There Were More Than Just Three: On Stooges in the Show Business

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Think ya know what a stooge is, do ya? I’ll lay dollars to donuts that when you hear that word two definitions or associations will occur to you, and both of them are admittedly correct. But I am going to tell you about a third.

The meanings of “stooge” which you already know I imagine are these 1) the dictionary definition: a fall guy, chump or idiot; 2) a well known comedy act, consisting of 3 such idiots, which made comedy shorts for Columbia Pictures between 1934 and 1959 and a few features here and there before and after.

All true. My third definition of the word lies somewhere in between the other two and will perhaps illuminate both. In vaudeville, the word had a generic use — a stooge was a comedy performer who would pretend to be a member of the audience, or an usher, or stagehand or such like and thus enliven a comedy act by making a surprise appearance from an unexpected part of the theatre. Stooges weren’t the only vaudeville performers with at least one foot in the audience. Vaudeville acts lived or died by novelty and surprise. Many different kinds of acts employed surreptitious surrogates. For example, very often famous vocalists would employ “balcony singers”, apprentice warblers who would surprise the audience by joining in on a song from a place in the seats. Al Jolson  (among scores or hundreds) got his start in this way. And, as I’m sure you know magicians and mind readers often employ confederates or audience plants who assist them in various ways to create their supernatural illusions. So the stooge is a subset of this larger group. A stooge is a comedian who pretends to be one of the public, and interrupts the comedy act on stage by heckling or causing some other disturbance.

That’s the genesis of the Three Stooges. Moe and Shemp Howard and later Larry Fine were hired to cause such commotions during Ted Healy’s act.  The Howard brothers’ first dates with Healy happened right down the street from my house; the theatre where that historic occasion transpired is now a C-Town Supermarket. So these guys became “Ted Healy’s Stooges.” And Healy had many other ones, by the way. Sometimes he used more than just the well-known three. At other times he fired those three and hired others. Mousie Garner and Fred Sanborn were some of Healy’s other stooges. When the famous three finally broke with Healy for good they become something unprecedented — stooges without a lead comedian — and branded themselves The Three Stooges. And in time the world found itself thinking those three were the original and only three.

But the universe of stooges was and is much wider. There were scores of them in vaudeville, probably hundreds in the history of modern show business if we include night clubs, Broadway, burlesque and so forth.

For example, Frank Fay employed Patsy Kelly in such a role. Joe Cook had Dave Chasen. Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin was practically ALL Stooges (Joe Besser, among many others was one of them). Paul McCullough of Clark and McCullough, originally the lead comedian of the act, was gradually demoted to JUST the stooge. Jerry Lewis was Dean Martin’s stooge in nightclubs, and you can see their act re-created in their earliest films (and their 1952 comedy The Stooge paints a nice picture of what a vaudeville stooge did.) And comedians continue to use stooges, especially on television (I think particularly of Chris Elliott on the David Letterman show, although this is already decades ago, but comedy shows still use this technique).

Just some more news you can’t use!

To learn out more about vaudeville, including the employment of professional stooges, consult No Applause, Just Throw oney: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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