Stooge chronicles from a 24-year Savannah River Site radiochemist
Redeeming qualities of the Three Stooges’ 1959–1965 film ouevre, the disappointing end of the line production Kook’s Tour, how Larry Fine initiated fan encounters with fellow Stooges Curly Joe DeRita, Joe Besser, and Emil Sitka, if the frequent Columbia short subjects supporting player was a serious contender for replacing Larry, was Moe Howard still on friendly terms after his comedy partner of 45 years suffered a stroke that nearly silenced him permanently, the impact of Moe and Larry dying, and recurring Stooge dreams permeate the second installment of a mammoth interview with super aficionado Scott Reboul divulged exclusively in this “Jeremy’s Three Stooges Menagerie” column. And away we go!
The Scott Reboul Interview, Part Two
Speaking of the Three Stooges’ 1959–1965 full length theatrical films, which one[s] do you gravitate towards and which one[s] was a mistake for them to sign on the dotted line to make?
Wow, I’ve got to admit this is the toughest question you’ve asked me so far for a couple of reasons. It’s been decades since I’ve watched the 1959–1965 films. I watched them at different ages extending from when I was a young child to when I was approaching adulthood as a high school student. I only watched them once or twice at most, so I don’t really remember the details of any of the films. That being said, I’ll give you a general assessment based on my faint memories.
The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze  was my favorite, and Snow White and the Three Stooges  was my least favorite. The Stooges’ characterizations in Around the World in a Daze seemed most similar to those in the classic shorts, although I acknowledge there was still a significant difference just based on the toned-down slapstick and addition of DeRita. In Snow White, the Stooges were a trivial part of an already weak plot, so there wasn’t really much to hold my attention.
There were aspects of the other 1959–1965 films that made them palatable — like having the TV hosts play the roles of bandits in The Outlaws Is Coming — but on the whole, I found them to be sufficiently less compelling than the classic shorts, so I typically didn’t watch them multiple times.
I will say that I did very much like some of the other things they appeared in during the ’60s like the cameos in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 4 for Texas, the ABC anthology series Off to See the Wizard, the live introductions on the New Three Stooges cartoons, and the Dickies and Aqua Net commercials.
So maybe my taste with respect to their latter day appearances comes down to this — if the appearance was brief and focused on them, I was always happy to see it. If the appearance was spread out over a full length movie, the plot, script, and pacing had to be pretty good to make me want to see it more than once.
I wouldn’t say that any of their later films were a mistake to make, though, as the films kept them employed and active, and finding them still making appearances in the 1960s was awfully reassuring. Were there any other comedy teams that remained active over four decades?
Are there any redeeming qualities to Kook’s Tour?
The most important aspect of Kook’s Tour is that it provided a final glimpse of the Three Stooges as a team. This film made it clear that the Stooges had reached the end of their career, providing a stark contrast to the comedic abilities at the start of their career and to the high energy displayed in their earliest shorts.
Despite the major differences in pacing, humor, and appearance — not to mention story line — Kook’s Tour captured the Stooges giving their best effort to still be Stooges, regardless of the challenges befalling them.
I can’t imagine there are many Stooges fans who laughed heartily and consistently while watching Kook’s Tour, certainly not to the same level typical of when watching their classic shorts. On the other hand, I have known a couple of people including my wife who seemed to enjoy Kook’s Tour specifically because of its slow pacing and lack of slapstick antics.
Prior to the release of Kook’s Tour, Larry wrote me a letter where he described Kook’s Tour in positive terms, suggesting he was proud of it. To quote Larry: “Kook’s Tour was shot on location in Idaho, Oregon, Yellowstone Park, the Snake River, Grand Tetons, and Lewis and Clark Trail. It’s all in color and beautiful scenery. Why we can’t sell it, I can’t understand.”
Publicity shots circa October 1970 depict Moe, Curly Joe, and frequent Stooge shorts supporting player Emil Sitka replacing Larry, who was then undergoing stroke rehabilitation. Can you envision Moe and manager-writer-producer-director-son-in-law Norman Maurer’s idea actually working?
I would like to say yes, but my honest answer is no. With the absence of Larry, and without the presence of a robust Moe, I can’t imagine that the coupling of a marginally-acceptable DeRita and an unusually “different” third Stooge role as played by Sitka would have provided the proper dynamic needed to pull off the act.
When I first heard about this possibility in early 1975, I was excited about the prospect that the Three Stooges could be resurrected once again. I really didn’t care whether the team would have been funny or not — all I cared about was that Moe would be back in the spotlight once again as a Stooge. And the fact that Sitka would be part of the group was a plus, if for no other reason than I wanted to see Sitka and Moe reunited once again, now that Larry was gone.
Of course, I would have liked to have seen what they would have created — maybe I have a morbid sense of curiosity. In hindsight, I can only imagine that the performance would have been disappointing, with little or no essence of the qualities that made the Stooges great.
Who knows, maybe it would have been entertaining, but it surely wouldn’t have been the Three Stooges. Without Larry, there’s definitely no Stooges.
Which of your Stooge visits remains your favorite?
The visit with Larry was very special, and I probably do consider it my most treasured Stooge visit. There was something unique and memorable about each of my Stooge visits, so it’s a close call.
One thing that colors my impression of the Larry visit is that I spent more time with him than the others, and it was the most relaxed of the visits, since it was planned in advance, and as such, it was pretty much certain to occur.
Also, Larry was the Stooge I corresponded with the most — via letters — and the one that my dad visited previously during a business trip, bringing him Tastykakes and recording Larry’s answers to my list of questions.
There was a much greater sense of feeling a connection with Larry. The fact that Larry was very warm and down to earth made it seem like visiting a cherished grandparent versus a visiting a celebrity.
What do you recall about your final correspondence with Larry?
The last letter I wrote to Larry was sent a couple of weeks after my April 1974 visit. In that letter, I thanked Larry for spending so much time with me, told him how much I enjoyed seeing him, shared a number of the photographs from the visit with him, asked him to autograph and send back a couple of the photographs, and asked a few questions I had forgotten to ask during my visit.
Larry did autograph and send back the photographs I requested, but did not send back a letter, which made me wonder if he was okay. I say that because every other reply Larry had sent was accompanied with a letter.
However, I knew that Larry had a backlog of several hundred letters to reply to, and since Larry had spent several hours with me during my visit, I figured I had already consumed more than my quota of his time. I was grateful for everything Larry had done for me thus far, so I figured it was time for me to give him a breather from my correspondence.
Little did I know that Larry’s health would be declining very soon, with Larry suffering multiple strokes over the coming months, and then departing from this world nine months after my visit. But I wasn’t completely surprised when I heard the news — just very saddened.
How did Larry put you in touch with Curly Joe DeRita, Joe Besser, and Emil Sitka?
During my April 1974 visit with Larry, I wanted to ask about the whereabouts of Besser, DeRita and Sitka, but I didn’t ask as I didn’t want to take the focus off Larry. But Larry read my mind and asked if I was in contact with any of them.
I told Larry I’d like to be in contact with them, but I wasn’t, as I didn’t have their addresses or phone numbers. At that point, Larry told me to look at the address book on his desk and to write down their contact information. I didn’t know it, but the contact info for both Besser and Sitka was identified in the public telephone directory. So it was available for anyone who wanted it.
As I was recording the contact information, Larry suggested I try to see Besser, DeRita, and Sitka while I was in town. So the next morning I stopped by each of their residences — first Sitka, then Besser, and lastly DeRita.
I met both of the Joes twice — first in 1974 and then four years later. I have pictures of Besser from both occasions, but I only have pictures of DeRita from the second occasion. That’s because when I saw DeRita in ’74 he was only wearing underpants, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a photograph under those conditions.
In 1974, I showed up late morning at his residence, without giving him any prior warning, and he was napping. In DeRita’s words, “I was snoozing.” I’m guessing that his normal sleeping attire was boxer shorts, and that’s certainly all he was wearing when he answered his door. I’ve heard others tell that he greeted them the same way, so it seems this may have been his routine wardrobe for lounging around the house.
In contrast, when I showed up in 1978, I made sure it was late in the afternoon to minimize the chance of finding him in the same attire. It worked, as this time he answered the door in a shirt, pants, and bolo tie.
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet Emil Sitka face-to-face, although I tried several times, but my timing was always bad. I did, however, maintain correspondence with Sitka over a 23 year period, from 1974 to mid-1997, until he suffered the final major stroke that put him out of action. Sitka had also suffered at least one serious stroke years earlier — a stroke that somewhat impaired his agility, speech, and handwriting.
Along with this interview is the last photograph of Emil, taken for the 1996 Sitka family Christmas card, which his son Saxon sent out. I do have audio recordings of one or two of my telephone conversations with Emil.
Were Moe and Larry on good terms when the latter died?
From the way Larry talked about Moe, and the way Moe talked about Larry, it seemed like the two of them were on good terms throughout their relationship. I don’t think there’s any doubt that each of them had strong admiration for the other, despite their very different demeanors, opinions, priorities, and ways of handling things.
That being said, they clearly had disagreements and arguments. But the fact that the Three Stooges act endured successfully for decades, and during that time Moe and Larry chose to spend much of their time together, suggests the bond between them was sound.
I don’t know exactly how often Moe visited Larry at the Motion Picture Home — probably not as much as Larry would have liked — but it was definitely a routine occurrence demonstrating the strong bond between the two men.
Moe said it was very difficult for him to see Larry in his post-stroke shape. During his visits Moe would typically get emotional, have to hold back tears, and then excuse himself. This probably deterred Moe and limited the frequency of his visits.
Which Stooge death impacted you the most?
I’ll give you a simple answer and a longer, less clear answer. The simple one is that Moe’s death hit me the hardest, because it clearly represented the end of an era.
Although I now recognize that Kook’s Tour was the finale of the Stooges run, in the early 1970s, I naively believed that as long as Moe and Larry were still alive, there was always the possibility — albeit a remote one — that the Three Stooges would make another appearance, either in a brief cameo on television or in a motion picture, as part of an interview, or in some format where just the sight of Moe, Larry, and a third individual bearing a resemblance to Curly — be it DeRita or someone else — would provide the necessary punchline.
After Larry’s death, I gave up hope that such an appearance could still occur until I saw the news about Moe, Emil, and DeRita reprising the Stooges for director Al Adamson’s upcoming feature film The Jet Set [aka Blazing Stewardesses, an abysmal western sex comedy from 1975].
At the time, I didn’t give any thought as to whether such an appearance would be entertaining or not. The only thing that mattered to me was that the Stooges would have another chance to be seen after years of being out of the spotlight.
So when I heard the news a couple months later that Moe had passed away, I was caught off guard and forced to accept that there was never another possibility of the Stooges act making an appearance again.
In contrast, when Larry passed away I wasn’t entirely surprised as I knew he had been struggling with significant health issues for some time. I always had in the back of my mind that his time could be short. To tell you truth, when I visited him in 1974, the thought kept running through my mind that I’d arrive in California and find out that he had passed away just prior to my arrival.
Of course I was sad to receive the news about both Larry and Moe, but I’ve got to admit, I was in my final semester of my senior year of high school at the time and was unable to give their deaths the focus they deserved, due to many distractions associated with completing high school.
This includes numerous after-school activities, a new found social life, preparing for college, and watching my maternal grandfather wither away and die. Not that I ignored Larry and Moe’s deaths — just that the distractions prevented me from giving them the attention they deserved.
I did attend Larry’s memorial service at the Beth Israel synagogue in Philly where I was reacquainted with Larry’s brother Morris — who I met and sat next to at Moe’s August 14, 1973, appearance on The Mike Douglas Show — and was introduced to Larry’s sister Lyla Budnick for the first time. Another interesting individual I met at the memorial service was Harry Sylk, one of Larry’s cousins who I had read about in Larry’s Stroke of Luck.
One thing that surprised me about the service was that there was nothing special about it making light of Larry’s great success as a Stooge. Morris and Lyla invited me back to their place for the reception after the service, which was awfully nice of them. Unfortunately, I had brought a friend who needed to be back home in New Jersey by one o’clock, so I had to pass on the invitation.
By the time Besser and DeRita passed away, I had other life changing events going on. Once again I was distracted from giving them the attention that was deserved. Besser died two months before my wedding and during the second semester of my PhD course work. DeRita died two weeks after my first son was born — when I was completing my PhD and getting ready to move to a new location.
The more complicated answer is that I’ve found myself mourning Larry and Moe’s losses at various random times over the last 30-plus years, most notably while dreaming during sleep.
In most cases, the dream takes place at the present, and the content of the dream is that either Larry or Moe is still alive, and I realize that I’ve neglected to be in touch with them since 1974. During the dream, it dawns on me that I need to get back in touch with them now while they’re still here. The thought of reconnecting with them after so many years brings me great joy.
Then I typically make contact with them and find that they still remember me. Our relationship continues from exactly where we last left off. Whenever this dream happens, I awake feeling deep remorse, realizing that the great excitement of getting back in touch with them is no longer a possibility.
The bottom line is that the aftermath of these dreams makes it clear that both Larry and Moe’s deaths affected me significantly and equally. In contrast, although I was sorry to hear about the deaths of Besser and DeRita, I certainly have never felt the same sense of loss as with Larry or Moe. The fact that I’ve never had a Besser or DeRita dream bears this out!
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