Moe Howard, the irascible one with the world-famous bangs, was born on June 19, 1897, in Bensonhurst, New York, a small Jewish community on the outskirts of Brooklyn. His real name was Moses Horwitz (only later did he adopt the name Harry), son of real estate entrepreneur Jennie Horwitz and clothing cutter Solomon Horwitz. Moe was the fourth eldest of the five Howard brothers, all but two, Jack and Irving, having entered show business.
Throughout Moe's career, columnists the world over tried to find words to describe his unusual haircut; buster brown, spittoon, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl and Beatle were but a few. His hair color changed with the years from black in his youth to reddish-brown when he dyed it) to silver-white (its final natural color) during the seventies. He had a marvelous mop of hair until the day he died, but during grammar school days it was the bane of his existence. He was constantly taunted by his class mates over his head of shoulder-length curls-which his mother adored, having always wanted a girl. One day, tired of fighting with his school chums, Moe grabbed a pair of shears and hacked off the curls that encircled his freckled face; the resulting hairstyle was a raggedy version of the one that became his trademark.
Moe was an extremely bright child and at a very young age displayed an ability to quickly memorize anything. This ability carried over into later life, making him a quick study during his acting career. Brother Jack reminisced about his youth and his love for books: I had many Horatio Alger books and it was Moe's greatest pleasure to read them. They started his imaginative mind working and gave him ideas by the dozen. I think they were instrumental in putting thoughts into his head-to become a person of good character and to become successful."
Moe carried his penchant fur learning and a love of the theater right with him to school, acting in a play he dramatized, directed and appeared in, The Story of Nathan Hale. He was fascinated with acting and played hooky to catch the shows at the melodrama theaters during the week. As his interest in the theater grew Moe's excellent marks in school began to suffer. In spite of his truancy. he graduated from P.S. 163 in Brooklyn, but be attended Erasmus High School for only two months, never completing his high school education. This greatly disturbed his parents, who were not in favor of his show business aspirations and urged him to go into a profession or some kind of trade. Moe tried to please them and did take a class in electric shop at the Baron DeHirsch Trade School in New York. His interest was short-lived, however and within a few months he gave up all thought of school to pursue the career that was closest to his heart, show business.
Years later recalling his lost schooldays, Moe said: "I used to stand outside the theater knowing the truant officer was looking for me. I would stand there 'til someone came along and then ask them to buy my ticket. It was necessary for an adult to accompany a juvenile into the theatre. When I succeeded I'd give him my ten cents-that's all it cost-and I'd go up to the top of the balcony where I'd put my chin on the rail and watch, spellbound, from the first act to the last. I would usually select the actor I liked the most and follow his performance throughout the play"
His love for show business indelibly fixed, Howard embarked on a film career in 1909 at the Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn, where he earned his entree into filmmaking by running errands, "for no tips," for such performers as Maurice Costello. As a result of his persistence, Moe soon appeared in films with such silent stars as John Bunny, Flora Finch, Earle William, Herbert Rawlinson and Walter Johnson.
In 1909 Moe met Ted Healy for the first time. They became close friends and together in the summer of 1912 joined Annette Kellerman's aquatic act as diving "girls." This job lasted through the summer.
Then in 1913, Moe and Shemp tried their hand at singing, using the family room at Sullivan's Saloon to gain their much-needed experience in front of an audience. The Howards sang along in a quartet with the talented bass singer of that time, Babe Tuttle, and an Irish tenor, Willie O'Connor. Moe sang baritone, while Shemp sang lead. Together the foursome harmonized such popular old songs as "Dear Old Girl," "Oh, You Beautiful Doll," "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "Heart of My Heart" and I've Been Through the Mill, Bill." Moe and Shemp continued to sing every night until nine or ten o'clock, until their father found out what they were doing and soon put a stop to it.
The following year, in 1914, Moe, feeling a bit of Huck Finn in his blood, wangled himself a job with a performing troupe on Capt. Billy Bryant's showboat, Sunflower. For two summers Howard acted with the company in the same melodramas he had seen as a kid, performing his favorite roles in Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl, St. Elmo and Ten Nights in a Barroom, all at the age of seventeen. Before answering Ted Healy's call in 1922 to become a stooge, Moe worked a blackface act with Shemp, touring the country. Besides stage work, Moe also appeared in 12 two-reel shorts with baseball great Hans Wagner.
Late in 1922, Moe renewed his acquaintance with Ted Healy and together with Shemp formed a partnership that, except for a few short breaks, would last for almost ten years.
On June 7, 1925, Moe married Helen Schonberger, a cousin of the late Harry Houdini. In 1926 Helen urged Moe to leave the stage and Ted Healy in order to spend more time with her, as she was expecting a child. Moe acquiesced and left show business to work in real estate for a year. When that didn't work out he opened a small retail store and attempted to sell distressed merchandise, which turned into an hysterical fiasco. During 1927 Moe worked intermittently at the Jewish Community House in Bensonhurst, producing and directing plays. One of his early efforts, Stepping Along, was reviewed by a critic at The New York Dross, who wrote, "A Musical Dream in Three Episodes was probably as good a description as anything else and it was a dream from which none wanted to awaken."
Sorely missing the old gang and unable to make a living in the workaday world, Moe rejoined Healy a short time later, appearing in a J.J. Shubert production, A Night in Venice, in addition to vaudeville engagements and numerous films for MGM. When Healy decided to star in features at Metro and the Stooges left to star in their two-reel comedies at Columbia, Moe became the permanent leader of the group-a leadership that would last through the Stooges' contract with Colombia for 24 consecutive years; the longest single contract ever held by a comedy team.
In many ways Moe's off-screen persona was far removed from the character he played on screen. In the theatre or before the cameras, Moe would open up and let his nervous energies flow, but at home he was a very different man. While Larry was gregarious, Moe was introverted, very serious and very nervous, a man who found it very hard to relax. He also had difficulty expressing his true feelings and emotions and bought gifts for family and friends as a means of expressing his love. Moe felt his inability to demonstrate his emotions stemmed from his family upbringing. As he once wrote: "I recall that my father rarely kissed my mother and that I rarely kissed them. Expressing our love for one another was difficult."
As his son-in-law Norman Maurer explains it: "If he liked you, he would do anything for you. Like his mother, he worked for charity organizations and loved to watch people's faces when they opened their gifts. On one occasion during the Hanukkah/ Christmas season, Moe went grocery shopping for Emil Sitka and his family of seven and delivered the groceries himself. Howard made the gesture without being asked. Sitka, a character actor who had played in many of the Stooges' comedies, was surprised to come home and find the cupboards and refrigerator packed with groceries. Emil expressed his gratitude to the comedian in a letter he wrote: "The oil hums for eight days during Hanukkah-but my torch burns in gratitude for you forever."
Moe's desire to give a helping hand to the needy continued throughout his life-as a member and three-time president of the Spastic Children's Guild, playing Santa Claus for the Guild's palsied children, rounding up their gifts and committing himself and the other two Stooges to hundreds of benefit performances whenever and wherever he was asked.
Despite his tough demeanor on screen, at home he was quite softhearted. His wife Helen remembers with nostalgia the different ways Moe liked to mark their wedding anniversary each year. As she recalled, He was a very sentimental man and wrote me hundreds of love poems when we were first married. On our tenth wedding anniversary, the phone rang and a strange voice on the other end asked me if I would take Moe Horwitz for my lawful, wedded husband. The voice then proceeded to perform the entire wedding ceremony with me on one end and Moe, the mystery voice, on the other. He was also a singer and at the end of the ceremony, in a beautiful baritone voice, he sang, 'Oh Promise Me,' the song sung at our wedding.
Moe was also the businessman of the team, ran the group and made most of the team's decisions. Curly and Larry were carefree individuals, never priding themselves on punctuality and with absolutely no regard for money. Moe did the worrying for all of them.
Although Moe was cautious in certain directions about saving money, be would go crazy in other directions. Norman Maurer nicknamed him Wholesale Charlie, since his fondest pleasure was buying clothes for all the members of his family. He'd buy everything by the dozen (it seemed that all his boyhood friends had wound up in the wholesale garment business). Norman felt that be wasted a good deal of money on these spending sprees, but Moe got untold enjoyment out of them.
Despite his inability to relax and enjoy life to its fullest like Curly and Larry, Moe's goal in life was to give his family their every wish, and this he did. He and his wife Helen traveled to just about every city in the world, where they were treated like royalty by their fans.
Director Edward Bernds, who knew him for 40 years, felt the businesslike side of Moe certainly helped on the set. "Moe was all business, but he was interested in making the film as good as he could. He didn't take anything away from the director but he did see to it that the boys shaped up. He liked making suggestions and was very creative.
Moe's social life was quite different from Shemp's, as he rarely mingled with a show business crowd. Most of his friends, as strange as it seems, were judges, lawyers and doctors and any people his wife befriended. Although he loved his profession, Moe's first thoughts were for his family and he dreaded the separation caused by hectic shooting schedules and personal appearance tours.
After the loss of his brothers, Curly and Shemp, Moe once remarked that be had mixed feeling about watching his brothers in television reruns of their Stooges comedies. As he said, How strange it is that people can laugh at comedians who are dead and never give it a second thought. At the same time, it's good to think that Shemp and my kid brother Curly, are still remembered.
There was more to Moe's life than bopping and slapping his fellow Stooges. He had a wide range of interests over the years which included traveling, gardening, ceramics and cooking. (He could whip up a mean cioppino and a marvelous lasagna- neither of which he ate. He cooked them because his wife loved them.)
In his younger days he enjoyed going to the fights, football games, and midget auto racing and had hobbies that included hooking rugs and stamp and coin collecting. Moe even tried the art of wine making. His daughter Joan, about ten at the time, recalls vaguely what happened: "It seems that my father decided to make wine. Never one for reading directions carefully, he made a radical mistake somewhere down the line. Something to do with not removing the bung from the wine barrel at the right time... or maybe not removing it at all. When the day arrived for my father to taste his wine, he pulled out the bung and all hell broke loose. The entire contents of the barrel - wine, skins, and seeds - exploded out like they were shot out of a cannon. The room, which had white walls, was splashed with vivid red, but the strangest sight of all was my father. He was wine red from head to toe and peppered with grape seeds. They were stuck to him everywhere: his ears, his nostrils, his hair. Even the walls of the room were plastered with seeds. My dad was able to take a bath after and clean himself up, but that house must still have telltale signs of what went on that fateful day."
Moe's favorite music was quite diverse. It included anything sung by a barber shop quartet, the music of Andre Segovia, and his favorite song, "How Deep is the Ocean." His favorite Stooges comedy was You Nazty Spy (1940). For exercise there was golf and a brisk two-mile walk every morning.
Moe had two children: his first, Joan, and eight years later a son, Paul. He was married almost 50 years to his wife, Helen, who died six months after him on October 31, 1975.
When once asked how long the Stooges would remain in show business, Howard replied, "Forever is a long time, but with a little luck, we just might make it."
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