Of Ted Healy and His Stooges

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Measured in terms of popularity and longevity, one can safely say that the Three Stooges are the most successful act in the history of show business. Over the past 80 years, their popularity has only grown, never flagging for an instant, and their act has been known and understood in every country in the world by hundreds of millions of people for generations. And yet the name of the man who not only founded the act, but created it, who taught Moe, Curly, Larry and Shemp the slaps and eye-pokes they became famous for, and generated the whole format for their interrelationship, is today only a show business footnote, while his underlings and plants, or “stooges”, to use the vaudeville term, continue to be known and loved (alright, known) throughout the globe.

Say, just who was this Ted Healy, anyway?

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Actually, his true name was Clarence Earnest Lee Nash, and he was born in Kaufman Texas on this day in 1896. He moved to New York with his family in 1908, which is where he first met Moses “Moe” Howard (b.1897) and his brothers Samuel “Shemp” (b. 1895) and Jerome – later known as “Curly” —  (b.1903) while bumming around the Coney Island boardwalk in the nineteen-teens.

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Healy broke into burlesque while still a teenager, doing minstrel routines in blackface. With partner Betty Brown (who became his wife), he broke into vaudeville, telling jokes in his loose conversational style, and singing a couple of songs. He first hit it big at the Keith Theatre in Jersey City, and was big time act after that. He began writing sketches that called for interruptions by stooges, or plants from the audience, who would seem to be hecklers at first, or stage hands, or messenger boys, or something similar but whom Healy would cut down to size with a humorous ballet of slapstick. Right from the first a dumb line from a stooge would earn him an instant slap across the face. Thus, the role we commonly think of as Moe’s, was Healy’s.

Back in the day, though, Moe was just “he who gets slapped”. He’d left home as a teenager to be a serious actor in melodramas on a Mississippi riverboat. After this, he worked with a stock company in Pennsylvania for a time. His first vaudeville experience came in a team with Shemp, who’d previously gained experience as a straightman to a “Hebrew” comic. They changed their name to the more commercial “Howard” but that still didn’t help them get bookings. They were apparently atrocious.

In 1924, Healy had an emergency vacancy in his act, and called on Moe, who was acting in a show across the street, to step in and receive a dousing with ice water. In the world of comedy, an actor who will take a dunking in ice water (not to mention the limitless other abuse a Healy stooge was expected to take) is worth his weight in gold. Moe was hired for the act on a permanent basis. A few months later, Shemp happened to be in the audience at a performance. When Healy started egging him on to come on stage, Shemp instinctively jumped into the role of a heckler. Their improvised mayhem was a hit. So Shemp stayed on as well.

Then , in 1925, Healy and the Howards were at Chicago’s Marigold Gardens where they witnessed a bizarre curly haired man in top hat and tails doing a Russian dance and playing the fiddle. He was of course Larry Fine (or, as I like to call him, “the luckiest man in show business”). Fine happened to be the requisite height of 5’4”, making him a perfect match for Moe and Shemp, so he was offered the job of stooge, which he took. Born Lawrence Fineberg in 1906, Fine, like Jack Benny, started out as a serious violinist, but had gradually introduced eccentric comedy into the act. Earlier he had been in Gus Edwards “Newsboy Sextette” with Eddie CantorWalter Winchell and George Jessell, and numerous other acts subsequently, so he, too, was a vaudeville veteran.

Healy, standing over six feet tall, towered over the stooges. He was never the straight man, as might be assumed  — he was the star of the act. The bald-headed, shiny faced, red-nosed and genial Irishman would come out and sing songs as a solo, until interrupted by the stooges, whereupon he would start to get violent. The act, one imagines, relied on shock and surprise a good deal for its humor. The sound of the slaps in the theatre must have been something. Healy invented much that one associates with the stooges; the whole rhythm of slapping, the whole audacious trope of slapping as a form of “communication” is his, as is even the vaunted “triple slap.” Credit for the finger poke, not to mention their own bizarre characterizations must be given to Messers Howard and Fine, however.

This style of comedy, so universally abhorred by the mothers of boys for generations, was actually quite common in vaudeville. Called “knockabout” or “slapstick” , it has a rich tradition stretching back through the centuries. Weber and Fields were doing it before the stooges were even born, so , moms, DON’T BLAME THE STOOGES!

Healy and the Stooges were Big Time. In addition to bookings at the top vaudeville halls, by the late 20s, they were starring in the big league revues such as Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1925 and The Passing Show of 1927.

But trouble was brewing. Healy’s face was shiny and his nose was red for a reason. By all reports, he was a drunk – and a mean drunk. Contrary to commonly accepted practice in slapstick, Healy pulled no punches, and the boys wore no padding. (Besides, how do you pad your face?) When he was drunk, he got sloppy and careless, and his stooges got hurt. In addition to this, as the star of the act, he took the lion’s share of his rather large salary and payed the boys, who were becoming an ever-more important part of the act, peanuts.

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But the tide was beginning to turn. Following their 1930 feature film debut Soup to Nuts (20th Century Fox), the Stooges got all the raves, and no one noticed Healy. When Fox offered the Stooges a film deal without him, he used his influence to sabotage their deal. Furious at Healy, his former stooges began to work vaudeville on their own without him. Meanwhile, Healy hired his own new replacement stooges, and began to tour as well. (One of these, Paul “Mousie” Garner, went on to a busy career in night clubs and television, was a member of Spike Jones’ band, and was Larry and Moe’s first choice for a replacement when Shemp died in 1955. Jones wouldn’t let Garner out of his contract, however, thus enabling the public to become acquainted with the prodigious talents of Joe Besser and Curly Joe De Rita, the fifth and sixth stooges, respectively.

In the months away from Healy, Moe, Shemp and Larry began to develop their own personalities, and come up with original material. Healy sued them to prevent them from performing, and while the stooges won their case, bookers continued not to hire them out of fear that legal proceedings would prevent them from honoring their contracts. Out of frustration,. Shemp quit the act at this point and worked as a bit player in films (where he can be seen as the bartender in W.C. Fields’ 1940 The Bank Dick, as well as Olsen and Johnson’s 1941 Hellzapoppin’). To replace Shemp, Moe tapped his younger brother Jerome, a handsome young ladies’ man with a full head of wavy hair and a moustache. The sacrifice this flashy young dude made to break into show business was to shave his entire head as clean as a cue ball, becoming “Curly”, and — one would imagine — substantially reducing his sex appeal. Though he had never been in show business before, Curly turned out to be far more original, inventive and uninhibited than any of them. Today it is impossible to think of the The Three Stooges without thinking of Curly’s dog barks, “nyuk nyuk nyuk” and “woob-woob-woob” sounds. Ahem.

Meanwhile, Healy had three dud stooges on his hands. He realized that the magic was gone without his old crew, so he hired Moe, Curly and Larry back at a raise and they started working together in vaudeville again. A new film contract with MGM resulted in several shorts and features for that studio, but Healy got cocky again, and dumped the Stooges so he could work in films solo, which he did, until his violent death in a drunken brawl in 1937.

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The Three Stooges of course went on to even great glory with over three decades of popular films at Columbia pictures, and television fame lasting well beyond that. The man who started it all would become a footnote.

To find out more about Ted Healy, The Three Stooges and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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21 Responses to “Of Ted Healy and His Stooges”

  1. […] the Ritz Bros are a sort of cross between the Marx bros and the 3 Stooges. Like the former, they were “crazy”. They brought pandemonium with them when they enter a room. […]

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  2. […] for Educational Pictures (1933-37), then some Columbia shorts directed by Jules White of Three Stooges fame. The 1940s were his toughest decade, when he worked primarily as “technical advisor” for […]

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  3. […] Olsen and Johnson created a mad universe very much akin to that of the Marx Brothers, with one salient difference. A Marx Brothers production pitted three lunatics against a sane universe. In Olsen and Johnson, the team and the universe were equally insane, and the boys were the audiences’ ambassadors into that world. For example, in the Marx Brothers, only Harpo could cataylze a truly surreal physical moment, as when in Animal Crackers some statues came to life, or in A Night in Casablanca, when Harpo held up the facade of a building just by leaning on it. In Olsen and Johnson, anyone and everyone could do such things. An unexpected cow might fall from the sky, and the events was pretty much taken in stride. Anything the mind could conceive happened. The gags were fast, funny and cartoon-like, anticipating Mel Brooks, early Woody Allen, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s a world where a man with a camera around his neck walks in and says to the team “May I take your picture”? When given permission, he walks up and lifts a painting off the wall, and walks off with it. Entrances and exits by stooges were constant to deliver such gags. (One of their perennial supporting players was Joe Besser, that bizarre man in the Fauntleroy suit from the Abbot & Costello TV show, and Shemp’s brief replacement in The Three Stooges.) […]

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  4. […] crossing the line. Berle later said he secretly patterned his walk, talk, tempo and flippancy on Ted Healy, one of his idols. When, late in its life, vaudeville evolved the role of master of ceremonies to […]

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  5. […] followed, such as Sweet and Low (1930), and Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt (1931), with Phil Baker and Ted Healy. She did a Zeigfeld Follies in 1934, where she introduced her popular character Baby Snooks. In […]

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  6. […] loss is great and, one feels unnecessary, for the movies had no trouble accommodating the likes of Curly Howard, Lou Costello, and Martha Raye, and Lahr was a far superior actor to any of […]

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  7. […] movie Soup to Nuts, which in addition to being entertaining, is a major revelation. We get to enjoy Ted Healy along with Moe, Larry and Shemp…and a fourth Stooge, Fred Sanborn who is a sort of Harpo-like […]

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  8. […] Fields are the direct progenitors of Gallagher and Shean, Smith and Dale, the Marx Brothers, and Ted Healy and his Stooges, among countless others. The fact that their influence can be traced to so many (and such diverse) […]

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  9. Moe Howard is the very last person to speak at the very last film, Kook’s Tour. His final word was Sayonara. When Flying Saucer Daffy’s production ended on December 20, 1957, Jules White would have said to the stooges: “We are not going to renew your contract and it is time to hang it up.”

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  10. Also, Emil Sitka, the foil with the Three Stooges, followed suit on the ceased production of the Columbia Short. Diana Darrin did follow suit as well. Joe Palma, A fake shamp did also follow suit as well.

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  11. The very last of the actresses on the three stooges on production, are Diana Darrin, Bek Nelson, and Gail Bonney. Diana Darrin was born Bunny Tenin, she is of Jewish descent. Both Nelson and Darrin are not working.

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  12. […] strips began to be nationally syndicated in 1915. In 1930, he wrote the debut feature film of Ted Healy and the Three Stooges, called Soup to Nuts (yes, it does feature crazy inventions). (Incidentally, the movie is […]

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  13. […] Conklin and Vernon Dent (you’ve seen the former in Modern Times, the latter in countless Stooges movies). They seemed to be overtly trying to copy Laurel and Hardy in some respects, but I also […]

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  14. After 23 years, without warning, The Three Stooges and the show are gone. Diana Darrin, Bek Nelson, Harriette Tarler, Gail Bonney, Joe Palma (Sicilian-American), Billy Engle, Arline Hunter, and Emil Sitka are the last actors to do so to perform in the last produced short. Emil would have said, “I am not mad, I am not hurt, I am just shocked, it came just so quick.”

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  15. […] committing all manner of mayhem on each other. They were the forerunners of Weber and Fields, the Three Stooges, and countless […]

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  16. […] Stooge who replaced Shemp after Shemp replaced Curly (who had earlier replaced Shemp) in the Three Stooges; 2) and as “Stinky” the exceptionally weird middle-age, lollipop-licking brat in the […]

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  17. […] Wheel, and is credited with giving boosts to the careers of Clark and McCullough, Joe Cook, Ted Healy, and George White (he of the Scandals). Bedini was still producing in the early 1940s, and still […]

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  18. Renee Michon Says:

    I am looking for information on my Grandfather who was in Vaudeville from the mid 20’s into the 30’s. I have many articles in a scrapbook, with dates and names of shows. He played with Ted Healy in “A Night in Venice”. The Michon Brothers, known are acrobats and comedians.

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  19. […] see me in Spacemen from Space…we caught two 3-D films at the Film Forum (including one by the Three Stooges. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced Moe’s eye poke in the first […]

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  20. […] on tv as a comedy sketch. Thus, she suffers from what I call “Shemp Syndrome”. Just as Shemp Howard, a brilliant comedian, is punished by fans for the crime of not being Curly, Kelton is punished for […]

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  21. One day after the Three Stooges episode was released to theaters, “Pest Man Wins,” Edvards “Edward” Leedskalnin died quietly in his sleep. Leedskalnin was born Edvards Andreyevitch Liedskalnins, was the creator of Coral Castle in Homestead, Florida.

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