Sunday, December 23, 2012

B-A bay, B-E bee, B-I bicky by, B-O bo

The Three Stooges started as an idea by vaudeville comedian Ted Healy. Healy stood onstage and told jokes while three "plants" in the audience would heckle him. These plants, or "stooges" as they were called, were eventually pulled up onstage and the act would continue, much to the delight of the real members of the audience. The group, now known as "Ted Healy and his Southern Gentlemen," was a popular stage hit but the team went their separate ways in the early 1930's over a film contract dispute. Now calling themselves "The Three Stooges," Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Moe's brother Jerry (known as "Curly") signed on with Columbia Pictures in 1934 after original member Shemp, the other Howard brother, left to pursue a solo career in films. Shemp eventually returned to the trio after the untimely death of Curly in 1952.

I am not a huge fan of The Three Stooges. Sure, I'm very familiar with the 190 short subjects they produced for Columbia, having seen them on television over a million times. I've seen them, but I wouldn't consider myself a fan. I am, however, a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood and there is no denying The Stooges' impact on that era of entertainment history. The Stooges have held a larger audience for so many years — than, say The Marx Brothers — because not everyone can understand and appreciate the cleverness of Groucho's rapid-fire wordplay, but everyone laughs at a slap in the face or a kick in the pants (or the occasional wrench-twist of the nose).

In the tiny suburban Philadelphia town of Ambler is the one and only Stoogeum, the only (I repeat only!) museum in the world devoted entirely to the history and preservation of The Three Stooges. No, not in Hollywood, not in New York, but in a small industrial park next to a Ford dealership behind a Wawa. The Stoogeum has unusual operating hours. It is only open one day per month (although that will change in 2013). This past Saturday, I went for the final opening of 2012.

I never imagined what I would find.

I left my house early on Saturday and jumped on to Route 309 for the 20-minute drive to Ambler. Arriving a little early for the posted 10 o'clock opening, I stopped for a cup of coffee at the aforementioned Wawa. Back in my car and sipping from a steaming 20 ounce cup of hazelnut brew, I swung my vehicle around the driveway into the entrance to a small parking lot populated by a cluster of modern-looking buildings housing doctors' offices, small accounting firms and a few companies mysteriously identifying themselves by initials only. I can only imagine what illicit transactions were being conducted behind their darkened windows. A small sign directed me to the 904 building, according to my Mapquest directions, home of The Stoogeum. Turning the corner, I was surprised by the amount of filled parking spaces. I really expected to be the only one there. Instead, I observed a slew of multi-generational families exiting their cars and minivans. It being a few days before Christmas, I guess it was as good a diversion as any to keep the family entertained. Besides, what says "Happy Holidays" better than watching three guys give each other an eye poke? There were Dads in t-shirts emblazoned with one or more Stooge. There were disinterested kids, their faces buried in a hand-held video game, being directed towards the entrance by an equally-disinterested Mom. And there was Grandpa, the tips of his white crew cut rustling in the breeze, imparting his memories of the slapstick threesome aloud and to no one in particular.

I followed several families into the gray, nondescript building. I was directed by the young lady inside to start up the stairs, where I would be greeted by a volunteer with a brief introduction. I scaled the steps and took my place behind a crowd so large that it obscured the person delivering the orientation speech. When the speech ended with a Stooge-referential "Spread out and enjoy!," I shuffled through the entrance to the museum behind two leather jacketed guys who were overly cologned. The place was especially well-presented and beautifully decorated. The collection, assembled exclusively by one Gary Lassin, is positively astounding. On display, in sleek chrome & glass cases throughout three floors, are nearly 100,000 pieces of memorabilia. Everything from movie posters, props and costumes to signed contracts, drivers' licenses, wallets and pocket watch chains are lovingly exhibited. While the flow of chronology is a bit awkward (due to the configuration of the small building), the contents are nonetheless overwhelming. There's an entire room filled with promotional posters, both domestic and foreign, connected to another room stocked with a nearly-complete inventory of licensed merchandise spanning several decades — including trading cards, toys, Halloween costumes and even beer. The walls are covered with a massive collection of movie stills photos and personal shots of Fine and the Howard brothers cavorting and mugging at each other's homes. Most items are accompanied by a small placard explaining, in detail, its significance in the annals of Stooge history. Reading each placard takes a good deal of time. But, the combination of close quarters and the fact that Stooge fans obviously shun deodorant, made this task difficult. I was fascinated by the amount of individual pieces on display, but I couldn't take the stench for any length of time. A few more unwashed patrons walked past me and I took that as my cue to bring my visit to a conclusion.

Making my way back to the main entrance, I overheard a few guests offering vague reminisces and a smattering of wrong information to younger family members, who were actually more interested in playing the free Three Stooges pinball game. I took one last look at the life-size figures of Moe, Larry and Curly — in full bellboy regalia — and descended the stairs to the exit. I thanked the young lady that originally greeted me. She was now standing and talking with a Moe look-alike in a Santa Claus suit.

Considering I live in the city famous for housing a national symbol of freedom and liberty, I can't remember the last time I've seen it. In the past week, however, I have seen a hometown museum filled with medical oddities and one filled with Stooges. (Those are two different places.)

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