MY NIGHT WITH THE THREE STOOGES…AND MY DAY WITH MOE
[Excerpted from the book, “My Life in Showbiz and All that Jazz,” by Bruce H. Klauber]
The long-anticipated feature length film about The Three Stooges is now out on DVD. For those who haven’t seen it, or even for those that have, the Farrelly Brothers production is surprisingly good and often damn funny. Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, Joe Besser and Curly-Joe DeRita, rest their souls, would likely be pretty happy with it.
The film isn’t about Stooge history, nor should it have been, but this seems an appropriate time and place to address their extraordinary story.
In 1959 and 1960, the venerable, slapstick comedy team was in the midst of one of the most miraculous comebacks in show business history. Almost washed up by 1958, when their 23-year Columbia Pictures contract for short subjects was cancelled, a number of television stations around the country purchased a bargain package of vintage Stooges’ films offered by Columbia, often shown on children’s shows in tandem with Popeye cartoons. No one had high hopes for these films, some produced as early as 1935. Edited Laurel and Hardy shorts didn’t do well on television through the years. Surprisingly, the kids went wild over the three comics and they gained an entirely new audience. Cartoons were the basis of children’s programming in those pre-Sesame Street days, and The Three Stooges were human cartoons. Even in glorious black and white.
Moe Howard, who owned the act and the name, saw what was happening on television, ratings-wise, and went into action. Kids just had to see these three guys, however elderly they were at that point, in person. At the suggestion of Larry Fine, Moe hired a replacement “third stooge” by the name of Joe DeRita, who stepped in for Joe Besser. Joe (“You crazy, you”) had served for a few years as the last “Curly replacement” in the Columbia film shorts. He didn’t want to continue in the role, he claimed, as his wife was ill and he didn’t want to travel. Truth be told, Besser likely saw no future as a Curly Howard clone.
How wrong he turned out to be.
When the shorts started making some noise on television, The Stooges got a booking at what was one of this country’s legendary nightclubs, now shuttered, the Holiday House in Pittsburgh, PA. The club’s owner hired the boys to do matinee shows, with the menu consisting of hamburgers, hot dogs and Cokes. The Holiday House was sold out for weeks. In 1959, the veterans were suddenly in demand for personal appearances, merchandising deals, comic books, recordings, television guest shots, and surprise of surprises, full-length feature films. No more shorts for these guys. Philadelphia television personality Sally Starr played The Stooges’ short films on her highly-rated program, “Popeye Theater,” and one afternoon, Moe, Larry and Joe showed up in person on Starr’s show and announced they would be appearing in a few weeks in Philadelphia at the Latin Casino nightclub.
There was simply no question that I had to be there and nagged my folks—not Three Stooges fans, by the way—for weeks. They relented and I, indeed, saw The Three Stooges in the flesh. They were, incidentally, as Moe used to say, “even uglier in person than on TV.” What kid wouldn’t be unbelievably excited seeing these guys in person? I know I was, and I was so worked up that I did what any kid would do: I puked.
Fast forward to 1973. Larry Fine had suffered a stroke, Joe DeRita had retired after bombing with an act called “The New Three Stooges,” and Moe was working as a single, initially on college campuses, where he showed vintage Stooge films and answered questions from the audience. Ultimately, he found new life doing his old routines on the popular Mike Douglas television show. Howard was in Philadelphia for the Douglas program and for a gig at The TLA Cinema, a popular area theater, still in operation. At the time, I was a student at Temple University, a radio/television/film major minoring in journalism, trying vainly to get a writing position on the “Temple University News” (my family strongly urged me to learn something other than drumming). I was told by the newspaper’s editor to “stand in line.”
My thought was, if I could get an exclusive interview with Moe and submit the story to the Temple newspaper, I’d have to be hired. After all, this was Moe. I used a contact I had at the local UHF television station—the station that was broadcasting Stooges’ films daily– to help me set up an interview. The interview was scheduled at the theater for the early afternoon, and I made my way to the TLA. While almost there, the excitement was evidently too much for me. It was déjà vu all over again: I puked.
After getting straight, I met Moe Howard and found him to be one of the most intelligent and gentle people I’ve ever met, in or out of the business. He was white-haired and about 74 years old then, but he was still Moe. Initially, I addressed him as “Mr. Howard,” but he insisted I call him Moe. I told him I had been watching The Stooges on television every day since I was eight years old. “You’ve got a lot of courage, kid,” he replied.
Given that I had a good knowledge of show business by then, I figured that the only way to make my mark as a journalist was to use my smarts to come up with questions that were rarely asked. So, instead of asking Moe the usual, “Did you guys ever get hurt?” I opened with, “Moe, how long have you been working a single?”
He was impressed, and remarked that no one had ever asked him that before, and explained that after Larry’s stroke and Joe DeRita’s retirement, he finally had to break up the act. He loved working the colleges and got a kick out of the fact that all the students wanted was to get a pie in the face, thrown by the head Stooge. And if you wanted to know, the pies that The Stooges threw were filled with shaving cream.
After we were joined by his wife, Helen, Moe asked me about my interests. I told him of my drumming and interest in jazz. He then launched into a story about his friendship with Stan Kenton and how he insisted that Kenton be hired to appear in the Marine Ballroom of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier during every Stooge Pier appearance in the main theater. Kenton and The Stooges? Who would have thought?
He did not hesitate to voice his bitterness about Abbott and Costello. Moe resented that A & C were doing full-length features for years, while The Stooges were stuck in Columbia’s shorts department from 1935 to 1958. He believed that Costello was getting advance prints of Stooges’ film shorts in order to copy the original Curly. If you can sit through the dross of most of Abbott and Costello’s pictures, you’ll see the validity of Moe Howard’s claims.
We spent several marvelous hours together, and at the end of the interview, Moe presented me with the ultimate rarity: An autographed picture of Moe, Larry and the original Curly. I wrote my story and with autographed picture in hand, waltzed up to the offices of the “Temple University News.” Those in charge were astonished. I was hired instantly, and given carte blanche to write about whatever I wanted. I did interviews with everyone from Soupy Sales, Timothy Leary and Marilyn Chambers; to a feature on television’s Superman, George Reeves; and a front-page obituary of Gene Krupa.
I loved playing drums, singing and working out on the other instruments in my arsenal, but with Moe Howard’s help, I came to believe that entertainment journalism—which later evolved into writing and producing videos on the major figures of jazz– was my calling. I can thank Moe Howard for my long career as an editor, video producer, writer and author.
About a year after my interview with Moe Howard, plans were made to resurrect The Three Stooges. Joe DeRita would return to the act and long-time Stooge foil Emil Sitka (“hold hands, you lovebirds”) would take the place of Larry. Moe blacked in his hair, photos were taken and there was a contract for a feature film appearance in the works. It never happened. Moe Howard died in 1975. His autobiography, “Moe Howard and The Three Stooges,” one of a load of books about the Stooges on the market, was published posthumously two years later. In 2000, a surprisingly good television movie about the Stooges was aired to great ratings. The Farrelly Brothers’ feature stands as ample enough proof that the Stooges can–and will most likely–live forever.