Ok I know I said we’d talk about the Avengers, but let’s hold off on that till next week. There’s a lot going on this week! Aside from the first games of the Stanley Cup playoffs, there is also a movie that has just come out throwing back to some of the biggest comedic stars of the silver screen; The Three Stooges. This week let us pause to explore the story behind these three characters. It may surprise you…
The original troop was a vaudeville slapstick act in 1925 made up of Moe Howard, Shemp Howard, and Larry Fine. They were lead by Ted Healy. The name they performed under varied between Ted Healy and His Stooges, Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen, and Ted Healy and His Racketeers. They first appeared in a movie, Soup and Nuts, in 1930 made by Fox Film Corporation. The movie itself was only marginally successful but the Stooges received a very positive reaction. Fox offered the group a contract without Healy (who was extremely difficult to work with) but Healy wouldn’t have it.
They split from Healy briefly till 1932. Shemp couldn’t take working with him and left the group. He was replaced by his and Moe’s younger brother Curly Howard. In 1933 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) signed them for a year and the next year they not only left MGM but also Healy once and for all. Apparently he was not only difficult to work with, he was also an alcoholic. So then later that year, 1934, they signed with Columbia and stayed with them for 23 years. It was the beginning of the Moe, Larry, and Curly years.
TheColumbiayears were their most memorable but also very hard and in some ways sad. They worked for 40 weeks and then were off for 12, pretty standard, and they spent that free time with their families or promoting their live shows. During their years withColumbiathey made 190 comedic shorts and five feature film all well received. Nevertheless, they were constantly being told that they would soon be dropped from their contracts until the very last moment. In the 23 years they worked at Columbia, they never received a pay raise. It wasn’t until much later that they discovered the underhanded dealings they had been given. The boys were rather insecure people and unfortunately that made them easy to manipulate.
Their work though was extremely popular to the WWII era audiences and was a huge money maker for the studio. They were kept completely in the dark about their popularity however. (Fun Fact: like I said, The Three Stooges did comedic shorts. The shorts were made to be shown in movie theatres just before the main even movie which was usually a drama. Their shorts were so popular that people would go to the movies just to see the shorts! Bit of a blow for the drama, but I mean, it was the WWII/post depression era; who wants a drama when you can get that at home?)
The Stooges suffered a tragic blow when Curly had a severe stroke in 1946. Shemp came back to fill in till Curly’s health returned but he never returned full time. Curly passed away January 18, 1952. Shemp stayed with the group for 76 shorts but passed away three years after Curly in November of 1955 from a heart attack. After that in 1956, Joe Besser, a well established comic seen on the Abbot and Costello Show, joined the Stooges for 16 shorts. They were not great successes and in 1957 their contract with Columbia finally expired.
Joe DeRita then joined the boys after Joe Besser left. He shaved his head and beard, playing to his uncanny resemblance to Curly, and so as to be distinguishable from the former Joe they called him Curly Joe. From 1959-1965 they made a bunch of movies geared towards kids and also tried their hands at television. They filmed pilots for two TV shows that never got off the ground but during the 60s The Three Stooges were the highest paid and most popular live acts in the USA. But tragedy struck again in 1970 when Larry suffered a paralyzing stroke. He suffered several more in 1974 and then in January, 1975 he passed away at the age of 72. Moe hung in there, convinced that the act should live on but passed away himself shortly after in May of ’75 after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
For some of the funniest and well loved people of comedy in our culture’s tradition, The Three Stooges have one of the saddest stories. They are honored now though by a new movie staring Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe, Sean Hayes as Larry, and Will Sasso as Curly. Our very own Joe Hummel says it is a well written and well acted tribute to the boys which makes me happy. As a performer, I can appreciate not only the difficulty of comedy but also the level of dedication slapstick in particular requires. The physical demand of the art form and the amount of self that the artist puts into the work is something to be admired and respected. The Stooges may have had the admiration but in their time they did not get the respect. The legacy they left though is one of laughter, joy, fun, and fearless performance, contrasting significantly to their lives behind the scenes. It is an amazing testament to the spirit of the artist and raises the age old question; when does the artist become the art? And which is more real?
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