Wild (Animal) Tales of the Three Stooges Wrestling a Bear Live on Stage
In 2004, the long-serving president of the Three Stooges Fan Club and member of Larry Fine’s family, Gary Lassin, opened the nation’s only Three Stooges museum. Located in Ambler, Pennsylvania, the Stoogeum was the culmination of years of preparation and decades of collecting Three Stooges memorabilia. Lassin, however, still wanted to do more to preserve the history of the Stooges.
“Before I even opened the Stoogeum, sometime in the year 2000,” Lassin begins, “I was standing behind a guy in a line with a Rolling Stones concert T-shirt on. It was for the ‘Steel Wheels,’ tour and it listed all the places they’d went on this tour, along with the dates. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the Stooges had something like this?’”
While the Three Stooges are known for their films, the trio, in its various inceptions, also toured for more than five decades — beginning under the banner of comedian Ted Healy in the 1920s, and concluding in the early 1980s due to the advanced age and declining health of the troupe. But despite their extensive touring history, there has never been a book to document their life on the road until earlier this year, when Lassin published A Tour De Farce: The Complete History of the Three Stooges on the Road.
Reaching nearly 800 pages and featuring hundreds of photos of the Three Stooges, A Tour De Farce documents nearly every venue the Stooges played, from L.A.’s prestigious Orpheum Theatre, to when they played county fairs in their waning years. The book is beautiful and super accessible, as it documents the Stooges’ career in an encyclopedia-like format, allowing you to skip to any year to follow the exploits of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard, Shemp Howard, Joe Besser and Curly-Joe DeRita.
To offer just a taste, below is an excerpt from the chapter documenting the first year the Stooges were together: 1929. The whole book is available on the Stoogeum website as well as the homepage for A Tour De Farce.
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Three Stooges history begins in 1929. This is when Moe, Larry and Shemp began working together as a team for the very first time. Over the next 26 years, various combinations of Howard, Fine and Howard carried the troupe’s comedy forward. For now, however, they would still be tied to Ted Healy’s apron strings.
With Moe Howard (sometimes billed as “Harry” Howard) returning from his failed home-building career to join Shemp and Larry, the stage was now set for the trio to make their debut as part of Healy’s act in mid-January when he opened in Youngstown, Ohio — with one small complication. Larry’s wife, Mabel, was now eight and a half months pregnant with the couple’s first child. Not wanting to miss the birth, Larry did not go on the January/ February road trip, instead staying with his wife in Atlantic City, where his daughter Phyllis was born on February 9, 1929.
Meanwhile, Healy, along with Moe and Shemp, made stops in Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland and New York after the Youngstown opening, with Ted performing double duty as master of ceremonies at each of these stops. The act was billed simply as “Ted Healy in a Revue” in the first four stops and as “Ted Healy & Company” at the last stop, a two-week engagement at New York’s Academy Theatre. A fair amount of the act was made up of bits that had been used in (the musical revue) A Night in Spain while other new routines were also tested out.
Then in March 1929, Healy & Company began rehearsals for another Shubert production, this one entitled A Night in Venice. Ted was set to co-star with actress Ann Seymour. Joining the cast of Venice was xylophonist and vaudevillian Fred Sanborn. Sanborn’s “pansy” character interacted on stage with Healy and the Stooges in several scenes. Healy apparently liked the interplay between the Stooges and Sanborn because at some point during Venice’s run, Healy added Sanborn to his troupe, where he would remain part of Healy’s vaudeville act when Venice ended.
With Larry Fine now back from paternity leave and ready to rejoin Healy’s ranks, A Night in Venice opened in Newark, New Jersey, on April 2nd. This counted as the first time Howard, Fine and Howard worked together, but the trio still remained officially nameless. Moe, Larry and Shemp were billed in programs under their individual names, not as Healys “Stooges.” In one scene, programs refer to the boys as “Ted Healy’s Gang.” Alternately, they were referred to in the press as Healy’s “Southern Gentlemen,” a moniker based on a promotional postcard issued by the Shubert Theatre. Critics also referred to them as Healy’s “Nightmare Trio.”
One of the highlights of Venice was a scene that involved the Stevens Brothers (Gus and Stanley), their assistant (Jeremie Nelson) and their trained wrestling bear, a 700-pound gentle giant named Big Boy. Healy, an avid outdoorsman who kept exotic animals like ocelots as pets and loved working with critters on stage, was eager to figure out a way to get laughs with the bear. He orchestrated what would be the most popular routine he ever devised for the Stooges, one that they would reprise for several years after Venice's conclusion.
The bear would first wrestle with Nelson. Then, with theater patrons unaware that stooges had been planted in the audience, Healy asked for volunteers from the crowd to come up and wrestle with the bear, and Howard, Fine and Howard leaped into action. The bear was incredibly well trained to paw and swat at their rear ends, first tearing their pants, then removing them completely, exposing their brightly colored and patterned undergarments, which always drew laughs, and then finally chasing them as they scampered off stage. Audiences had not yet stopped laughing from the hysterical battle when Shemp would re-emerge on stage and pretend to be wrestling with the bear, but this time it was just a bearskin that had been mocked up to look like the real bear.
The bearskin was attached to unseen wires and pulleys controlled by Nelson, now positioned backstage. After re-emerging, Shemp would struggle with the bearskin for a few moments, then hurl the bearskin at the audience. At that exact moment, the house lights would go dark, bringing screams and howls from the audience who thought the real bear was heading their way. Nelson would then reel in the bearskin before turning the lights back on, leaving the entire audience in stitches.
The routine with the bear was not without its hiccups. On one occasion, a technical goof caused the bearskin to fly into the audience, injuring several patrons. On another night, the bear began to do his business, right in the middle of the act. The house lights were turned down as an attendant came out with a shovel to clean up the mess, but a spotlight pointing directly at the action inadvertently came on, and the audience convulsed with laughter. According to Larry Fine’s autobiography, Healy, who was known for his ad-libs, quipped, “If that’s the kind of crap you like, we’ll shove it to you.”