There are so many different stories about the Stooges' origin that it's
hard to know which is correct. Probably none of them. Anyway, here's one
that sounds good:
There was a vaudevillian named Ted Healy, a boyhood friend of Moe and
Shemp Horwitz. One night in 1922, some acrobats working for him walked
out just before a show. Desperate, he asked Moe to fill in temporarily,
as a favor.
in turn, got his brother Shemp out of the audience, and the three of them
did an impromptu routine that had the audience in stitches. Moe and Shemp
loved the stage, so they changed their name from Horwitz to Howard and
hit the road with their friend as "Ted Healy and the Gang" (or
"Ted Healy and His Stooges," depending on who tells the story.)
In 1925, the trio was on the lookout for another member and spotted Larry
Fine (real name: Louis Feinberg) playing violin with an act called the
"Haney Sisters and Fine." Why they thought he'd be a good Stooge
isn't clear, since he's never done comedy before. But he joined as the
third Stooge, anyway.
traveled the vaudeville circuit for years under a variety of names, including
Ted Healy and His Racketeers ... His Southern Gentlemen ... His Stooges,
etc. Then they wound up in a Broadway revue in 1929, which led to a movie
In 1931, Shemp quit and was replaced by his younger brother, Jerry. Jerry
had a full head of hair and a handsome mustache - but Healy insisted he
shave them both off ... hence the name "Curly."
Three years later, after a bitter dispute, the boys broke up with Healy.
They quickly got a Columbia film contract on their own, and the Three
Stooges were born.
Here's the very first Three Stooges short film, "Woman Haters"
[YouTube Link Part
I | Part II],
about 10 min. each.
Over the next 23 years, they made 190 short films - but no features.
For some reason, Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, wouldn't allow
it (despite the Stooges' popularity and the fact that they were once nominated
for an Oscar.)
From the '30s to the '50s, the Stooges had four personnel changes: In
1946, Curly suffered a stroke and retired; Shemp then returned to the
Stooges until his death in 1955; he, in turn, was replaced by Joe Besser
(Joe) and Joe
DeRita (Curly Joe).
One day backstage in the '30s, Larry, Shemp, and Moe were playing cards.
Shemp accused Larry of cheating. After a heated argument, Shemp reached
over and stuck his fingers in Larry's eyes. Moe, watching, thought it
was hilarious ... and that's how the famous poke-in-the-eyes routine was
By the mid-'50s, the average budget for a Three Stooges' episode - including
the stars' salaries - was about $16,000. Depending on the time slot, Columbia
Pictures can now earn more than that with one showing of the same film
... in one city.
So What If He's Dead?
By the mid-'50s the demand for short films had petered out. So, in 1957,
Columbia unceremoniously announced they weren't renewing the Stooges'
contracts. Moe and Larry were devastated. After 23 years, what else would
they do? Moe was rich from real estate investments, but Larry was broke
- which made it even harder. They decided to get a third Stooge (Curly
and Shemp were dead) and go back on tour. Joe DeRita, "Curly Joe,"
was selected. They started making appearances in third-rate clubs, just
to have work.
Meanwhile, Columbia, hoping to get a few bucks out of its old Stooge
films, released them to TV at bargain prices. They had no expectations,
so everyone (particularly Moe and Larry) was shocked when, in 1959, the
Stooges emerged as the hottest kids' program in America. Suddenly the
Stooges had offers to make big-time personal appearances and new films.
And they've been American cult heroes ever since.