I spent seventeen years as the proprietor of a small, slowly failing music store in Charleston, SC. I can date the beginning of the demise of my business to early 1992 when I received a fateful phone call from a friend who worked for a local TV station.
He told me that he had rescued almost two hundred 16 mm film prints that were going to be tossed in the garbage because the station was switching from 16mm to video format. He wanted to know if I was interested in the films as a donation to my store, adding that most of the reels were Three Stooges shorts. “STOOGES!” I exhaled in wonder, quickly responding that sure, I would be willing to take the films off his hands. That same evening I dropped by his place and picked up eight large boxes full of nice original prints still in the cans. Thanks, D.T.
“Whoopie!” “Hot-Chu-Mamma!” “Diggy, Diggy, Dog!” As I drove home with my newfound treasures, long-forgotten visions of my 1950’s childhood resurfaced: I saw the seven-year-old version of me jumping up and down in my theater seat, hooting and laughing with my peers, wildly spitting un-popped kernels of popcorn in every which direction.
As a child I was enthralled with the standard, oft-repeated Stooge gags featuring eye-pokes, boards whopping foreheads, straight razors tested for sharpness on tongues, nostrils vs. claw hammers, ironing pants while wearing them, and much more. Looming above all, however, was the promise that we might see a pie fight featuring snobby, big-bosomed society matrons in formal evening dresses as well as distinguished-looking gentlemen with manicured beards sporting tuxes, tails, and top-hats. All of a sudden pies would start flying, slowly at first, but soon enveloping the entire cast. Some befuddled old guy would be standing unscathed, squinting through a monocle, indignantly shouting: “What in heaven’s name is going on here?” Instantly, a pie would land smack in the middle of his face, usually knocking off his hat in the process. Cut to an image of some angry authority figure extra shouting: “GENTLEMEN! GENTLEMEN!” The pie fight would come to an instant stop. The Stooges would, in unison, turn around and look to see who just walked in. “I don’t see no Gentlemen here!”, Curley would pipe in. Then another pie would fly across the room and the whole mess would start up again.
I also recall a Three Stooges revival around 1970 during my college days. They used to hold Stooges Festivals in the student union building at the University of South Carolina (the Russell House). We would buy popcorn, soft drinks, and Junior Mints, then sit for hours on end reveling in Moe’s bizarre attempts to bring disorder to chaos. As Homer Simpson said: “Moe is their leader!” I did pretty good in my studies that year, winding up with a solid 2.2 GPR.
Riding home that evening, loaded down with Stooge booty, it was as if I were nineteen again. I sensed a strange aura enveloping my truck and instantly knew that I was embarking on an important mission.
Within days I found a suitable projector and was ready to embark on the banana-peel strewn path laid out for me by fate. Like Ulysses, I was unable to resist the call of the Sirens. Of course, Ulysses’ Sirens were voluptuous, irresistible young females while my Sirens were four short, weird Jews.
Unsuspecting customers were continually exposed to my new passion. In no time flat David, my underpaid part-time guy, became as obsessed with all things Stooges as I was. I purchased Stooge guides, read biographies, and generally immersed myself in the subject. Days turned into weeks, weeks begat months and, a year later, we could still be found sitting in the store, rollicking with the Stooges.
On one occasion we were engrossed in a particularly hilarious SHEMP episode when a customer walked in and asked if he could turn the lights on and look around. I didn’t bat an eye as I rather curtly told him that he would have to wait about five minutes. To hell with business. I was on a mission. The aura that had mysteriously wrapped around my truck after I picked up the films had found a snug, loving home in my floundering music store.
As we viewed the episodes repeatedly, both David and I experienced a startling revelation: While Moe, Curly, and Larry were truly great, the real master of the Stooges was SHEMP. (Please note that I always write his name in CAPS out of reverence). We would get into heated arguments with customers who claimed to be Stooge knowledgeable but couldn’t, if their lives depended on it, tell you how Curly got his nickname, how many episodes he was in, when he died, or his favorite brand of shampoo. How little they knew! Pretenders…Neophytes…Always Curly…”Curly’s the best”. Blah, blah, blah.
I have four words for the SHEMP-haters out there: “Don’t Throw That Knife!” If you have never seen this SHEMP episode you have no right to judge. I converted many a Curly Zombie with this cinematic wonder which includes the best funhouse mirror imagery that I have ever seen in black and white. “Don’t Throw That Knife” is never shown on TV. You have to search it out.
The plot features the Stooges as census takers who practice their new skills on each other before starting the job. Moe acts as the interviewer, SHEMP dons an apron and a mop wig to transform into housewife SHEMPETA, and Larry places a small brush under his nose to play the part of the confused, mustachioed husband. Of course, the whole scene devolves into an argument followed by a fight and the training session is quickly over with a talcum-covered SHEMP getting the short stick.
The first stop that they make is at the apartment of a beautiful woman who reluctantly invites the boys in but tells them to hurry as her husband, who is very jealous, will be home soon. When asked what her husband does for a living she replies that he is a “Prestidigitator”. The bewildered threesome starts arguing with each other about what the heck that is when one of them pipes up: “He Presses Refrigerators!” The lady finally explains that she and her husband practice a magic act on Vaudeville. It turns out that her mercurial hubby is also an expert knife-thrower.
The interview breaks down when Moe, reacting to SHEMP’S insults, tries to bite his ear off. SHEMP stumbles/is shoved through a funhouse mirror, landing amongst the shards. The boys oogle the two remaining mirrors for a minute or so when, suddenly, there is a knock at the door. The frantic wife tells the Stooges to hide because if her husband discovers them in the apartment he will kill them. The rest of the episode centers around their pitiful attempts to hide, getting discovered, and being chased by a knife-wielding madman. They finally escape on three little push scooters.
After all the knives have been thrown, the enraged husband’s final weapon against the Stooges is a machine-gun that shoots eggs. Wish I had one of those! Moe and Larry get pelted with raw eggs but SHEMP receives a barrage of fried eggs. That is the one gag in this episode that I question, however, because it is asking me to suspend disbelief a bit too much. I mean, it is easy to envision a machine-gun shooting raw eggs but fried eggs? No way. A scrambled egg machine-gun, however, seems quite feasible.
I need to note here that some Wikipedia contributor describes “Don’t Throw That Knife” as “the first effort by director Jules White that was a truly poor entry in the series.” Huh? Yet another numbskull madly typing away in a roomful of monkeys: “Look at me! I’m an Expert. I have an entry on Wikipedia!” Fiddle-faddle, balderdash, tommyrot and a host of other antiquated words come to mind. This critic is a giddy-headed mooncalf.
I look back with embarrassment to 1970 when the college projectionist put on a SHEMP episode and the crowd booed until he removed the reel and replaced it with a Curly episode. I should have jumped up and sternly lectured this roomful of dolts and dunderheads. But what did I know? I was a neophyte as well so I booed with the rest of the crowd. We all have regrets.
One day a stranger walked into the the store because he had heard of my fascination with the Stooges. He was an unkempt, hippy-looking dude wearing a commonly available Three Stooges t-shirt. He just stood at the counter for a moment gawking at my homemade SHEMP t-shirt. I say homemade because I scoured the world looking for a SHEMP t-shirt, only to discover that there was no such thing. I couldn’t afford a custom order t-shirt, so I made my own SHEMP shirt with a new vee-neck and a majik marker. (My sister, who helps me edit this stuff, is probably going to say: “Greg, you used the name SHEMP three times in a row. It’s a little repetitive”. To this I say: “There can never be too much SHEMP!”)
Anyway, the hippy dude and I started talking about the boys right away. He bragged that he had 160 different Stooge shorts on videotape and was hellbent on acquiring the remaining 30 episodes. I replied that I owned 125 episodes on 16mm film which had to be run through a projector. My way seemed a bit of a hassle to him, he sniffed, and not as “convenient” as video tape. Fed up with this pointless banter, I condescendingly retorted that I had erected a 12 by 10 foot movie screen in my back yard and had shelled out fifty bucks for a beat-up school bus to use as a projector/viewing room. I also told him that, if I wanted to, I could reverse the film and watch a Pie Fly Off a Ten-Foot Tall Moe Face!. Touche! I thought he was going to faint at this final revelation. He whined and begged me to show him a few episodes on the big screen. Yet another convert…
It wasn’t long after that the store closed for good. Go figure. Ex-employee, David, shifted careers and became a plumber’s helper. I went home with my films and took a year-long vacation from work.
Alas, by 1997 the money was running low and I knew that at age 48 I had to find a new career path.
(Next chapter in this series: “I Want To Fly Like A Buzzard!”)