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A Stooge Is Born in Brooklyn
The path that would lead the Three Stooges to a twenty-four-year stay on the Columbia lot traces back to the turn-of-the-century Brooklyn neighborhood where Moe, Shemp, and Jerome Horwitz grew up--not much more than a pie throw away from a neighborhood rapscallion named Charles Ernest Lee Nash, the transplanted Texan who would change his name to Ted Healy and change the face of show business by transforming the Horwitz boys into moviedom's most famous morons.
The story begins with Solomon and Jennie Gorovitz, second cousins who fell in love, married, and fled Lithuania because of an influx of Russian troops who did not take kindly to Jews. They immigrated to the United States eager for a new life. They wound up with a new name as well. Not an uncommon occurrence in the processing of immigrants during the rush to emigrate, a mistake was made in their naturalization papers. By the time they settled in a poor section of Brooklyn, the name on their mailbox was Horwitz.
Jennie became a real estate agent and developed a real flair for selling properties even though she could barely speak English. Solomon was a very religious man who worked part-time as a fabric cutter but was often unemployed. Living sparingly in a working-class neighborhood, Jennie bore five sons.
Their first son, Irving, arrived in 1891, followed by Benjamin. Both would eventually go into insurance. Then Solomon and Jennie got on a creative hot streak. First came Samuel, who became known as Shemp right from childhood, a nickname resulting from his mother's inability to pronounce his real name. Shemp arrived in 1895, and Moses (Moe) came two years later. Jerome arrived in 1903. The man who would come to fame as Curly was called Babe during his childhood, a family nickname that stuck with him until he died. Moe used the moniker in conversation and even in business letters he wrote his brother.
Though Curly would go on to make the most fetching femme during the not uncommon Stooge drag forays, Moses was the child who bore the brunt of Jennie's desperation for a girl.
"From the time I was able to go to school or, in fact, walk, my mother used my head--hair, rather that is--to make these cigar curls, which I had hanging down on my head from the time I was four years of age until I was eleven," Moe later recalled. "And I went to school that way and fought my way to school, fought in school and fought my way home, until a buddy of mine said, 'I'm sick and tired of fighting with you on account of your hair. I think we ought to do something about it.' I went to this boy's home, used his mother's scissors, cut the whole thing off." The result, he said, was a close cousin to the upside-down-soup-bowl cut he'd sport throughout his career.
Thanks mainly to Jennie's burgeoning success in brokering and later buying and selling properties, the Horwitz family began to prosper. They moved to the more upscale Bath Beach section of Brooklyn (now Bensonhurst). Jennie allowed herself to dream the ultimate dream of an immigrant: that her sons would go on to be well-educated professionals. The first two achieved that success, but as for the others, she'd have to settle for children who sometimes masqueraded as well-educated professionals.
Any hopes she had that the three younger sons would become doctors or lawyers were quickly dispelled as Moses and Shemp developed disdain for the classroom and fell in love with show business. Babe, who tagged along with his brothers and was happy doing whatever they did, followed suit.
Moe was by all accounts an intelligent lad but had major problems with attendance and dedication. Moe recalled "attending several schools and being tossed out of them regularly. I attended P.S. 128 in Bath Beach, P.S. 101, and P.S. 163. I went to Erasmus Hall High School for two months, and they asked me if I wouldn't leave the premises and make it easier for the rest of the children, as I was a very disturbing influence."
The very behavior that would earn him a living caused nothing but trouble in school. "Fridays, we'd have written tests, and I was quite bright and finished tests much earlier than the others, and during the scratching of the other children's pens, I would release an Indian war whoop the likes of which no school had ever heard," Moe once wrote. "I'd spend half of my school days in cloak rooms, under a teacher's desk, and in the principal's office. My grades were excellent, my deportment was atrocious."
This kind of irresponsibility seems highly uncharacteristic for the man who would become the leader of the Three Stooges, handling all of its finances, setting up the live stage tours, and accounting for every penny the act made. But he picked up those accounting skills later out of necessity, and for the most part, school held little for him. He stayed just long enough to find his calling when he was introduced to drama. Once focused on that, the boy became a dedicated student, single-minded in his pursuit to become an actor. He credited his sixth- through eighth-grade teacher, Miss Lillian Duffy, for prodding him into theater.
"I dramatized, directed, and worked in The Story of Nathan Hale, after which I constantly played in school productions," Moe recalled. After playing a Hessian general in the play, acting became his obsession. "I worked in Pinafore, I put on and played in a Pinero play called The Matrimonial Agency, and put on and directed plays in grade schools and in high grades." He also directed "mock fights," dances that featured comic choreographed bouts, a good introduction for his later comedy. All the while, he was encouraged by his mentoring teacher. But even she couldn't curb his wild side.
"My attendance record was more atrocious than my deportment," Moe admitted. Too many days were spent playing hooky in the dime-seat sections of live theater, then called the 10-20-30 melodramas for the price of seats in the theater. But Moe was hardly a screwup. Indeed, he was riveted by the process of acting, and while Shemp and Curly became far more animated comic presences, Moe was always the best-trained and most skilled actor in the family.
Watching such obscure plays as Milkie the Sewing Machine Girl, St. Elmo, 10 Nights in a Barroom, The Old Homestead, and The Two Orphans, he adopted theater as his classroom. And his attention never wavered. "I would select a character from the first act and follow him through the entire play, oblivious to all others," Moe recalled. "I had a tremendous desire to play these parts which, in later years, I did. I played every one of these parts for two seasons on a showboat up and down the Mississippi."
He left home in 1914 at the age of fifteen and would never return to school. His dream took him to the banks of the Mississippi River, where he scammed his way into the theater company of a showboat called the Sunflower. He began by doing odd jobs but got the baptism-by-fire training given by the live theater. Soon he was playing all kinds of roles, even sixty- and seventy-year-old characters. Shakespeare, blackface, Moe Horwitz took any role he could get.
Shemp, like his younger brother Moe, was much better at creating mischief than getting good grades. A chronic complainer and prankster who later became famous for his hypochondria and fear of, well, everything, Shemp caught the acting bug from his brother. He'd team with Moe to put on plays and comedy routines. They dragged along their little brother, Babe, who would inevitably wind up the butt of their jokes.
Shemp and Moe were very close, and Moe's older brother was shocked that he was running away to Mississippi, though there's little sign that Moe's parents shared his concern.
"It began during the summer," said Moe's daughter, Joan. "Having parents who were brought up in Europe, they were a different animal. His mother was bright but couldn't speak English well, and his father was into his religion. I think that with five kids to look after--and my dad next to youngest--that at that point they probably didn't pay much attention. Not that she didn't love her sons. The only one nervous about him leaving for Mississippi was Shemp, and maybe he was jealous because he didn't have the courage to go himself. Shemp was a worrywart."
After a couple of seasons on the boat, Moe rejoined his brothers, and they worked on their routines around the neighborhood and became fixtures on the Coney Island boardwalk, hamming it up for their pals and passersby. It was there that they became friendly with a mischievous lad named Charles Ernest Lee Nash, who was later to take the stage name of Ted Healy. The Horwitz boys often camped out in a tent owned by Nash, who later acknowledged they would use the lack of parental authority to terrorize the neighborhood by stealing bread and milk deliveries.
Nash set the tone for the subsequent relationship between himself and the Horwitzes when he left Moe to be collared by a cop while Nash himself dashed off to safety--even though it was Nash who pulled the prank Moe would pay for.
"I knew, at that moment, I was destined to become a Ted Healy stooge," Moe said in the March 1934 issue of Shadowplay magazine. "For it was then I learned to take it."