All hail Marx and Lennon!
In December of 1962 when I was eight years old, one of the few things in my life that really mattered to me, aside from the upcoming Christmas holidays, was my time spent every weekday afternoon with Officer Joe Bolton and the Three Stooges on WPIX Channel 11 New York. No matter what else was going on in my life, outdoor games with my neighborhood pals, illness or pesky homework I was going to be in front of the big old black and white TV in the family room at 5:30 p.m. for Officer Joe and the “Boys” as he called them. I of course was a Curly guy. I could take Shemp in a pinch and Larry held his own, but Moe in my eyes was a bully much like this fourth grader in school who punched me in the stomach when I wouldn’t let him see my Dracula jigsaw puzzle. In the end, though, Moe was still a Stooge and bully or not, he was my bully and it never dampened my love for the boys.
My father worked for a company that owned RKO and one of the little perks that went with it was free passes to the annual Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall and other special events connected with the company. One year we saw Gone With the Wind in one of it’s occasional re-releases and even as a kid I found watching that film on that giant curved screen pretty impressive. At least the war parts, sitting next to my mother while she wept on and off along with every other woman in the theater for three hours was a bit much. That particular December, though, my pop’s connection to RKO really paid off for me. He and my mom called me into the kitchen one evening and asked how would I like to meet the Three Stooges in person? Really, Ma? Would you like Cary Grant to take you out for cocktails and then slip the keys to a brand new Coupe de Ville into the pocket of the mink coat he’s just given you? Short answer, HELL YES!
It seems the Stooges were touring with a live stage show and they would be playing the Palace Theater in New York. The Palace was owned by RKO, we got tickets, and my old man finagled us a trip back stage to meet the great men. Even better, I could invite a friend, and I chose my best friend Richard for the thrill of a lifetime. The days all passed like weeks and my other friends no doubt green with envy were getting tired of hearing me brag about my upcoming moment in the sun. When the day finally did arrive I was up before dawn for a show that began in the evening and spent the rest of the day driving my mother crazing asking her if it was almost time to go. As an added treat we were going to have dinner in the city but I could not have cared less, bring on the stooges.
The Palace Theater opened in 1913 and in its day was the absolute pinnacle in the vaudeville world. To play the Palace meant that you had really made it and only the top stars of the day headlined there. It began to decline in the late 1920’s with the onset of talking pictures and the Great Depression. RKO bought the theater in the 1950’s and tried to revive it with variety stage shows starring the likes of Judy Garland but by the 60’s the old place had begun to show its age.
As we were led backstage through dark narrow corridors, my mind raced with images of my impending meeting with the great men. Would Moe call me “porcupine” and wave his hands in front of my face? Would Larry run a saw over Moe’s head? Would Curly run in place and make one of his rubber faces? (Curly was, of course, long dead and Curly Joe was the new third Stooge ,but a kid’s allowed to dream). We stopped outside of what was once a white door, now dingy grey, and the man leading us knocked and poked his head inside. I heard him say, “There’s some young men out here who’d like to say hello,” and he pushed the door open wide.
Whatever I had prepared myself for the scene before me was not it. A small, cramped dressing room painted hospital green filled with cigar smoke. There was an open bottle of whiskey on the dressing table and standing before me were three old men in their underwear. Moe came to the door firs;, he had the signature Moe haircut, but it was shot full with grey and his face was very puffy and lined. He offered his hand, and it was my first experience with the dead fish handshake. Larry came next, his hair was not yet teased up into his signature ‘do, but I got the same limp hand I had from Moe. Curly Joe mumbled “Hiya boys” and gave us each a one pump shake, and that was it. The door closed and we were escorted back out to the seats. I was in a sort of shocked state as the show started, but it was funny as I remember. The band behind them did sound effects and the laughter from the other kids in the audience who were not privy to my terrible secret was infectious. I was laughing right along with everyone else, even my old man laughed out loud a few times.
The problem was that the following Monday I really didn’t have as much interest in rushing home for the Officer Joe Bolton Show as I’d had before. The Three Stooges weren’t really all that funny were they? Maybe I’ve just been duped all these years, the opiate of the pre-teen masses! During the live show Moe told all of us boys and girls that it’s fun to pretend but we should always be nice to each other and listen to our parents, well maybe that’s just a crock too! Maybe my parents have been in on the scam the whole time!
It wasn’t too much later that I heard the Beatles for the first time. I asked my big brothers who they were, and he said they were some “English Rock n’ Roll band that all have haircuts like Moe from the Three Stooges.” Well that piqued my interest, I had been lost at sea for a year, Stooge-less, maybe these English guys were the answer. After all, the real Stooges let me down, I really needed something! A few years after that, someone asked me if I’d ever tried pot? I figured, well, why the hell not? After what the Three Stooges did to me, what do I have to lose? LSD? Same thing! Hard drugs? Lay me out a bump, what the hell do I have to live for? Drugs, alcohol, meaningless sex, broken marriages all stemming from that one December day. A pie in the face for life. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.
Eventually I found other idols like Laurel & Hardy, now there were two genuinely funny men. Plus they were both long dead and no chance of being let down. The Marx Brothers? Comic geniuses! I’d lay money that they all had nice, firm, manly handshakes as well. It’s taken me years to get my life straight and on an even keel, even the news that there’s a Three Stooges movie on the horizon has not had any effect on me except a giant yawn. I can say I’ve finally exorcised my demons.
All hail Marx and Lennon.
—Photo via Wikimedia Commons