In 1922, the comedian Ted Healy ran into a problem during his engagement at New York City’s Brooklyn Prospect Theater: a pair of acrobats he partnered with abruptly walked out, leaving him stranded without an act. Healy contacted two childhood friends, the brothers Moe and Shemp Howardto join him on the stage and the trio brought down the house with a wild improvised segment.
Over the years, the act changed its name and personnel, ultimately resulting in a comedy squadron called the Three Stooges. To celebrate the centennial of the knockabout mischief-makers, here are the 10 weirdest facts related to the Three Stooges.
How Many Stooges Were There? Healy and the Howard brothers were joined in 1925 by Larry Fine in an act that became known as Ted Healy and His Racketeers. The name “Three Stooges” was not used until Moe, Larry and Jerry Howard – Moe’s younger brother who replaced Shemp in 1932, nicknamed Curly for his shaved head – broke with Healy in 1934 and signed with Columbia Pictures,
Curly suffered a stroke in 1946 that forced him to leave the act, with Shemp returning as his replacement. When Shemp died of a heart attack in 1955, he was replaced by Joe Besser, In 1958, Besser left the act and was replaced by Joe DeRitawho was nicknamed Curly-Joe due to his slight resemblance to Curly Howard.
However, there were two other Stooges that were briefly with the act: Frank Sanborn filled in for a six-week theater engagement in 1932 after Shemp’s departure and before Curly’s arrival, and Emil Sitka was hired to replace Larry after the frizzy-haired Stooge suffered a stroke in 1970 and was forced to retire. The Stooges with Sitka were supposed to appear in the 1975 comedy “The Jet Set” (later released as “Blazing Stewardesses”), but Moe’s death before production began brought the act to an end.
The Lady Stooge: When Healy with Moe, Larry and Curly were signed to a contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1932, they headlined a series of short films that included Bonnie Bonnella Broadway entertainer who was Healy’s girlfriend at the time.
Bonnell’s place in the act shifted from film to film – sometimes she was a straight woman, sometimes she collaborated with the Stooges in aggravating Healy. She is at her best in “The Big Idea” (1934) as a surly cleaning woman who keeps dumping garbage in Healy’s office, and in the 1934 Universal Pictures feature “Myrt and Marge” as a would-be chorus girl trying to infiltrate a Broadway show. Bonnell did not join the trio when they became the Three Stooges, and retired from show business after breaking up with Healy.
Curly’s Other Stooges: While at MGM, the studio decided to separate Curly from his comrades and team him with two other comic actors, George Givot and Bobby Callahan, for a short film called “Roast Beef and Movies.” Curly (billed as “Jerry Howard”) had relatively little to do in the film except to shadow Givot, who played as an incompetent flim-flam trying to break into movies.
It was never understood why MGM felt Curly needed to work apart from his teammates. And even during the peak years of the Three Stooges, Curly never showed any desire to go solo.
No Love From Lucy: In 1935, an unknown starlet named Lucille Ball co-starred with the Stooges in “Three Little Pigskins.” Ball, then a blonde, was on the receiving end of the Stooges’ mayhem and was spritzed in the face with the contents of a seltzer water bottle.
Years later, an interviewer asked Ball about her recollection of working with the Stooges. “Those midgets?” she howled, adding that the “only thing I learned from The Three Stooges was how to duck. I still got wet!”
From Roughhouse To Rosebud: Actress Linda Winters was a contract player at Columbia Pictures when she was tapped to appear in the Stooges’ shorts “Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise” (1939) and “Rockin’ thru the Rockies” (1940). The latter film was the end of her Columbia contract, and she was eager to move beyond tiny roles in slapstick shorts into a more prestigious production.
Her wish came true after shooting “Rockin’ thru the Rockies.” Winters changed her screen name to Dorothy Comingore and through her friendship with Charlie Chaplin she was introduced at a party to Orson Welles, who was in pre-production on “Citizen Kane.” Welles was immediately smitten with Comingore and cast her in the crucial role of Susan Alexander Kane, the doomed second wife of Welles’ title character. When “Citizen Kane” was released in 1941, no one recognized the one-time Three Stooges player as its leading lady.
Now, About That Climbing Spike: Over the years, the Three Stooges were the subject of complaints from parents’ groups who were concerned about the level of violence in their films. While most of the slapstick was cartoonish, there was one sequence in “They Stooge to Conga” (1943) when Curly puts spikes on his shoes to climb up a telephone pole but winds up impaling Moe’s scalp, eye and ear with the spikes – accompanied by suggesting the tearing of flesh by harshly realistic sound effects.
This level of violence was not in the original script by Ellwood Ullman – that text had only one poke to the head with the climbing spikes. It is believed that director Del Lord and his actors got carried away with the harshness of the comedy, and to everyone’s surprise the film did not raise a peep of concern from Hollywood’s censors over sadistic violence.
The Fake Shemp: After Shemp’s death in 1955, Moe and Larry were contractually obligated to churn out four short films on a tight schedule. With no time to prepare for a replacement performer, the Stooges and their producer/director Jules White quickly slapped together four short films that recycled footage from older productions with a few new bridge scenes.
To fill in for the late Shemp, actor Joe Palma was hired as a stand-in. Palma would either keep his back to the camera or obscure his face, thus trying to trick the audience into believing Shemp was on the screen. (The photo at the top of this article is the very rare time when Palma appeared full-face on camera, albeit disguised in a beard.) This subterfuge was not known until many years later, and it gave rise to the expression “Fake Shemp ,” which is used to describe a body double filling in for an absent star.
The Stooges On The Radio: In 1983, the Western swing ensemble Jump ‘n the Saddle Band recorded a novelty tune inspired by the Stooges’ films. “The Curly Shuffle” took its name from the frenetic dance that Curly would enact when overstimulated. A music video was produced that included scenes from the classic Stooges shorts of the 1930s and early 1940s.
“The Curly Shuffle” reached #15 number on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was a jolly distraction on FM radio and MTV. During the mid-1980s, the music video would be played on the giant Diamond Vision screen at Shea Stadium during the New York Mets’ home games.
Aesthetically Significant?: In 2002, the Library of Congress surprised many film scholars by including the Stooges’ 1934 short “Punch Drunks” on the year’s slate of cinematic titles added to the National Film Registry. In offering this honor, “Punch Drunks” was named as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
This designation also surprised many Stooges fans because “Punch Drunks” was only the second of the 190 short films that the team made at Columbia, and few aficionados of the zany trio consider it to be one of their peaks. Still, it was nice that someone thought the Stooges were worthy of tribute – after all, the only Stooges film to get an Oscar nomination was “Men in Black,” their follow-up to “Punch Drunks.”
The Dirty Faux-Stooges: In 2012, C3 Entertainmentthe company that controls the branding and licensing rights to the Three Stooges, sued Will Ryder Productions, a pornographic film operation responsible for “Not the Three Stooges XXX,” a straight-to-adult DVD release. C3 claimed that the porn film was guilty of infringing on the Three Stooges brand and sought to prevent it from being distributed.
As luck would have it, news of the lawsuit reached TMZ, which ran a salacious feature article on the highly unlikely players in this lawsuit. While the case was still being heard, the TMZ story sparked an unexpected response from fans of the Stooges and X-rated films, and the DVD sold out its initial replication run. If C3 wanted to put the lid on the Ryder film, it wound up doing the exact opposite. And as Curly would have said, “N’yuk! N’yuk! N’yuk!”
Photo: Screen shot of Larry Fine, Moe Howard and “fake Shemp” Joe Palma doubling for the late Shemp Howard in the 1956 “Hot Stuff.” Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
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