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by Kevin S. Butler

By the mid-1950s, the films of Bugs Bunny, Mighty Mouse, Laurel & Hardy, and even Popeye were finding a new life on a new medium as local TV stations aired them on their popular kiddie programs. Youngsters, who couldn't have seen these animated antics in the movie theaters of the 1930s and '40s, became enchanted with these surreal, artistic efforts.

3 Stooges photoIf some kids wondered if there were any comedies featuring real people who could do the things that cartoon characters could, their dream was realized when, in the fall of 1958, Columbia Pictures' newly formed television division (Screen Gems, Inc.) re-released their Three Stooges shorts, a popular theatrical attraction from 1934 until the early-1950s.

The cinematic antics of Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp were never fully appreciated by the movie critics or by many adults who felt that the boys' humor was decidedly low brow and extremely violent. The team did have a loyal following with the children who saw the trio as cartoons brought to life, forever at the lower strata of life and always landing, by pure happenstance, jobs that they were never meant to have.

3 Stooges Ted HealyThe team, founded by veteran vaudeville and Broadway musical comedy star Ted Healy along with his friend fellow comedy performer Moe Howard, had worked their way up thru the ranks of vaudeville, nightclubs, a nd Broadway musical reviews.

Working under a variety of names before they began their film careers in the early-1930's, the team worked with Healy first at Fox Studios (in one feature film, Soup To Nuts, with Healy and his "Racketeers" - Moe, Larry, Shemp, and Freddie Sandborn) and later in shorts and features at MGM featuring Moe, Larry, and Curly.

The boys separated from Healy and went on to their own career at Columbia in 1934 continuing to make primarily shorts (although the trio did appear in features but more as a comedy addition than as the stars) until their contract was dropped in 1957.

It was not until Screen Gems re-released their old shorts to television that The Three Stooges became a popular attraction once again.

Officer Joe BoltonOn Monday evening September 8, 1958 WPIX TV 11 was the first NYC-based station to air the films on their daily kid's show The Three Stooges Funhouse. "Officer Joe" Bolton was hired to MC the program set against the gateway of a mythical amusement park funhouse.

Between the films (a package of 78 of the 190 films that the team made) Officer Joe engaged his viewers in songs, stories, games, hobby hints, educational segments, and interviewed guest personalities.

The Three Stooges Funhouse was an instant hit, handily beating out the competition on stations WNEW 5 and WOR 9 in the metro NYC viewing area.

3 Stooges cast Moe HowardIt was during this time that Moe Howard and Larry Fine decided to revive the act, hiring former vaudeville and burlesque comedy song and dance man Joe De Rita for the role of the third Stooge.

The team began by doing personal appearances in nightclubs and at a military base in Southern California. It was not until they received an invitation to perform at The Holiday House hotel and nightclub in Monroeville, Pa. (a suburb of Pittsburgh) in the winter of 1958 that the boys became a hit all over again with the kids.

After their appearance at The Holiday House the trio quickly received bookings to appear at shopping centers, fairs, movie theaters, and on the local kiddie shows that aired their films.

3 Stooges Curly Joe, Moe HowardThey also were asked by Columbia to star in their own feature film, Have Rocket Will Travel, released during the summer of 1959 for the saturday matinee crowd. A success, it was during this time that Moe, Larry and Curly Joe were first introduced to Joe Bolton.

Officer Joe had been wanting to make personal appearances with the team since the highly successful debut of his program on Channel 11 the previous fall. He tried to contact the Stooges' manager or agent to discuss the idea but was unable to. When they all finally met the group became fast friends and toured the RKO movie theaters in New Jersey with a live stage show that had the team coming out dressed in tuxedos, attempting to play a faulty xylophone with typically disastrous results.

After performing their skit, the boys and Officer Joe answered questions, signed autographs, and gave away free photos before they had to move on to the next theater.

The team also made their first appearance on The Three Stooges Funhouse. It opened with the Stooges hiding behind balloons with caricatures of their features drawn on them. The balloons were popped and the boys appeared to give the kids at home (myself included) the thrill of seeing the Three Stooges live on the show.

Officer Joe Bolton and the three stooges

ABOVE: Two unknown station execs from WPIX are standing on either side of The Three Stooges and Officer Joe Bolton on the set of The Three Stooges Funhouse.

After screening the first part of that day's short, the boys joined Officer Joe on camera at the gateway to the funhouse for an interview and discussion about making the film that was being shown that evening.

The Three Stooges Funhouse remained on the air at WPIX until Wednesday, September 6, 1961. On Thursday, September 7, 1961 Bolton became the police chief host of The Dick Tracy Cartoon Show while Todd Russell (formerly "Big Todd" of the Rootie Kazootie Club) screened the films on The Three Stooges Firehouse against the backdrop of an inner city fire station.

"Fireman Todd" shared stories, told jokes, read viewers mail, and interviewed guests between the shorts; it was during this period that Channel 11 started airing the post-1947 Three Stooges films with Shemp returning in the role of the third stooge.

Shemp Howard - 3 stoogesShemp had been the third member of the team in the early days with Ted Healy but left to start a solo acting career mainly due to Healy's abusive attitude. He returned to the act after Curly was forced to drop out following a stroke in 1946.

Though he was not hosting the team's films during this period, Bolton did have the Stooges as his guests on The Dick Tracy Cartoon Show during the fall of 1962 where, once again, the boys entertained the viewers and answered questions.

Fireman Todd continued to screen the team's films on The Three Stooges Firehouse until Friday, March 15, 1963.

On Monday evening, March 18, 1963, The Three Stooges were screened along with the Popeye cartoons created and produced especially for television on The Popeye/Three Stooges Show set against the backdrop of the deck of a ship and adjoining captain's quarters.

Captain Jack McCarthyBut new host "Captain Jack" McCarthy felt uncomfortable screening the post-1947 Three Stooges films featuring Moe, Larry, and Shemp and the inferior quality of the Popeye television cartoons bothered him so the series was cancelled on Friday, June 21, 1963.

Fireman Todd returned to MC The Three Stooges Firehouse on Monday, June 24, 1963 until the station execs at Channel 11 closed it down on Friday, August 31, 1963.

It was during this time that the films were also added to the formats of other TV 11 kiddie series. Chuck McCann and the Paul Ashley Puppets screened them on Let's Have Fun Sunday mornings on WPIX from Sunday, September 18, 1960 to Sunday, August 15, 1965. Entertainer Bill Britten featured them along with Laurel & Hardy films and Popeye TV cartoons on The Cartoon Express as "Engineer Smokey" Bill on Saturday mornings beginning October 13, 1962 until Saturday, November 3, 1962.

With the popularity of teen rock and roll dance shows and zany comedy performers like Soupy Sales, Chuck McCann and Sandy Becker, Channel 11 hired Eddie Lawrence (best know for his crazy comedy skits and characterizations) to host Stooges films weekday evenings. Debuting on Monday, September 9, 1963, Lawrence played a daffy character known as The Old Philosopher in comedy skits. He also read viewer mail and told jokes to fill out the telecast.

Lawrence's program gained popularity with teens and young adults but didn't catch on with kids so the station replaced his producer / writer Chet Dowling with another comedy craftsman they thought better suited for a more diverse audience. Lawrence resented this new concept and fought against it; it didn't work anyway and the show began to lose ratings. Lawrence also had battles with the station execs because the Channel 11 mail room couldn't accommodate all the letters from Lawrence's many fans and those of the other kiddie hosts.

When the creative interference got to be too much, Eddie Lawrence quit WPIX TV, The Eddie Lawrence Show left the airwaves later that fall.

John ZacherleyIn January of 1964, horror host John Zacherley (best known to NYC TV viewers as "The Cool Ghoul") became a short term MC of The Three Stooges Show on Channel 11 from Monday, January 6, 1964 until Friday, January 31, 1964.

Officer Joe Bolton hosted the team's films one last time on WPIX's The Three Stooges Show, shot against the backdrop of a police station seen weekday evenings (and later on weekday afternoons) starting Monday, February 3, 1964.

Along with the films of Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp, The Three Stooges Show screened the last series of shorts with Moe, Larry, and Joe Besser as they continued to star in feature films via their own company, Normandy Productions.

three stoogesFrom 1962 until 1965 they appeared in feature films - The Three Stooges Meet
Hercules, The Three Stooges in Orbit,
and The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze.

During the spring of 1964, they began work on their last movie, The Outlaws is Coming. Joe Bolton was invited to appear in the film as one of the nine outlaws, Rob Dalton, so he took time off from his show during the month of May, 1964 while former WNTA TV 13 kiddie host Steve Woodman served as the show's substitute host.

Officer Joe Bolton & the 3 stoogesAfterward, Officer Joe promoted the film on his show and did personal appearances with the team at NYC and NJ movie theaters. In turn, Moe Howard made guest appearances on The Three Stooges Show (without Larry Fine or Curly Joe) in April, 1967 and again in April, 1968.

Over the years, Bolton discussed the team's history with information (not always accurate) supplied by Moe himself and correctly warned the kids never to copy the stunts they saw on the screen. By December of 1968 the backdrop of The Three Stooges Show changed to that of a neighborhood clubhouse to accommodate an enthusiastic studio audience of children.

During the fall of 1965, WNEW 5 aired The New Three Stooges TV live action / cartoon segments that the team produced and starred in (with Cambria animations studios). These new comedies were also screened on The Sandy Becker Show weekday afternoons and mornings from September, 1965 until June, 1968.

Moe's son, artist Paul Howard, made guest appearances on these shows and (on Tuesday and Wednesday, July 2, & 3, 1969) Moe and Paul Howard made their last appearances with Officer Joe and the kids on The Three Stooges Show.

three stooges comic bookBy the late-1960s, despite nationwide popularity, stations telecasting The Three Stooges to an audience of kids began to come under criticism from parents and educators. One parent in particular, Peggy Charren of ACT (Action For Children's Television), teamed up with Forum, Inc. and the FCC to demand stations like WPIX remove the films from their lineup.

Having no choice, WPIX TV 11 somewhat reluctantly cancelled The Three Stooges Show on Thursday, May 7, 1970. Over the next few years, Charren's group was successful in almost completely eradicating The Three Stooges from the broadcast landscape all across the United States in addition to putting an end to nearly every local kiddie show in the nation.

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