Ted Healy and The Three Stooges
Posted June 29, 2016on:
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Bill Cassara’s previous profession, along with its “curse,” is a blessing for those who enjoy reading biographies that reveal heretofore unknown information.
Before retiring, Bill was an Internal Affairs Sargeant for the Monterey County (California) Sheriff’s Department. He was, and is, a film buff. Laurel and Hardy were at the top of his list, and The Three Stooges weren’t far behind. Bill is a naturally curious person, and wondered why nothing substantive had been written about two beloved character actors, Edgar Kennedy and Vernon Dent; and A-list entertainer, Ted Healy.
Professional investigator–movie buff–naturally curious person…a trifecta of attributes needed to pen three biographical gems: “Edgar Kennedy – Master of the Slow Burn” (2005) and “Vernon Dent – Stooge Heavy” (2010,) and now “Nobody’s Stooge – Ted Healey” (2014,) all published by BearManor Media. I’ve read them all; he’s a good writer and knows how to hold a reader’s attention.
Bill and I became friends many years ago through our mutual love and admiration for Laurel and Hardy. I first became aware of his attention to detail when I rode with him in his sheriff’s vehicle as he spent his day protecting and serving. At a stoplight, he “lit up” a driver and pulled him over for tossing a lit cigarette out the window. The offense had occurred so far back down the road that I still can’t figure out how he saw it. Subsequent ride-a-longs yielded similar surprises, while we discussed how he unraveled crimes starting from square one. It was no surprise to me when he became an Internal Affairs sergeant.
After Bill retired, he told me that a career in law enforcement can be a curse because it is a challenge to be out in public and not ignore people and events that don’t seem quite right. By the way, he only gave the butt-tosser a warning.
It disappointed me when several fellow Three Stooges fans gave his book, “Nobody’s Stooge – Ted Healy,” tepid reviews because it contradicted several long held “facts” about Healy being a bad guy. You know the saying, “If you tell a lie often enough it becomes the truth.” In this case, a legend.
That being said, I thought Bill needed a platform to discuss his research methods that uncovered new truths about Healy.
The following is our interview of March 25, 2015…and be sure to check out http://www.billcassara.com.
Kit: Why did you get into the profession of law enforcement?
Bill: I wanted to make a difference; I was an idealist and put myself through college while working in jobs that dealt with the public. I was a local history buff, so I had pride in where I lived. Another motivator; I was a victim of burglary; someone stole my coin collection that I cultivated over the years. I channeled my outrage into something constructive, a career peace officer. I consider myself a victim’s advocate.
Kit: Are there parallels between criminal investigation and conducting research for a book?
Bill: There are some, I suppose it depends on what kind of book. The three books I wrote all pertain to biographies of old film clowns: Edgar Kennedy, Vernon Dent, and Ted Healy. Projects like these demand that I research from scratch, remain objective, sift the facts from the legend and corroborate with existing evidence i.e. public records and reliable newspaper accounts of the day.
Kit: Do you consider yourself a “just the facts, ma’am” author?
Bill: Hollywood bios demand a writing style that is part historical, factual and engaging. Gone are the days when bios were written by glorified press agents. Today’s readers want a true picture. My career depended on my credibility as an investigator, writer of reports and expert witness testimony.
Now that I’m retired, I can write for fun. Imagine the joy I had in describing Edgar Kennedy’s “Slow-Burn” as a metaphor to a volcano eruption or relating the aroma of over-ripe fruits prominent in Vernon Dent’s time? I could convey that sense because I grew up in the same neighborhood Vernon did. The Healy book is more clinical and closer to how I used to write professionally.
Kit: How did you come to be a Three Stooges fan?
Bill: I think it was 1959 when all the Columbia Three Stooges films were released on television. They were a sensation and all the kids at school talked about them. Later that year, the Stooges made a promotional appearance at our local TV. affiliate and I fixated on Moe who did all the talking on the program. He communicated to the kids in a grandfatherly concerned way. The Stooges were accessible, unlike my other older film comedian heroes: Laurel & Hardy, Little Rascals, Abbott & Costello, and just about everyone in Robert Youngson’s film compilations.
Kit: Why did you select Ted Healy as the subject of a biography?
Bill: I wanted a challenge. As a historian I have always been interested in “what came first?” and “how did they get there?” I appreciate those who make me laugh; take the case of the Stooges’ success story. In his autobiography: “Moe Howard and the Three Stooges,” he thankfully included details about the genesis of the act which started with vaudeville and Broadway star, Ted Healy. I was struck by the fact Healy died at age forty-one under mysterious circumstances with rumors that he was murdered. With my background as an Internal Investigations Sergeant, I thought I could clarify all the details. My secondary reason was Healy died four days after his only child was born, so Ted Healy Jr. grew up never knowing about his dad. When I found out that his son had recently died, I knew a book about Ted Healy would never happen unless I took on the responsibility. I dived into the murky depths of vaudeville. It was here, as documented by old newspapers and trade publications, that I compiled data and venues pertaining to Ted Healy’s slow rise to stardom.
Kit: Was Joan Howard Maurer receptive to your writing a book on Healy?
Bill: Moe Howard’s daughter was very supportive, she invited my wife and I over to her home to discuss it. She said it was interesting that a retired “detective” was researching Ted Healy.
Kit: What sorts of things did she share?
Bill: The thing that stood out most to me was her comment, “Ted Healy was very generous to our family.” For Joan to emphasize that point is revealing, it is the opposite of what most people think about the Healy/Howard association. Joan no doubt was repeating what her father told her. After all, it was Healy who ”discovered” and mentored the Howard brothers and Larry Fine.
Joan had pulled a file labeled “Healy,” from her father’s personal archives. There were rare photos of Moe with Healy and many ads from their various engagements. I included several images for the book with Joan’s kind permission.
Kit: How did Healy come to be known as such a villain?
Bill: Healy died in 1937, almost eighty years ago and there is still quite a bit of emotion tied into it from “Stooge” fans. This was one of my interests in writing a book; why is Healy portrayed as a “Simon Legree” character in books published after Moe’s death? Mel Gibson made a biopic about the lives of the Three Stooges and naturally included a Ted Healy character who was depicted viciously. The visuals made a permanent impression on the general television audience. Fans, authors and bloggers have been dog piling on him ever since.
Kit: What are your thoughts about Moe’s autobiography?
Bill: Moe’s book is considered the “bible” towards anything relating to Stooge history. Thank goodness his daughter took an active role in completing the project. Understandably, Moe cobbled together most of his recollections without aid of a diary or other documents.
Kit: What were the inconsistencies between Moe’s recollections and the facts?
Bill: When I first read Moe’s book, I was elated. Precious details were revealed for the first time in writing. It became the cornerstone for seemingly hundreds of books. Moe remembered first coming across Healy on July 4, 1909 while strumming his ukulele and singing with Ted, “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.”
It should be noted that Moe was first an entertainer and a beginning story for meeting Healy was essential for his book. One has to expect these kinds of things; many celebrities rely on great stories. Ted Healy sure did.
Most other writers simply repeated Moe’s tales, I started from scratch. It’s where any investigation should start. It may seem inconsequential to point out, but “ukes” were not known on the east coast until they were introduced by Hawaiians for the 1915 San Francisco Panama Exhibition. And the song Moe remembered wasn’t copyrighted until 1912 as a “Ragtime” piano piece.
There is a sequence in Moe’s book where he recounted when he and Ted joined with some local girls for a diving stage act in 1913. Since Healy was part of this act, it seemed important to retell the circumstances to the readers. The story goes that Moe and Ted began in show business as part of the “Annette Kellerman Diving Act” of 1913. History tells us that Kellerman was an international superstar by this time and had appeared in four movies with her aquatic acts. Her diving events were heavily documented by newspapers. Kellerman did not need 16 year-olds disguised as girls to help with her high diving act. Fortunately, Moe remembered an accident associated with his act that claimed the life of Gladys Kelly, there was a mishap on the diving board where she fell to her death. This accident was written up as a small article in the New York Times in an off-Broadway stage. This wasn’t the “Annette Kellerman Diving Act,” So the question remains, “Did Moe intend for the version of what was printed in his book?” I’m sure he meant the act was a “knock-off” of the more established star. Still, this raises a red flag for whom was doing the editing.
Another stumbling block was to corroborate Moe’s recollection detailing when he joined Healy’s act in “1922.” Moe said he answered an ad that Healy needed a replacement for an acrobatic act that walked out on him. It was written that Healy was playing at the Prospect Theatre in New York at the time. Later day researchers have never been able to find this “ad” in the trade papers. Furthermore, Healy did not play at the Prospect in 1922.
An existing program (May 27, 1923) shows Moe (As Moses Harry Horwitz) directing a play in his Brooklyn neighborhood. So Moe couldn’t have joined Healy until after this date. Moe described this act in his autobiography, “Ted was already in an act with his wife and dog by then.” This hit revue was called “Syncopated Toes,” and started on Sept. 3, 1923. Ted and Betty were the stars and producers.
Kit: What about Larry’s biography, written by his brother?
Bill: That book, “Larry-Stooge in the Middle” was allegedly written by Morris Feinberg in 1984. It was one of the first books about the Stooges by one who was close to the action…except he wasn’t. There are so many falsehoods in this book starting with the author; it was confirmed to me by Gary Lassin and Steven Cox (who were close to the project at the time), that Larry’s brother was in his eighties with a heart condition and had no access to research. This book was published by the appropriately named “Last Gasp” in San Francisco which is now defunct.
The ghostwriter apparently thought it needed “punching up” by making Healy a very imposing villain who was an archenemy with our favorite innocents. To make him more evil, the “author” described scenes in which Healy was so revengeful of the boys leaving his act that he would phone theatres where they were playing, introduced him-self and threatened to firebomb the place if their act went on. Think about this seriously; a threat like that would impact everyone in the theatre including the paying customers. The press would have written it up if such a stunt happened as described.
Perhaps even worse, the author had the audacity to print a date (September 30, 1930) in which Healy allegedly brought suit against “Howards & Fine” in Los Angeles, Ca. This was a calculated intent to invoke emotion into the prose for contrast. Even more absurd; after his day in court the author claimed, “Healy lost the case.” Invented dialogue ensues with Shemp’s quote to Larry, “I don’t think we’ve heard the last from Ted Healy.” None of this ever happened. I couldn’t find any mention in the Los Angeles papers of that time and they would have been all over that. I made it a point to search out the court files and there was nothing. Never mind that Moe, Larry and Shemp returned to Healy on August 7, 1932, the question is; why would they return if Healy was so dangerous? The truth is: Moe, Larry and Shemp, (later replaced by Curly) rode Healy’s coattails during this era. In 1933 it got them to Hollywood. This takes nothing away from the Stooges later success, but coming back to Healy was the break they needed professionally.
The damage has been done-for over thirty years people have been conditioned to believe Healy was a monster.
Kit: Did your research turn up any tidbits about the Stooges that you didn’t include because they had nothing to do with Healy?
Bill: There are other examples that Moe said that weren’t quite accurate; Moe said Shemp quit Healy’s act to join Vitaphone as “Knobby Walsh.” That role didn’t occur until years later. Moe described his brother Curly cutting it up as a member of Orville Knapp’s Band in 1929. Knapp didn’t have his own band until 1934 (Knapp was a musician for another band in 1929). I can pass all that off as entertainment. My main concern in credibility was in one particular sequence in Moe’s book; it was after the filming of “Soup to Nuts” in 1930 when Moe, Larry and Shemp split from Healy after their contract expired. According to Moe’s book, the reason for the separation was because he heard a third person rumor that Fox was going to offer Moe, Larry and Shemp a seven-year deal. The story goes that Healy squashed it by appealing to a company executive. This is curious because Fox wasn’t making short comedies at this time and they certainly wouldn’t have started up a whole new unit during this stage of the depression. I have a hard time grasping that Fox would offer the boys (sans big name Healy) a seven-year feature deal (even back-loaded) on the strength of their performance in “Soup to Nuts.” They weren’t even known as “Stooges” yet. Moe allegedly claimed Healy “begged us to come back to him,” and “I don’t have an act without you.” In truth, Ted Healy could throw his hat on the stage and be well received. He put together other comic foils and continued in big-time vaudeville. He really struck gold when he performed on Broadway with Fanny Brice and Phil Baker in “Crazy Quilt.” The act toured America’s biggest cities throughout 1931 based on advanced ticket sales.
This may be considered sacrilegious, but when Moe discussed the Healy era, were his writings embellished? Or did his publisher (like the Larry book), fill in details to make things more dramatic? It should be emphasized that Moe died before his book was published and tampering with the material could explain some of the inconsistencies and drama.
Kit: Any thoughts, even little ones, about writing another biography?
Bill: The reason I wrote books about Kennedy, Dent, and Healy is because I had so much interest in them from seeing their films. They deserved a study. I have many more favorites that I hope someday other authors pursue. I would love to read a book about: Leon Errol, Andy Clyde, Bud Jamison, Mae Busch, Lloyd Bacon, and even the tragic stories of F. Richard Jones and Clyde Bruckman…the list goes on. Is there a market there?
Bill Cassara about the time of the “butt-tossing” incident.