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?
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.
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 Cantor, Walter Winchell and George Jessel, 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.
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 (quite excellently, I’m a big fan), until his death in 1937. For more insight, you might try Nobody’s Stooge: Ted Healy (2014), by Bill Cassara.
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.
Read the second part of this post here.
To find out more about the vaudeville history of Ted Healy and The Three Stooges, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.