under the nickname of Curly-Joe.
The night clubs commitments were honored and The Three Stooges were again a big time act. They formed a film company called Normandie Productions (for Norman Maurer who served as producer and sometime director and writer). They made a deal with Columbia to release a series of low-budget, high-grossing films, with the Stooges owning a full fifty percent (they received no residuals from the television reruns). The first was called Have Rocket, Will Travel and it did very well, especially at special Saturday matinees. Columbia was quick to cash in on the Stooges' new found success and released some of Curly's best shorts in a feature with ventriloquist Paul Winchell and the Marquis Chimps to somehow connect the episodes. The film was called Stop! Look! And Laugh! The Stooges were contacted by Twentieth-Century-Fox to film a Technocolor musical based on the Snow White legend. They accepted, but the rest of their four features were released through Columbia. Joe Besser had been promised that he would return to the group, but he was not approached so he took an offer to be a semi-regular on Joey Bishop's situation comedy television series.
The Three Stooges appeared on Merv Griffin and Ed Sullivan and did cameos in Stanley Kramer's It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, plus a Dean Martin-Frank Sinatra western. Merchandise with their names and images began to appear on the market.
For their last feature film, The Outlaws Is Coming, all the film's famous villains were played by the local kiddie show hosts that showed their old comedies across the country, so that when the movie would play, kids came to see their local celebrity as well as the Stooges. Another feature was planned, but Normandie Productions ran out of funds. A series of 156 independent cartoons were made featuring the Stooges' own voices and live action sequences of the trio.
In 1969, they made a one hour television special entitled Kook's Tour, and planned others, when Larry was felled by a stroke. His entire left side became paralyzed. After hospital stays and private nurses, Larry finally gained admission to the Motion Picture Country House Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. Kook's Tour was never released to television and is still in negotiation to be released as a feature film.
Larry's stroke broke up the team for the last time. Moe did not feel like rehearsing another person for the role, so he worked on an autobiography and made personal appearances on the Mike Douglas Show and at theaters and colleges across the country. He would tell how the team got together, talked about the haircuts and the slapstick, and by himself intoned their entire night club act. The fan mail continued to pour in and Moe and Larry answered it all by hand.
Larry would appear at high schools and colleges near the hospital and show his films to packed assemblies. The nurses at the home prompted him to write down his experiences into a manuscript, which he entitled A Stroke Of Luck. As in his personal appearances, the book stressed the fact that he never gave up hope and that he would be well once more.
He went into partnership with a man named James Carone who claimed copyright without Larry's knowledge. The book was published by a small company, and sold through the mail only, Larry himself doing TV commercials for it. The book was available in December 1973, but shortly after Larry received complaints from his fans saying they had sent the money but hadn't been sent the book. The following summer, Larry and his brother Morris H. Feinberg of Northeast Philadelphia worked on a deal to merchandise tee shirts with the Stooges' likeness printed on it. Again, Larry promoted it on television himself.
Moe did not like the errors in Larry's book, and his personal appearances prevented him from devoting more time to his own. Joe De Rita had been making personal appearances too. Moe granted him permission to form an act called The New Three Stooges, with character actor Paul "Mousie" Garner and acrobatic comedian Frank Mitchell (formerly teamed with Jack Durant in Alice Faye musicals of the 1930's) as the other members. The act, though, failed miserably and played only a few engagements.
Joe Besser appeared in commercials and television shows, before his semi-retirement in 1971. He occasionally does voices for cartoon characters on Saturday morning shows like The Hound-Cats and Jeannie.
On January 24, 1975, Larry suffered a final stroke and died in his sleep. He was 72. Within four months, Moe died, three weeks after completing his autobiography. It is entitled I Stooge To Conquer, and his widow Helen is seeing to it that it will be published and made available by early this year.
The team is gone. These men had never retired, continuing to clown, and hit, and to take pratfalls when they were all well past middle-aged. They never pretended to be great comedians and satirists. They never pretended either to be great screen comics. They never pretended because they didn't have to pretend. They were. And to the countless fans who will continue to enjoy the Stooges' antics daily on television and in movie houses, they still are.
Publication Date: Spring 1976 Reprint Issue