Why would a hip, bespoke brewery like Schlafly Bottleworks host a Three Stooges Night once a month? Because we love them, that’s why!
I realize that Three Stooges fandom is a much divided enterprise. You either love them or you hate them. So, there’s a chance that you might already be not reading this. But, if you’ve not already tuned out, you might find there is much more to the story of the three knucklehead, slap stickers than you had thought. I promise intrigue, alcoholism, Nazis, brain damage, beating deaths, acid burns, brotherhood and nice Jewish boys who made a business of poking each other in the eyes.
The four main Three Stooges (I know that’s confusing, but we’ll sort it out) were born nice Jewish boys. Three were brothers: Samuel (Shemp), Moses (Moe) and Jerome (Curly) Horwitz. They were born in Brooklyn, New York in 1895, 1897 and 1903, respectively. The fourth, and with Moe the most consistent Stooge constituent, was born Louis Feinberg (Larry) in south Philadelphia in 1902.
In the later years the group also included Curly Joe DeRita and Joe Besser (born in St. Louis!!), but in general they are thought of as lesser Stooges by fans. Both were added to the group in the ‘50s to replace Curly, who by that time had been damaged by the constant beating he took from the not-as-fake-as-they-look blows to the head that was part of the Stooges’ trademark.
Shemp and Moe, having no love or money for college, entered trade school, Shemp for plumbing (no wonder there were so many plumbing skits!) and Moe to be an electrician. Neither found the trades very exciting because they had their eyes on performing and vaudeville.
In 1916, at the ages of 21 and 19, Shemp and Moe first put together a stage act and changed their last name to Howard. They kept at it until 1922 when they met a former schoolmate and successful vaudevillian, Ted Healy. Owing to Healy’s bossy nature (and severe alcoholism, we’ll get to that later), the trio was not yet known as The Three Stooges, but was billed as Ted Healy and His Stooges.
Cut to Louis Feinberg, or as we know him, Larry. Larry was son of a jeweler and, at the age of four, he was bringing a bottle of acid, used to test gold content, to his lips, thinking it was a beverage. His father noticed it and knocked the bottle away, but the acid fell on the boy’s arm, burning through his muscles all the way to the bone. The arm was skin grafted but was left weakened. Doctors suggested he take up boxing and he did, but his parents weren’t keen on it and also got him to take up violin. He excelled at both. Larry made money as a lightweight boxer and did well for himself but his violin led to him play with the Philadelphia Philharmonic at age 9. There was talk of sending the young man to a European music conservatory, but those plans were preempted by World War I.
Larry, who had changed his last name to Fine, took to vaudeville and was the master of ceremonies at Chicago’s Rainbo Gardens when he met Ted Healy and Shemp Fine, touring in the Shubert Brothers’ “Night in Spain,” in March 1928. Shemp was set to leave the production for a while and Larry was asked to take his place until Shemp’s return in September. Healy liked what he saw and when he signed a contract to perform in the Shubert’s new revue, “A Night in Venice,” in early 1929, he brought Shemp, Moe and Larry together for the first time, billed as the Three Stooges. The revue ran through the spring of 1930 and then the quartet toured as Ted Healy and his Racketeers for a while, culminating that summer with a trip to Hollywood to film “Soup to Nuts” for Fox Studios.
The movie was not a hit. Healy, who might have looked okay under stage lighting and from a distance, was not a prime candidate for the movies. Plus, his comedy relied largely on ad libs and improvisation and he wasn’t seen as “Hollywood material.” On the other hand, studio executives saw something in the other three and only they were offered contracts.
Healy exploded. He told the executives that Howard, Howard and Fine were his employees and that he already had them under contract. The offer was rescinded. The trio broke away from Healy after hearing of his actions and he forbade them from using any of the material, considering it copyrighted. Healy even threatened to bomb theaters that the Stooges might dare to play.
I did mention that Healy was a volatile drunk, didn’t I?
Amazingly, a couple of years later, in 1932, Healy managed to patch things up with the boys and they began working together once more. But it didn’t last. Shemp was a nervous sort and Healy’s penchant for violence and his turn-on-a-dime personality, both fueled by prodigious quantities of alcohol, sent Shemp off on a solo career. The oldest Howard brother was gone, but went on to have a solid career in movies and shorts.
Moe suggested that his baby brother Jerome be considered as Shemp’s replacement. Jerome showed up for his meeting with Healy with long, curly hair and a handlebar mustache and Healy immediately pronounced him “not funny,” probably having something to do with a weapons-grade hangover. It has been reported that neither Moe nor Larry really felt that Jerry had any comic talent either but, you know, he was family. Shemp, however, either felt differently or just really, really wanted out of the group so, at his suggestion, a freshly-shaved Jerry stuffed himself into a too-small bathing suit and, carrying a tiny pail of water, burst in on a Stooges act on stage. The result was hilarious and Curly was born.
Healy put together a one year contract with MGM and the group shot some shorts and a couple of full-length movies but, in 1934, the contract was not renewed and the men went their separate ways.
Let’s talk a minute about Ted Healy. Look, the guy was very successful. He influenced Bob Hope, Red Skelton and Milton Berle, by their admission. But he was the definition of his own worst enemy. Not only was he drunk most of the time (and violent and explosive and mean), he was also stupid. He insulted Lucky Luciano’s heritage. He tried to rob Al Capone’s safe as a gag. He had an affair with Pasquale DiCicco’s wife, Thelma Todd, and DiCicco was Luciano’s eyes-and-ears man in Hollywood.
Todd ended up very dead in 1935, ruled a suicide but always thought to be the work of hubby DiCicco. Healy thought maybe he ought to lay off the actresses and he married a UCLA student, surely many years his junior (it’s been going on forever, hasn’t it?). But he did not lay off the booze. Nor did he stop acting like an ass. A couple of years after Todd’s death Healy was out celebrating the birth of his first child, already knee-walking drunk, when he ran into Mr. DiCicco, along with a young Wallace Beery.
Did Healy behave himself?
He started a fight with Beery and then suggested they “take it outside.” They did. Beery and DiCicco beat and kicked Healy with savagery. Healy fell into a coma and died the next day. An autopsy, no doubt supported by Mr. DiCicco, reported that Healy had died of acute alcoholism. While his organs surely would have been ravaged by his drinking, the report left out a lot about the trauma associated with being pummeled to a pulp in an alley. Healy’s wife, and a new mother, complained about the lack of investigation. She was fired from the MGM contract player job she had landed and never worked in Hollywood again. Wallace Beery took a three month vacation in Europe.
By this time, the Three Stooges had been under contract for three years with another Hollywood sociopath, Harry Cohn, of Columbia Studios. They had made a couple of dozen shorts and five features for Columbia and their shtick of pie fights and violence had formed and taken root. In a town as insular and gossipy as Hollywood, it’s possible, maybe even probable, that the trio knew what had really happened to their former partner but it would have been bad juju indeed to have let on or demand further inquiry.
The Stooges made 190 shorts for Columbia in their 23 years there. Their two-reel shorts became so popular that Cohn used them as leverage against movie theaters. He would not send the Stooges shorts they desired unless they agreed to play them before a great number of their not-so-great B movie features. But Cohn successfully held this information from the boys, granting them only one year contracts throughout their time there, telling them the market was dying for their humor and only renegotiating at the last minute. Moe, the group’s business manager, didn’t learn of Cohn’s con until they stopped making the shorts in 1957, learning only then of the millions of dollars that had been left on the table.
The Stooges were required by Columbia to make up to eight shorts per year in a 40 week period. The remaining time could be spent on their own or, often, touring to promote their act. The years from 1934 to 1941 were considered their prime and the shorts left few premises unturned. “Hoi Polloi,” in 1935, had a Pygmalion theme (with the boys attempting education). Also in 1935, “Three Little Beers” depicted the boys doing their worst to a golf course. In “Disorder in the Court” the trio was cast as witnesses to a murder trial. In one of their most famous works, in 1940, the group became plumbers and nearly demolished a socialite’s mansion in “A Plumbing We Will Go.”
Then, in 1940 and 1941, respectively, the Stooges starred in two shorts that are among the favorites of aficionados and the Stooges themselves: “You Natzy Spy!” and “I’ll Never Heil Again.” Mind you, these productions were made while America was still neutral in the conflict already going on in Europe.
In “I’ll Never Heil Again” Moe played Moe Hailstone, patterned on Adolf Hitler, Larry played an ambassador ala Joachim von Ribbentrop and Curly played a character very similar to Hermann Göring. Hitler was not impressed and he put them on his personal death list. So that’s fun.
All of this started months before Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” (Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!)
The group produced a great many works during the war years, including one poking fun at Japan, “The Yoke’s On Me,” in 1944. But it seemed that, with a limited formula, the boys and their directors were trying to outdo themselves. Production costs rose, more scenes were shot on location and more violence was worked in. The productions became viewed as lesser works, especially after 1942, but the increased violence brought about a more ominous result.
Curly, the hulking man child, had an inherent innocence stuffed, like his body, into a too-tight suit. Audiences ate him up like theater candy. The formula for the Stooges’ comedy became heavily reliant on Curly, and on physical abuse directed at him. Curly was very conscious about his head being shaved, now an absolute requirement for his character, and he felt it kept women from liking him. He began to drink and eat heavily and his weight ballooned, starting in the ‘40s. The constant violence the act required, in addition to his hard living, took a toll.
Curly’s performances began to suffer. His hands shook; he had trouble delivering and remembering lines; his blood pressure soared and he suffered a series of cerebral hemorrhages. The 1945 short, “If a Body Meet a Body,” shows Curly visibly debilitated. Curly continued to make shorts through 1947 but he suffered a stroke during “Half-Wit’s Holiday” that ended his career. He did manage a part in 1949’s “Malice in the Palace” as a chef, the only short to feature all four Stooges.
With Curly unable to continue, Moe turned to his older brother, Shemp, and asked him to rejoin the group. Shemp was hesitant, having built a nice career of his own, but he knew that refusal would probably mean the end for his brother’s act. At the time, they believed that Curly’s ailments were temporary and that Shemp’s reunion would only be until Curly could return.
Curly, however, did not improve and comedian Buddy Hackett was approached to join. Hackett refused and Shemp signed on for a longer term. In 1952, Curly passed away of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Shemp made 76 shorts and one feature with the Stooges after his return. Larry, often a background character during Curly’s heyday, became more featured, even becoming the focus on “Fuelin’ Around” and “He Cooked His Goose.” I liked those a great deal.
The “Shemp years” also held another distinction: the Stooges invaded television, appearing on shows by Milton Berle, Morey Amsterdam, Ed Wynn, Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra and Eddie Cantor. But, three years after Curly’s death, in 1955, Shemp passed away, at age 60, from a heart attack.
Moe was devastated and wanted to disband the group but, ever the supportive boss, Cohn reminded him that the studio was owed four more Shemp shorts. Using recycled footage and a Shemp “look-alike,” Joe Palma (filmed only from behind), the group completed the final four owed under that contract, all released in 1956.
A third Stooge was once again needed and Columbia insisted on someone they already had under contract. Joe Besser (our St. Louis boy!) made 16 shorts with the group from 1956 through 1958, the group’s final work under contract with Columbia.
In 1958, Columbia refused to renew the contract and things ended with a whimper. Moe went to the studio at one point to say some goodbyes, but since he didn’t have a current pass, was not allowed entry. Without a contract, the Stooges thought they would try to make a go of personal appearances but Joe Besser’s wife became ill and he declined the notion of travel.
Moe and Larry were again searching for a third Stooge. Former burlesque performer Joe DeRita was chosen.
But a bit of a windfall was coming. The burgeoning television market was ripe for time-filling shorts and the Stooges work seemed perfect to fit the bill. In January 1958, Screen Gems, the Columbia television subsidiary, offered stations 78 Stooges shorts, most from the Curly era. They were a hit, so 40 more were released. By 1959, all 190 Columbia-produced Three Stooges shorts were available for broadcast.
Suddenly the boys were back in demand. It was suggested that DeRita shave his head in order to look more like Curly from their prime era and he became Curly-Joe. The lineup, billed as Larry, Moe and Curly-Joe enjoyed a bit of a Renaissance, appearing in six full-feature films from ’59 to ’65 and they became one of the most popular and highest-paid live acts in the country. In addition to appearing on numerous television shows in the ‘60s, they filmed 41 short comedy pieces for “The New Stooges,” an animated series with 156 cartoons, in 1965.
In 1969-70, the group was working on a series that would depict the Stooges as retired and traveling the world. During production of the pilot episode, Larry Fine suffered a stroke and was paralyzed, ending plans for the series. DeRita made an attempt at forming “The New Three Stooges” but the results were not good and he quietly retired.
Larry suffered more strokes and passed away in January 1975. Moe was diagnosed with lung cancer and also passed away that year.
Seventy years after their prime season, the Three Stooges are still popular. It seems they are still constantly delighting older fans and always managing to draw new ones. They have been a presence on television consistently since 1958. Theaters hold festivals of their work. While they may not have had the sophistication of Charlie Chaplin, or the subtlety of Buster Keaton, they did, as Steve Allen once said, “succeed in accomplishing what they always intended to do: they made people laugh.”
Schlafly Bottleworks, 7260 Southwest Avenue, in Maplewood, hosts “Three Stooges Night” the second Monday of each month from 7-9 pm. The series is set to continue well into 2018.
Long live the Stooges!