The Three Stooges are one of the most important, and highly under-rated comedy troupes in American history. Throughout half a century, they created a bridge between the dying vaudeville from which they were born, into the new age of movies and television. Their peculiar brand of physical comedy, labeled "slapstick," (for an instrument used to create the special sound effects), delighted millions in its time, and continues to entertain and inspire to this day.

Perhaps more properly labeled the "Six Stooges," The Three Stooges included Moe Howard (b. Harry Moses Horwitz 6/19/1897 Passed Away 5/4/1975), Larry Fine (b. Louis Feinberg 10/5/1902 Passed Away: 1/24/1975), Curly Howard (b. Jerome Lester "Babe" Horwitz 10/22/1903 Passed Away: 1/18/1952), Shemp Howard (b. Samuel Horwitz Born: 3/17/1895 Passed Away 11/23/1955), Joe Besser (b. 8/12/1907 Passed Away 3/1/1988), and Curly Joe DeRita (b. Joseph Wardell 7/12/1909 Passed Away 7/3/1993).

From 1922-1971, The Three Stooges made over 200 short films, 17 full-length feature films, and a cartoon series. They've also inspired another cartoon series, a number of biographical movies, a popular song ("The Curly Shuffle"), and, of course, the international Stoogemania phenomenon.

In 1922, answering an ad placed by his childhood friend, Ted Healy (b. Clarence Earnest Lee Nash 10/01/1896, passed away 12/21/1937), to fill in a gap in Healy's routine, Moe Howard sparked a flame that would consume his entire life, without paying off until many decades later. Healy had just lost the acrobatic part of his vaudeville act, but with Moe's complete lack of acrobatic talent, and their previous experience together when they were kids, they instead devised a routine where Moe would be a shill in the audience, called up to participate in a hilarious routine that ultimately ended in Healy getting "pantsed". Healy had his first stooge. The popularity of the routine prompted Moe to invite his brother and occasional comedic partner, Shemp, to join the act as a heckler in the audience. Although this routine was even better, it still wasn't complete until they found Larry Fine, a wild-haired, multi-talented violinist, in 1925. Together, the four were billed as "Ted Healy and his Southern Gentlemen."

For the remainder of that decade, "Ted Healy and his Stooges" (as they were later billed) appeared in various venues, including night club acts, movie shorts and revues. But despite the amount of work, Healy was paying the Stooges a spartan $150 a week. Though unsatisfied with the wages, they stuck it out for several years, until finally, in 1932, when Healy reportedly scaled back the wages to $100 despite a new $6000 a week contract for the act. Shemp was so incensed by this insult, on top of Healy's drinking and womanizing, that he left the act. Moe, inexplicably, stayed with it, talked Larry into staying, and even invited his handsome younger brother, Jerry "Babe" Howard, to join in the act as a replacement. Healy's escalating problems with alcoholism and his violent temper continued to cause friction in the group until finally Moe sought a release from their contract. In 1934, free from Healy, and now officially dubbed, The Three Stooges - Moe, Larry and Curly - signed a contract with Columbia pictures.

The next twelve years must have seemed idyllic to others, and indeed, were very productive for the trio, as they made 97 shorts subjects, 6 major films, and even a couple of promotional pictures for Columbia. Unfortunately, the constant traveling was very hard on them all. Curly took it the hardest. Two failed marriages led to overeating and other problems, which all spiraled into declining health. Finally, on May 6, 1946, Curly suffered a stroke on the set of "Half-Wits Holiday." The film was finished without him, and the exception of a cameo during the 100th short, "Hold That Lion," Curly would never return to show business. He married again, this time to Valerie Newman, who took care of him during the final years of his life. Although he was now happy, he continued to suffer strokes until January 18, 1952, when he passed away at the age of 48.

After Curly's first stroke, Moe asked Shemp to return to the fold, Shemp agreed, and the Three Stooges were whole again. For the next nine years they continued to make shorts (a total of 73), and another feature film, Gold Raiders. Unfortunately, this reunion was not to last. Shemp died suddenly November 23, 1955, from a massive heart-attack. The studio produced four more shorts using stock footage and a body double (Joe Palma), bringing his total number of Three Stooges short films to 77.

Desperately casting about for a way to save the Stooges, Moe first set his sights on Joe DeRita, whose style was similar to the Stooges' own antics. But as DeRita was still under contract, and not available, so Moe instead chose Joe Besser - a popular comedic actor lauded by people like Jack Benny and Milton Berle. Joe's style was so significantly different from the others' that he even had a clause put into his contract to prevent Moe from causing Joe any bodily harm. For this reason, Larry took most of the hits during Joe's 2-year run. 16 shorts were produced with Joe Besser, before Harry Cohn, the head of the Short Subjects department at Columbia Studios died, and the whole department was axed due to the rising popularity of television. Their contract was terminated just before Christmas, 1958.

Since Besser's wife's health was failing, he left the Stooges to care for her, leaving them once again short a Stooge. Although the group seemed doomed once more, the very thing that seemed to destroy their fading careers, instead breathed new life into them. Screen Gems released 78 shorts with Curly on television, and they were an immediate hit. Needing a replacement for Joe Besser, Moe turned to his earlier choice, Joe DeRita, a popular burlesque actor and Columbia regular. Like Curly, Joe shaved his head, and renamed himself "Curly Joe." The boys started getting feature film offers again, producing a total of 8 films together. They also filmed some live-action sequences which were spliced into their new cartoon series, "The New Three Stooges". 156, 5 minute cartoons were produced.

Despite the resurging popularity, the Golden Years as Larry liked to refer to them, were nearly over. While filming a television movie-series, called "Kooks on Tour," Larry suffered a stroke, forcing his retirement, and that of the entire group. "Kooks" was never completed.

Occasional talk was heard about reforming, using Emil Sitka as a replacement for Larry, but nothing was ever done. Larry had a massive stroke on January 24, 1975 and died at the age of 72. Moe followed soon after, on May 4, 1975, of lung cancer. As his son-in-law said, "When Moe died, the act died with him."

The Three Stooges' films and shorts are still shown on television and enjoyed by millions every year. Their unique brand of comedy continues to influence movie and television production to this day (witness the popularity of such low-brow comedic hits as Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary, and Waterboy.) As long as there is comedy, there will always be Stooges.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk


Sources:

The Official Three Stooges Website - http://www.threestooges.com/
The Three Stooges Archive - http://www.three-stooges.net/
ThreeStooges.Net - http://www.threestooges.net/
Ted Healy: King of Stooges - http://www.tedhealy.com/
The Three Stooges (a made-for-TV movie) - http://us.imdb.com/Title?0214698

A computer game based on the zany antics of the Three Stooges was released in 1982, by troubled developer Cinemaware. The plot focused on saving an orphanage from foreclosure by earning money in minigames based on scenes from the Three Stooges' films. Recently, a "The Three Stooges Card Game" card game has been released by Archangel Entertainment, designed for three players in which players smack their opponents around with cards such as "Nyuck Nyuck Nyuck", "Two-Hand Poke in the Eye", and "Hairpull"...
The copyright for the Three Stooges is currently owned by Comedy III Productions, Inc. as well as the trademarks for the characters, names, and all "related indicia".

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