Advertisement

Comeback? Why, Soitenly!

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Three Stooges, one of the best-known comedy teams of Hollywood’s bygone era, are getting their act together again.

Larry, Moe and Curly may be long dead, but the madcap trio whose eye-poking, face-slapping, hair-tugging routines still attract legions of fans, are staging a comeback, thanks to a marketing campaign launched by their heirs.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Dec. 24, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 24, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 20 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Three Stooges--The year of Three Stooges member Jerome “Curly” Howard’s death was misstated in Tuesday’s Calendar. He died in 1952.

After winning a much-publicized 1994 court battle to retrieve worldwide rights to the Stooges legacy, a company called Comedy III Productions now has grand designs to turn the slapstick comedians into a high-powered business enterprise in the same way that the Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. exploit animated characters from their vast film libraries.

Encouraged by the popularity of Hollywood icons, the Stooges’ heirs are already mapping plans to aggressively push the comedy team’s image in movies, television, commercials and retail merchandising.

Advertisement

In movies, Comedy III currently is working with Interscope Communications to develop a “Stooges in the ‘90s” film for Columbia Pictures.

“Don’t be surprised if you see the Stooges tearing up the Super Bowl,” said Earl Benjamin, a stepson of Joe “Curly Joe” DeRita.

One of the key questions facing producers, Benjamin said, is whether the script--which is being developed by Danny Jacobson, co-creator of the NBC sitcom “Mad About You"--will become a vehicle for established comedians or whether a nationwide search should be undertaken to find the next generation of Stooges.

Benjamin said, however, there is “tremendous difficulty” coming up with the right kind of movie.

Advertisement

“Larry, Moe and Curly are icons, they’re legends,” he explained. “Finding and casting is one thing, but also writing it and making sure that even if you have the right people, can they really do the shtick, because if you don’t do it right, it’s going to be a disaster.” In all, the Stooges made 190 film shorts for Columbia Pictures from the 1930s to the 1950s, and six full-length feature films in the 1960s.

Comedy III today is also pushing the Stooges on television. Earlier this year, the Family Channel received strong ratings when it carried vintage Stooges shorts. Comedy III also helped produce an ABC one-hour Stooges special hosted by Martin Short last May, in which the comedian performed classic Stooges routines.

In another venture, Comedy III now has the rights to place clips from the Stooges shorts in TV commercials and print advertising.

But perhaps the biggest business venture by the Stooges’ heirs is the launching of a Stooges-anchored specialty store called Knuckleheads, which opened Nov. 22 at the Glendale Galleria.

Advertisement

With life-size replicas of the Stooges greeting shoppers, the store raises the question: Is America ready for a line of talking golf club head-covers shaped like Larry, Moe and Curly? (Squeeze Moe’s hand and he barks: “Hey, back off, you imbecile! Let me show you how it’s done!”)

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

Or, a battery-activated “talking T-shirt” that comes with a circuit board made from the ink on the shirt. When pressed, the shirt utters such famous lines as, “Hey, hiya, toots!”

The job of developing the Stooges’ growing product line falls to Patrick Lauerman, Comedy III’s vice president of merchandising and licensing.

Advertisement

“Every day I talk to companies and we put together ideas and they start to develop product and bingo!--the next day, for example, they’ll say, ‘You won’t believe it but we have an alarm clock that talks to you!’ ” Lauerman said. “We’re actually thinking of having the figures pop up out of the alarm clock and say, ‘Hey, wake up, knucklehead!’ ”

The store itself features “talking stars” embedded in the floor. Step on one and you’re likely to hear Curly exclaim, “Why, soitenly!”

In addition to the Stooges merchandise, Knuckleheads sells an array of Hollywood memorabilia and novelty items festooned with the likenesses of such legends as W.C. Fields, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Lucille Ball, along with recent animated characters from “The Simpsons” and “Anastasia.”

“It makes us broader than a traditional studio store,” Benjamin said. “If you go to a Warner Bros. store, you’re only going to get a Warner Bros. product.”

Advertisement

Located next to Glendale mall’s Disney Store, the 3,300-square-foot Knuckleheads is the first in what Comedy III hopes will be a string of Stooges-themed stores in malls across America.

“I don’t know how we did it, but we did it,” said Jean DeRita, Joe DeRita’s widow, as she scanned the store in appreciation. “Oh, my, the Stooges would be so excited to see this, especially Joe, because [his stepsons] had so much to do with it.”

Playing a fat and helpless fall guy, Joe DeRita was not one of the original members of the Stooges. He did not, for example, perform in any of the pre-1950s comedy shorts that featured Moe Howard, Jerome “Curly” Howard (Moe’s brother) and Larry Fine and are largely responsible for the Stooges fame. After Jerome died in 1946, another of Moe’s brothers, Shemp, joined the trio. When Shemp died, he was replaced for a short time by Joe Besser.

*

Advertisement

In the 1950s, a Stooges revival occurred after their short films began airing on television. Moe and Larry then went to Joe DeRita and asked if he would join the team as Curly Joe. The new Stooges formed Comedy III in 1959.

Moe and Larry died in 1975, leaving Curly Joe as the last surviving Stooge, but as his health failed, DeRita’s family began questioning whether Moe’s descendants had improperly withheld profits from Curly Joe.

“I would call up and ask if there was money coming in for Joe,” Jean DeRita recalled. “We needed it for Joe’s health care. They would tell me, ‘There’s nothing coming in.’ All of a sudden, we [learned] about a big contract [they had] with MGM and of Columbia [Pictures] money coming in. We said, ‘Wait a minute!’ ”

Curly Joe’s stepsons--Earl and Robert Benjamin--filed suit in 1993, the year DeRita died. In 1994, a jury ruled in their favor as rights holders. Today, Jean DeRita serves as president of Comedy III, while Christy Clark and Kris Cutler, granddaughters of Larry Fine, serve on the board of directors. Other heirs, including those of Moe Howard, are shareholders in the company.

Advertisement

Earl and Bob Benjamin, along with Bela G. Lugosi, the son of “Dracula” screen legend Bela Lugosi, are attorneys who specialize in representing heirs’ rights, including Comedy III and Bela Lugosi as “Dracula.”

While there are many Hollywood icons who could be merchandised in the same manner as the Stooges, Comedy III officials say that too often squabbles among heirs prevent that from happening.

“The management of Comedy III lends itself to success,” Lauerman said. “It makes sure everybody is on the same page moving together.”


Advertisement
Advertisement