By JACK MAJOR
Few performers – particularly comedians – impressed me in person the same way they do on the movie or TV screen.
Pat Harrington Jr., for example, didn’t even try to be funny. He preferred to discuss the pros and cons of federal aid to parochial schools. (Harrington, a graduate of a Catholic college, carries rosary beads wherever he goes.)
Louis Nye was equally serious, preferring to discuss the fate of American nightclubs.
Jackie Gleason as unfunnier still. He spent of lot of time on an unnecessary lecture stressing his sobriety and respect for women. (This was during his cross-country train ride which the pressed called “the booze and broads express.”)
THEREFORE it was a relief last week to interview the Three Stooges when they visited Cleveland ... a relief because the Stooges are just as crazy in person as they are on screen.
The Stooges’ in-person humor isn’t quite as inane – or painful – as it is during a performance, but it’s still very silly ... and the three members of the team always assume their on-stage roles.
Moe Howard remains the boss, insulting and bullying his partners. If Curly Joe or Larry attempt to say something, Moe makes certain HE has the final word.
The only thing different in Cleveland was Moe’s appearance. He left his sheepdog look in California and wore his hair in Valentino fashion – slicked down and pushed straight back from his forehead.
Howard, like is partners, is only a tiptoe taller that five feet; if you’re not careful, you’ll trip over him.
Curly Joe DeRita, most recent addition to the act, is a former burlesque comic who could audition for the title role in “The Story of Two-Ton Tony Galento.” He makes occasional efforts to exchange insults with Moe, but usually loses.
Larry Fine, the Stooge with the unruly, fantail hair, is a chronic worrier who fidgets, which fits his image. He caused a minor crisis during the Cleveland visit because he was unhappy with hotel accommodations for he an his wife.
I was unable to get Fine’s attention during the interview; he left the room at least three times while I was there. Not satisfied with the hotel manager’s efforts, Fine visited suites he considered desirable and asked the tenants when they were checking out.
He barged into one room, frightened the middle-aged woman tenant and aroused the suspicions of her husband, who came out of the bathroom to find his wife talking to the glib comedian.
MEANWHILE, back at the interview, Moe Howard was poking fun at Fine.
“He does this everywhere we go,” said Howard. “If the hotel gives him a suite, he asks for a smaller room. If the hotel gives him a room, he wants a suite. If he gets a room on the west side of the hotel, he asks for one on the east side. He’s never satisfied.”
I wondered aloud if Fine might be roving about the hotel just to make his wife happy.
“Heck no,” said Howard. “I travel with my wife, too, but we’re not particular about rooms. We always stay in good hotels; how bad off can we be?”
I asked if the Stooges always travel with their wives.
“Yeah,” interrupted DeRita. “Moe travels with my wife, I travel with Larry’s wife and Larry travels with Moe’s wife.”
“Aw, shut up!” yelled Howard, who then answered my question.
“Larry and I always travel with our wives. Joe isn’t married. If you want to know why, just take a good look at him. He could lose 50 pounds and he’d still be too fat.”
Howard said he and Fine have been married to the same women for 37 and 34 years. DeRita’s line at this point was obvious: “If you want to know why they’ve been married to the same women, just take a look at them” (Them being the men, not the women.)
THE STOOGES were in Cleveland to promote their latest movie, “The Three Stooges Go Around The World in a Daze.”
The three comics remain fiercely loyal to their young audience, but are annoyed with people who think the Stooges’ appeal is confined to children.
“We present all-family entertainment,” said Howard, “although I admit parents sometimes attend our shows only because they were dragged there by their children.”
The Stooges have an unusual set of rules. For one thing, they won’t do nightclubs.
“Nightclubs are for grown-ups,” said Howard, “and they want a lot of double-entendre jokes. We don’t want people walking away from our act thinking, ‘Those guys are too dirty. We’re not going to let our kids see them anymore.' "
The only four-letter words resulting from a Stooges performance most likely are muttered by harassed parents who’ve been kicked on the shins by a child imitating the comedians.
“We try to make it clear in our personal appearances that children should not imitate our actions,” said Howard, though that may be an ineffective advisory.
“Another thing,” he continued, “We won’t perform anywhere if the price of admission is more than 75 cents. We do this for the benefit of the young kids.”
Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Howard’s brother, Shemp, were the original Stooges when the act began in 1925. After immediate success in vaudeville, the act graduated to movies in the early 1930s, but by then Shemp Howard had gone off on his own, replaced by younger brother Jerry, who became known as Curly.
The Stooges had only bit parts in a few feature films, but reached stardom through a series of short subjects for Columbia Pictures.
Curly Howard died in 1952, so Shemp returned to the act. Shemp Howard bore a stronger resemblance to Moe than he did to Curly; when he died in 1955 he was replaced by Joe Besser. After two years Besser was replaced by DeRita. (Besser became a regular on a Joey Bishop TV series.)
“We made at least eight short subjects a year for 24 years,” said Howard, “and when we finished in 1958, we were ready for a long vacation.”
Fine, in fact, wanted the vacation to be permanent. Like many in the industry, Fine was convinced the Stooges should retire.
Few theaters were showing short subjects anymore, but it was television that revived the Stooges’ career. Columbia, which had stopped making short subjects. released 75 of The Stooges films to television in the spring of 1958 and the act was discovered by a lot of children who had never before witnessed their slapstick antics.
Television success then launched them back into movies. In 1959 they starred for the first time in a feature length film, “Have Rocket, Will Travel.”
The comics are now discussing a possible animated Stooges television series for early evening or Saturday mornings.
The Stooges’ act hasn’t changed much since 1925. It will relies on punching, eye-gouging, pies in the face, pratfalls, insults and other bits of nonsense.
Thus the act is sometimes dangerous and an accident that occurred during the filming of “Have Rocket” was not unusual.
A scene called for a cascade of water to swoop the Stooges into a basement. The Stooges did the scene without doubles, but were not prepared for the force of the water. The three men were washed down a flight of stairs and into a concrete wall. Howard received several head cuts, DeRita’s ear was cut and Fine hurt an elbow. They were groggy, but undaunted and ready to resume work.
The Stooges pay little attention to critics. The comics figure a clearcut majority of the people think they’re darn funny.
And it’s difficult to argue with their success, no matter how baffling it seems.