Happy Birthday, Moe Howard!
Happy birthday to Moe Howard! This incredibe Stooge remains forever a legend of the big screen and of the vaudeville scene. The extraordinary professionalism of the Three Stooges came from the boys’ long experience as song pluggers, backstage helpers, and comic performers in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in early sound cinema. The following excerpt from Three Stooges FAQ delves into the grinding nature of showbiz during the era of the Three Stooges, and the business mentalities the performers had to adapt in order to achieve their timeless successes.
Vaudeville theaters (many of which doubled as movie theaters) ran live acts much of the day and into the night. Top acts would headline, with lesser acts filling out the bill. Because of the theater’s long hours of operation, the venues were hungry for talent. Opportunity existed for the able, but most vaudevillians remained relatively obscure. Some topped the bills of came near to the top. A few made the transition to Broadway and to radio. And a very few stepped up to movies, gaining vast audiences. But even for featured acts, fame was relatively brief: who today recalls “International Juggling Humorist” Billy Rayes or the “Cantonese Capers” of Larry and Trudy Leung? Vaudeville performers who remain popular and fondly recalled today – such giants as Milton Berle, Abbott and Costello, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges – are special and rare.
Doggedness was vital to survival and success on the vaudeville circuit. Depending on one’s budget, train travel could be pleasant, or cramped and uncomfortable. Just to get from here to there ate up a lot of time. Backstage, many theaters were dumps with dirty, primitive dressing rooms and awful accommodations. (A notable exception recalled by Moe in the still-gorgeous Palace Theater in Cleveland, which was a grand backstage as it was out front.)
While on the road, stars lived in hotels. Lesser lights made do with lesser hotels, or boardinghouses. It was showbiz, but it wasn’t glamorous. For all, it was a job, and for some, it was a grind.
Most vaudevillians gulped greasy, inexpensive food, and had to contend with demanding theater managers, horny showgirls, abusive patrons, and acts that waited for moments to upstage rivals. The performers who prospered were the ones who loved their art. They didn’t love many aspects of “the life,” but they loved what they did on stage.
Moe, Larry, Shemp, Curly, and Joe loved it, and developed district personas that jibed in intriguing ways with their real selves.
Moe: an inherently serious performer with a sharp interest in the numbers side of the business, the group’s de facto leader, and the one who was prudent enough to end up with a gorgeous estate above Sunset Boulevard. On stage, he seemed comically boyish with his sugar-bowl haircut, yet he was startlingly pugnacious and impatient, quick to poke and slap those he considered rivals or inferiors.
Larry: a habitué of racetracks who loved fine clothes as much as he loved the ponies. He and his wife were for many years residents of Hollywood’s highly regarded Hotel Knickerbocker. In performance, Larry was faintly absurd with his frizzed-out curls and blandly smiling face, but he was one of the most brilliantly “reactive” comics of the 20th century. He never purposely stole a scene, but he was always up to something amusing, even when physically situated in the background.
Shemp: a famously funny Hollywood raconteur. Mickey Rooney told the fine historian Ted Okuda that whenever he spotted Shemp holding court in a restaurant, Rooney and his group invariably requested a table nearby, so they could listen in, and laugh. Although Shemp dealt professionally in a fast-talking worldliness, his real-life persona was kind and approachable. He was probably the most purely brilliant of all the Stooges, with a remarkable facility to think on his feet and ad-lib.
Curly: the “baby” of the Howard brothers, an antic lover of life often described (rather too glibly) as a “man-child.” He was connected to family, and found his greatest pleasures in women, dogs, and automobiles. A fine dancer and a comic with astoundingly inventive physical skills, he influenced generations of comics that came later, from the great Lou Costello to Jim Carrey. Curly’s stage persona was apparently a reflection of his true personality, with hyper energy, boundless enthusiasm, and a lovable quality that friends, family, and his public found hugely endearing.
Joe: like Shemp, he was impressively successful for years as a solo before he became a Stooge, working as a headliner in vaudeville and on Broadway. Stout and balding, he exploited his cherub’s face and body with cheerful cleverness. His carefully developed “sissy kid” persona slayed live audiences, and made him a refreshing addition to a latter-day incarnation of the Stooges.