Shemp Howard, his hair slicked down over loving-cup ears, became one of the most famous comedy stooges in the history of stage and screen. The third eldest brother of Moe Howard, the team leader, Shemp was born Samuel Horwitz in Brooklyn, New York, on March 17, 1895 (not 1900 as listed in studio biographies).
Moe once recalled how his brother acquired the name Shemp. "Shemp was given the Hebrew name Schmool, after his mother's grandfather. Schmool was Anglicized to Samuel and then shortened to Sam. When his mother, with her broad European accent, would call him, the name 'Sam' came out 'Sams,' and if you weren't listening carefully it could sound like Shemp... which it did! So from the time he was seven that's what his family called him. It was Shemp in school and in the world of the theater. In later years, no one knew it was anything else."
Shemp was a very mischievous child, and Moe recalled his favorite pastime was stuffing everything from woolen stockings to sweaters down the hallway toilet. "I remember one time when Shemp tore the pages out of our brother Irving's history book and jammed them into the toilet in our home in Bensonhurst," Moe chuckled as he recalled, "Because of this he had to run the family gauntlet: a smack from Mother, a belt across the head from Dad, a shove from Irving and a kick in the fanny from me.
When Shemp reached the age of thirteen, he was a completely different person and had outgrown most of his mischief-making. Moe remembers that friends of the family had always predicted that Shemp was going to be an actor or a great comedian. But Shemp thought otherwise and never seriously entertained the idea of entering show business. Moe, on the other hand, worked like a demon at it, planned his future, and eventually made it to the footlights before his brother.
Shemp graduated from P.S. 163 in Brooklyn, the same grammar school his brother Moe attended, and got as far as starting New Utrecht High School. Since he and Moe failed to finish school, their parents, Jennie and Solomon Horwitz, urged them to go to a trade school. Late in 1911, Moe and Shemp enrolled at the Baron DeHirsch Trade School in New York, where Shemp took up plumbing and Moe studied to be an electrician. While Moe learned the definition of an ampere, an ohm and a volt, Shemp learned the basics of threading and cutting pipe. Neither of the boys ever finished these courses but instead put their lessons into practice in a rare act of mischief.
Moe remembers that while learning the tricks of their trade they got the tricks down pat: "Neither Shemp nor I ever finished the course, but we did find a use for lesson #1-"The Push-Button Door Latch." We wired it into our apartment so that by pushing a concealed button we could open the front-door latch when we got home late at night without our parents being the wiser. I'd just reach under the door step, press the button, wait for the click of the latch and open the door from the outside. This worked well until Dad found out. One night we came home very late, and reached for the button, but the button wasn't there. That particular evening Shemp and I had borrowed Jack and Irving's new long-pants suits to go to a party. We came home about three in the morning and there was no way to get in without waking our parents. Then I got the bright idea of going to the back of the house. The bathroom window was open and I climbed through the darkened opening, head down, arms outstretched and probing, right into a half-filled tub that either Irving or Jack had left from that night's bath. I landed face down in the water. I rolled over and sat up laughing hysterically. I had forgotten all about Shemp and letting him in. A moment later he climbed in and found himself in the same boat. There we were when my father entered, the two of us sopping wet with our brothers' good clothes on. Somehow our father's smacks on our wet faces sounded much louder and were more painful than on a dry face."
In recalling his school days, Moe has said that Shemp was not athletically inclined and as a student he was nil. He tried to pay attention in class but seemed unable to concentrate. Jack and Irving tried to help him with his schoolwork, but Shemp was already playing the comedian. He'd laugh everything off with a cute remark, draw funny drawings, or make faces at the other students to make them laugh and get them in trouble along with himself Shemp craved attention.
Moe also recalled that Shemp was industrious for his age. The two brothers worked together at many different neighborhood jobs. First, they tried the plumbing business, but when Shemp burned his hand on hot solder he quit. The Howards next tried setting up pins in a local bowling alley, then delivering newspapers for the Brooklyn Eagle. This continued until, finally, Shemp realized there was nothing left for them but the theater.
In the hope of acquiring some stage experience, Shemp agreed to do an act with Moe at dance halls and theater amateur nights in the area. Comedy was neither Moe nor Shemp's forte at the time. Moe had been directing his energies toward dramatic theater while Shemp, except for fooling around at parties, had practically no theatrical experience. The two boys wrote a short skit, rehearsed it and went on stage at an amateur night at the Bath Beach Theater. Three minutes into their performance, they were thrown bodily out of the theater. Needless to say, Shemp was terribly discouraged but Moe felt it was a step in the right direction.... Shemp had finally performed on a stage.
Charlotte Shurman, an old Bensonhurst friend of the Howards when they were in their twenties, watched many of their performances around the neighborhood. She recalled: "They were just starting out in dance halls and everyone got a big kick out of them and the shows they put on. Shemp and Moe worked together and I followed them around wherever they went ... because I was so proud. I remember Shemp. He was a riot ... simply a riot. And it came so naturally."
Sometime during the course of World War I, Moe and Shemp formed a blackface vaudeville act which disbanded for a brief period when Shemp was drafted into the army. He was discharged after only a few months (he was discovered to be a bed wetter) and rejoined Moe in vaudeville. In 1917 Shemp and Moe took their comedy act back to the boards and played on both the Loew's and RKO circuits, managing to work for the rival outfits through a ruse: They played a blackface routine for RKO and a whiteface one for Loew's. They continued with their stage appearances through 1922. Shemp jokingly recalled the blackest moment of his life as the time he was working blackface in a minstrel show and the manager skipped with the payroll and the cold cream. Despite his show business desires, Shemp once said, "My parents wanted me to grow up to be a gentleman."
Then, one afternoon in 1922, Shemp got his biggest show business break. A former schoolmate and vaudeville comedian, Ted Healy, was playing at the Brooklyn Prospect Theater and needed a replacement in his current act. He prevailed upon Moe and then Shemp to come up out of the audience and perform in the show. The Howards went on stage with Healy and fractured the audience with an entirely ad-libbed routine.
The act with Healy and his Stooges kept up its frantic pace from that night on. A short-lived problem arose at the beginning of the brothers' careers. Their mother, Jennie Horwitz, was totally against the idea of her sons joining Ted Healy.
Jack Howard remembers what Ted Healy said to persuade her to change her mind. "It seems my mother did not want Shemp or Moe to be actors. She thought it would be much better if they became professionals. Ted Healy came to the house one day to plead with my mother to let Moe and Shemp join the act. He was getting nowhere. Suddenly, Ted said to my mother, 'Jennie, I'll give you $100 for your synagogue building fund if you let the boys come with me. She thought about the good that the money would do and agreed, reluctantly."
Following his debut as a stooge, Shemp's association with Healy continued to prosper. He was prominently billed in such J. J. Shubert musicals as A Night in Spain and A Night in Venice. In 1925, Howard married Gertrude "Babe" Frank. She gave birth to a son, Morton, in 1927. (He died on January 13, 1972, of cancer.) In this same year, Larry joined Healy, Moe and Shemp.
Then, in 1930, it was off to Hollywood to co-star in Rube Goldberg's critical sensation Soup to Nuts. A short time later Larry, Moe and Shemp left Healy to form an act of their own, "Three Lost Souls." But a year later they returned to Healy to star in The Passing Show of 1932, a J.J. Shubert Broadway revue. Healy left the show over a contract dispute, taking Moe and Larry with him. Shemp decided to stay behind.
Leaving the team gave Shemp a chance to use his wide-ranging talents in various film productions, in- cluding features and featurettes. He went on to star in countless two-reel comedies for Vitaphone in 1932 and he later played the role of Knobby Walsh in the Joe Palooka series. Shemp's leaving the act also gave his kid brother Curly the opportunity of a lifetime-to become the world's favorite Stooge.
In 1937, Shemp Howard returned to Hollywood, this time to open the "Stage One" nightclub (now Andre's restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard) with actor/partner Wally Vernon. Shortly after the club opened, Shemp signed a contract to do a comedy series at Columbia and later feature film roles at RKO, MGM and Monogram. In the 1940's, he was given numerous roles in such Universal films as Buck Privates, The Bank Dick and Hellzapoppin! He also worked in films starring Abbott and Costello, W.C. Fields, Broderick Crawford and John Wayne.
When times were good, Shemp and his wife Gertrude's greatest pleasure was entertaining actor friends in the movie community. The Howards' parties at their North Hollywood home included such guests as Morey Amsterdam, Phil Silvers, Harry Silvers, Huntz Hall, Gabe Dell, Martha Raye and Murray Alpert. On rare occasions, brothers Moe and Curly would drop by with their wives, but when things went sour work-wise, some of Shemp's friends were known to abandon ship. Clarice Seiden, Moe Howard's sister-in- law, recalls: "I remember when Shemp's contract was not renewed with Universal, the partygoers that were always at his house disappeared. When his contract was renewed everyone would come back."
Whatever the situation, no matter how unnerving, Shemp was always a warm, caring, understanding man, though a bit of an introvert at times. Once he was at ease with people, Shemp opened up and the jokes and humorous anecdotes poured forth. Dolly Sallin, daughter of Jack Howard, remembers Shemp as informal and casual. She says, "Shemp was really a quiet, family man who had evening get-togethers where friends would drop in. He was quite devoted to his 'wife and son. Moe was the one who kept up on world affairs and kept his mind active, while Shemp simply didn't care. He wanted things to be easy and uncomplicated." Friends also reveal that Shemp was not a businessman and spent most of his time sitting at home listening to his favorite radio show or, in his later years, watching television.
Shemp also shared many intimate moments with his son Mort, who was an only child and bore more resemblance to his mother than to Shemp. Irma Leveton, Helen Howard's friend, remembered that Shemp liked to go fishing 'with Mort. Dolly Sallin added that Shemp and Mort used to produce their own tape- recorded music on a reel-to-reel recorder Shemp owned.
Norman Maurer, who first met Shemp in 1945, remembers the comedian as always being jovial and never without a kind word. Maurer recalls: "Shemp was a delightful man. He was the funniest of the three brothers ... he was a riot. He would just open his mouth and he was funny. He was also the world's greatest environmentalist. He couldn't step on an ant."
Shemp also had his share of phobias that he was never able to outgrow-a fear of heights, a fear of driving or being driven in a car and a fear of water. Moe told of the time that Shemp insisted he was getting seasick.. .just standing on the dock fishing. The Stooges always traveled by train whenever they went across country on personal appearance tours because of Shemp's paranoia; it was impossible to get him on an airplane. Irma Leveton recalled Shemp's fear of dogs, even though he had a dog of his own, a collie named Wags. As Leveton said: "He used to walk down the street with a stick in his hand to protect himself If a dog ever came near him, he would have fainted. There was no way he would ever hit a dog. He couldn't kill a fly. It's hard to imagine that a man with a face like that-he looked like a killer-was really a gentle man."
Emil Sitka, who worked with Shemp in many comedies, remembers his fear on the set of Hold That Lion (1947). "We had a lion in this film who was so sickly he would fall asleep in the middle of a take. When Shemp heard that there was a lion on the set, he was really panicked. I thought he was kidding, but he wasn't. When he finally shot the scene the technicians had to put a glass plate between the lion and Shemp...he was that scared."
Another anecdote concerning Shemp's phobias occurred during the filming of Africa Screams, a 1949 romp featuring Shemp and starring Abbott and Costello. In it was another future Stooge, Joe Besser. Charles Barton directed the epic and remembers that Shemp's fear of heights and water seemed funny to everyone but Shemp:
"I remember when we did Africa Screams together, there were some funny scenes between Joe Besser and Shemp Howard where they were sitting on a raft floating down a river and Shemp was beside himself with fear and refused to get on the raft, even though the water wasn't up to his knees. I had to literally carry him onto the raft. When it started moving, he was so afraid of falling off; he kept clutching at Joe Besser's shirt. This brought on a lot of teasing from the cast and crew. After the scene, they left him sitting on the raft as a gag. And he kept yelling, 'Will someone get me down from here? How much longer do I have to stay here? I'm getting sea-sick!' Everybody just laughed."
Joe Besser, who replaced Shemp as a third Stooge, was his good personal friend. During production on Africa Screams, Besser recalls an incident which illustrated the comedian)s inborn fear: "Every night Shemp would wait outside the studio for a cab. One time I stopped to give him a lift. He seemed nervous and didn't want to go with me. Finally, I convinced him to get in the car but he couldn't relax. In desperation, I took his hands and made him hold them as if he was holding an imaginary steering wheel, hoping that would help. He seemed more at ease but when I took off down the street, he started madly turning his hands back and forth as if he were actually driving the car!"
Shemp loved spectator sports, the more aggressive the better. It was probably a form of release for his fear and tension. He also filled his leisure time fishing, attending the fights and listening to Cole Porter)s music. Richard Arlen, Andy Devine and Horace MacMahon were his favorite actors, Patsy Kelly his favorite actress and Fred Allen his choice for radio comedian. His favorite Three Stooges comedy was Fright Night (1947), his first comedy with the Three Stooges and which, coincidentally, dealt with boxing.
Shemp's mother wished her son to be a gentleman and according to everyone who knew him he certainly was a gentle man!
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