Joe Besser, who replaced Shemp Howard as the third Stooge in 1956 (not 1955), caught the attention of theater goers with his impish grin and child like demeanor. He was certainly a comedian in his own right.
Joe's stooging began as a youngster growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was born on August 12, 1907, to Fanny and Morris Besser. His parents, orthodox Jews, had moved to the United States from Poland in 1895 where Morris worked as a baker. Joe became the ninth child (two died before his birth) in a family comprised of seven daughters: Rose, Esther, Molly, Lilly, Gertrude, Florence, Henrietta, and an older brother, Manny, who entered show business as a comedian and Jewish dialectician.
Joe became enthralled with magic and show business at an early age and was encouraged by his parents. They might have thought twice about this had they known their son would spend more time watching vaudeville matinees than attending Glascoe Elementary School. Besser once remarked: "I learned more in the theater than I did in school.
"For his age, Joe was a very independent and enterprising young man, working as a Western Union delivery boy, a song- plugger for the Waterson, Berlin and Synder sheet music store and as a distributor of handbills for the Fox Theater Circuit in St. Louis. By age 13 Joe decided to become a professional magician. His favorite magician was Howard Thurston who appeared in St. Louis annually. Whenever Thurston was in town, Joe eagerly went backstage to ask the world-renowned magician if he could join his act. Each time Thurston replied, "When you get a little bit older, we'll talk about it." Thurston gave Besser the same answer for five years!
Finally, in 1920, the night Thurston's act closed in St. Louis, Joe watched avidly as the stagehands loaded all the scenery and trunks into a nearby freight train. Besser remembers: "I was so anxious to join his act that I stowed away that night on the train with Thurston's act on board, heading for Michigan. The following morning as the train pulled into Detroit, Thurston and his manager found me fast asleep on top of the lion's cage. They wired my folks to tell them where I was and from that day on I was part of the act." On stage, Joe would comically foil Thurston's feats of legerdemain. He would tip-toe in from the audience and reach into Thurston's coat pocket, yanking out trick flowers and other magic-shop props.
In 1923, once Besser discovered that comedy was his forte, he decided to leave Thurston and went on to serve as magician's assistant to Madame Herrman; six months later he became prop assistant to Queenie DeNeenen, a circus tightrope performer. Eventually, Joe teamed with several vaudeville acts, including the popular comedy team Alexandria and Olsen. This was John Olsen, the brother of Chic from the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson.
Joe's career was quickly finding a direction; his current pursuit, in 1928, was that of a solo comedian. While on tour, he was introduced to an Allan K. Foster dancer, Erna Dora Kretschmer (who shortened her name to Erna Kay-then was nicknamed "Ernie"). They courted for four years and were married on November l8, 1932. Ernie served as a choreographer on the 1929 Paramount film The Coconuts, featuring the Marx Brothers.
In 1930, Joe toured the Keith Theater Circuit with a new act containing two hilarious skits, "Wild Cat Duggan" and "Spanish Omelet." Sam Critcherson (known on stage as Dick Dana) signed as Joe's first professional straight man. By 1938, however, Besser broke in a new act with nightclub singer Lee Royce, who sang a baritone rendition of "Ol' Man River." Then, two years later, Besser took Columbia Pictures contractee Jimmy Little on tour as his straight man. These acts weren't billed jointly, but as "Joe Besser with An Added Attraction." Soon Besser became a headliner on the Orpheum, RKO, Paramount and Loew's theater circuits. He also appeared on the Broadway stage in two J.J. Shubert revues, The Passing Show of 1932 and The Greenwich Village Follies. (In 1946, Besser returned to Broadway in If the Shoe Fits, a Cinderella story.)
Joe's portrayal of an exasperated, whining child earned him a spot in Olsen and Johnson's long-running Broadway Show Sons of Fun, and a chance to spring his act on audiences everywhere. In times of mass confusion, his retort was a simple wave of his hand and a sputtering assault of such catch phrases as "Not so fast!" and "You crazy you!" He was occasionally booked to bolster Fatty Arbuckle's personal appearance tours (Arbuckle, before his untimely death, entertained thoughts of starring Besser as his younger brother in a series of comedy shorts), but Sons of Fun was the biggest break of his career.
It was Columbia producer Irving Briskin and director Charles Barton who, upon seeing Besser during Sons of Fun, urged the studio to sign him. Barton recalls his initial reaction to Besser's antics: "I had never seen anything so wild in my whole life. Irving's and my reactions were `Get the little guy.... get him...` because he was so cute.
Columbia Pictures signed Besser to an exclusive contract and cast him in features and comedy two reelers. He made his screen debut in a 1938 AllStar Comedy short for Columbia, Cuckoorancho. His credits at Columbia include Hey, Rookie! (1944) with Ann Miller and Larry Parks, and Eadie Was a Lady (1945) and Talk About a Lady (1946) with Jinx Falkenburg.
Slowly Besser made his climb to stardom. Soon radio comedians like Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor and Milton Berle were all clamoring to have him on their shows. Besser made frequent appearances on The Jack Benny Show, The Fred Allen Show, The Eddie Cantor Show, Tonight on Broadway (a summer replacement show in 1946), The Vaughan Monroe Show and, from 1945 to 1949, as the delirious character, Mr. Know It All, on Let Yourself Go, starring Milton Berle.
Besser's television debut came on Standard Brands' variety series, Hour Glass, the first live, hour-long entertainment series of any kind produced for network television. It aired on NBC, May 9, 1946. Besser stole the opening with his hilarious military sketch, "The Rookie."
Television producers of the l950 then clamored for Besser casting him on Hollywood House with Jim Backus, The Ken Murray Show, The Private Eyes (a never-shown pilot which teamed Joe with Sheldon Leonard), Mr. District Attorney, The Abbott and Costello Show (as a malevolent brat named "Stinky" in 13 episodes), The Spike Jones Show, Alan Young's Saturday Night Revue, My Favorite Story (as a Small-town Mayor in "No Tears") and My Little Margie ("Vern's Butterflies").
Joe also wowed audiences on such television programs as The Millionaire (in "Harvey Blake," the premiere episode, which was directed by Stooge alumnus Edward Bernds), The Martha Raye Show, The Damon Runyan Theater ("The Mink Doll"), I Married Joan, The Jack Benny Show (a record seven appearances, his most memorable being with Tennessee Ernie Ford), The Ray Milland Show, Private Secretary, The Dennis O'Keefe Show, December Bride, Willy, and even The Gene Autry Show.
Joe continued making his own comedy shorts for Columbia before joining the Three Stooges in 1956. His series' straight man was Jim Hawthorne, who went on to produce and narrate a series of television blackouts called Jim Hawthorne's Funnyworld. Hawthorne has nothing but high praise when speaking of Besser. He credits Joe with helping him develop into a comedian: "I believe Joe gave of his talents what others would jealously guard. I felt the relationship was short lived, but a fascinating one for me, with fond memories. I think Joe and I might have developed into a good comedy team which could have replaced the Stooges. The comedies were really fun to make and he was so good in them."
Director Jules White produced and directed most of Besser's solo comedies. He also believed Besser and Hawthorne were a natural combination. "Joe was the little boy with the temper who clenches his fist, threatens, backs away, runs and never really wants to fight you. That was Joe's character," White explained. "This fellow Hawthorne was a good foil for Joe. He was a comic straight man. They were two dummies, each telling the other how dumb they are and neither believing each other. This was a good combination.
"Behind the scenes, Joe got along with everybody on the set. Such directors as Jules White and Charles Barton have said that Besser didn't make demands as to how his character should be played. "Joe was a real gentleman," Jules White said in an interview. "He had good ideas for his character. But if I asked him to do something that wasn't quite right, although he wasn't happy at first, he'd never let me down once we talked things out."
Joe didn't do much socializing after or during working hours. He got strictly down to business when it came to performing. Seldom did Besser take the initiative in starting up new friendships. He just went to the studio, did his job and returned home for the quiet life. Concerning his association with the Stooges, whom he didn't see off screen, Joe has nothing but fond memories. Besser recalls, "Moe and Larry were great. We had a lot of fun and I had no problems with them. I knew them when they were with Ted Healy. So we all went back some years together. After the Healy days, I continued to follow their careers. I'm glad I did join the Stooges and I have never regretted it."
Leaving the Stooges in 1958, Besser went on to star in feature films for 20th Century-Fox, in Jerry Lewis comedies, and served up laughs on many more popular 196Os television shows, including: Spike Jones's Club Oasis, The Kraft Music Hall (twice with Milton Berle), The TV Guide Awards Show with Fred MacMurray and Nanette Fabray, The Shirley Temple Theater (joining comics Carl Ballantine and Jerry Colonna in "Babes in Toyland"), General Electric Theater hosted by Ronald Reagan (as Charles Bronson's fight manager in "Memory in White" co-starring Sammy Davis, Jr.) and The Alvin Show (as the voice of a Fire-Breathing Dragon).
His popularity, however, soared to new heights when Joe became a regular on The Joey Bishop Show from 1962 to 1965 as the apartment superintendent, Jillson, in an astronomical 88 episodes.
After Besser's memorable association with the Bishop show ended, he was continually called upon to grace the small screen in cameo roles on: The Hollywood Palace (three appearances, twice with Milton Berle), Batman ("His Honor the Penguin"), The Danny Thomas Special ("It's Greek to Me"), The Mothers-in-Law ("How to Manage a Rock Group," "The First Anniversary Is the Hardest" and "Two on the Aisle"), That's Life ("Bachelor Days"), That Girl ("Eleven Angry Men and That Girl"), The Don Rickles Show, and The Jerry Lewis Show.
Joe also evoked laughs in My World and Welcome to It ("The Night the House Caught Fire"), The Good Guys ("Win, Place and Kill" and "No Orchids for the Diner"), Arnie, The Bing Crosby Christmas Special (of 1970), The Monk (a made-for-TV movie), commercials for Off! insect repellent and Scope mouthwash, and Love American Style (four appearances, his funniest being as a Toupee Salesman in "Love and the Lady Barber" (1971), with his customer the late Frank Sutton of Gomer Pyle fame).
Joe spends his spare time building toys for neighborhood children and gardening with his wife, Ernie. He is also a camera buff. His favorite comedians were Jack Benny and Abbott and Costello, and Ann Miller is his choice for actress. Joe hasn't seen all of his Stooges comedies, but his favorite is Flying Saucer Daffy (1958). (His fans prefer Hoofs and Goofs (1957) and A Merry Mix-Up (1957).)
Although Besser has never had children, the laughter of his young fans brings him considerable joy. As he once said, "I love working for kids. They are my best fans, my best audience and my best friends. My biggest thrill is having the kids like me. As long as this happens, I've got it made."
This information is at least 10 years old and Joe Besser has since passed away. -DB
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