Obituary: Joe De Rita

Joe De Rita, comedian: born Philadelphia 12 July 1909; died Woodland Hills, California 3 July 1993.

JOE DE RITA was a rotund knockabout from Minsky's Burlesque who found his greatest fame in the autumn of his life as 'Curly Joe' in the Three Stooges films.

Contradictory as it sounds, Curly Joe was in fact the sixth stooge in the world-famous slapstick act, having replaced the equally rotund Joe Besser, who replaced the lean and jittery Shemp Howard, who replaced the originally rotund Jerry Howard, the first 'Curly'. Indeed, he might even be called the seventh stooge, for the original stage act was a team that was named after its founder and leader, Ted Healy. And just to confuse history even further, Ted Healy and his Stooges was the second title, the true original being Ted Healy and his Southern Gentlemen.

The Three Stooges were undoubtedly the most violent comedians in the history of show business. They were never satisfied with the traditional face slap: they thumped, walloped, cracked, crushed, gouged, poked, punched, kicked, rammed and pulled handfuls of hair out of each other. They threw pies at each other, and when custard proved too soft, they threw bricks. They stuck fingers in each other's eyes, they went at each other with chainsaws, and blew each other up. What made the mayhem funny to many (mostly to uncritical children at Saturday matinees) was the clever synchronisation of overblown sound-effects timed precisely to the biff, blow or bonk. This was a technique created by the movies, which would prove the team's most successful medium.

The Three Stooges were born of burlesque, that lower-class form of variety known throughout the side- streets of American cities. Solomon Horwitz, a clothes cutter of Brooklyn, fathered his first son, Samuel, in 1895. Then came Moses in 1897, and lastly Jerome in 1911. Like a similar funny family, the Marxes, the Horwitz boys were soon better known by their nicknames: Shemp, Moe and Curly. Shemp and Moe teamed as a blackface double act, and in 1923 joined up with the semi-star Ted Healy. This hard-drinking, cigar-puffing comic, snap-brimmed hat on the back of his head, was a sort of straight man with gags, the fast-talking hub around which the near-dumb Southern Gentlemen performed their visual knockabout stuff. Even when the act was altered to Healy and his Stooges, the Horwitz boys remained unbilled. And their surnames remained a mystery throughout their long, long years in Hollywood where they were billed as, simply, Larry, Curly and Moe.

By the time Fox Films beckoned in 1930, Healy and his threesome were now set. Moe played sub-ringleader to Healy, being the one who knocked about the knockabouts. Shemp had left for a comedy career of his own, and although in time he would return, he is best remembered for his many cameos in Universal films, notably his encounters with WC Fields. Jerry the kid brother was now rechristened Curly, on account of his shorn head. The original skinhead, this would prove the perfect target for the smiting palm of Moe's hard hand. The third Stooge was Larry Fine, born Feinberg, the one most people thought was called Curly, as he was the one with the wild, wavy hair. Larry was the most negative of the trio, seldom speaking, mostly mugging away in the background like a minor member of the Bowery Boys.

After several feature comedies at MGM, the Stooges parted from Healy, whom the studio saw as a good comedy character actor. Healy agreed, and may be seen strutting and smoking away alongside such leading stars as Jean Harlow (Bombshell, 1933), Gary Cooper (Operator 13, 1934) and Clark Gable (San Francisco, 1936). The Stooges, after four musical shorts at MGM, moved to Columbia for a trial two-reeler, Woman Haters (1934). It was successful enough for a contract to follow, and by the time the studio decided enough was too much, the Stooges had completed a run of no fewer than 191 two-reelers, the longest comedy series in Hollywood history. Perhaps it was inevitable that among so many, at least one would be nominated for an Academy Award, Men in Black (1934), a burlesque of MGM's hospital drama Men in White. It didn't win, of course. The Stooges popped up in 13 feature films, too: literally 'popping up' as subway engineers for the final gag in the hugely successful My Sister Eileen (1942).

It was feature films that brought Joe De Rita into the picture. After Columbia closed down their Short Subject Studio, the Three Stooges hit a bad time. They travelled and toured, but the nightclub and theatre audiences were too sophisticated for their knockabouts which were, by 1958, definitely kids' stuff. However, Columbia's television subsidiary Screen Gems suddenly saw possible gold in the Stooge backlog. They released 78 of them to television. As cheap off- peak entertainment the Stooges saturated the country and a whole new generation found them for the first time. The films were unlike anything else on offer, and much, much funnier. The Stooges found themselves in demand again.

Moe, he of the pre-Beatles haircut, was the boss of the act, although only Larry remained. Joe Besser, the last replacement for the original Curly, had left and was busy stooging himself on the Abbott and Costello Show. Brother Shemp had followed Curly to the grave. A new Stooge was needed for the live act and, as it happened, for movies once again. Shorts being a dead market, feature films were the thing to try. Somebody recommended Joe De Rita, a fat and funny fellow with years of burlesque business behind him. Given a close crew-cut, he even resembled the one and only Curly. His voice was squeaky, too, lacking the slight edge of effeminacy Joe Besser had brought in.

After some television chat-show try-outs, Columbia hired the threesome for Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959), a burlesque of the current fad of science-fiction films. Box office returns were so good that Columbia rushed out two compilations clipped from the Stooges' old shorts. Then came the really big time, Twentieth Century Fox no less, plus colour plus CinemaScope. Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961) was prestige stuff, but overloaded the boys with spectacle, romance and song like a Hollywood version of a Palladium pantomime. The Stooges appeared as travelling peddlers plugging 'Nyuk- Nyuks - Breakfast of Stooges]' The UK end of Fox were less sure of the film's potential, and criminally changed the title to Snow White and the Three Clowns. And, more embarrassingly still, the glamorous star Patricia Medina actually denied ever appearing with the Three Stooges on ITV's Looks Familiar.

The Stooges in their final form, billed as Larry, Moe and Curly Joe, eventually clocked up 12 features (including the compilations) before their retirement. Moe, his haircut now startlingly silver, turned up in three more films in character roles, then died in 1975, four months after Larry. But Curly Joe De Rita soldiered on, granted permission to form a new Three Stooges team with two old burlesque comedians, Frank Mitchell and Mousie Garner. But without a single one of the old originals left, the act flopped. Today, as far as the UK is concerned, the Three Stooges live on. The shorts run on Channel 4, a slightly cut-price cartoon series is available on video, but not one of their starring feature films has yet been taken up by television. Perhaps Bravo might give the old boys a hand.

(Photograph omitted)

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