About 90 years ago, a young Philadelphia fighter billing himself as Kid Roth won his first and only lightweight bout.
His real name was Larry Feinberg, and he quit boxing because his parents didn’t like his being involved in the rough stuff. It’s ironic because when he changed his name to Larry Fine and ended up in a Vaudeville act that would become known as the Three Stooges, he went on to lose his next 190 fights — all to Moe Howard.
The character of Larry takes his lumps again Friday in Hollywood’s big-screen revival The Three Stooges, directed by the Farrelly Brothers, two Stooge fanatics who wanted an actor (Sean Hayes) who could mimic Fine’s Philadelphia accent, distinct from the Brooklyn-born Howard brothers.
Fine spent most of his first 18 years in Philadelphia — he’s memorialized on a mural at Third and South Streets, not far from where he grew up the son of a jeweler,
“He grew up in a very happy, close-knit family, reasonably prosperous,” said David Hogan, author of Three Stooges FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Eye-Poking, Face-Slapping, Head-Thumping Geniuses, who said Fine’s brief career as Kid Roth reflected his natural athleticism.
“If you watch him closely in the short films, it’s quite apparent. He’s not a big man, but’s obviously agile, and strong and fit.”
Too athletic, and too much the natural ham, for his dad’s jewelry business. Legend has it his father paid the showbiz-minded Larry to leave the business, knowing he’d be happier on stage. Dad gave Larry another, inadvertent, gift — as a child, Larry’s hand was burned with acid in a repair-shop accident, and the doctor suggested he play violin as a form of rehab. Music helped give Larry a way into showbiz and became part of his Stooge signature.
Throughout the Roaring Twenties, Fine toured Vaudeville as part of an act called the Haney Sisters and landed a job as an emcee at a club called the Rainbo Room in Chicago. While working there, he was noticed by a young man named Shemp Howard.
“From Shemp’s perspective, I think, Larry was just a funny-looking guy. He looked at him and thought, This guy would make a good Stooge,” said Jeff Lenburg, Stooge biographer and coauthor of The Three Stooges Scrapbook, newly reissued and updated, reflecting Lenburg’s research into when Larry first became a Stooge (1928, not 1925, as is often asserted).
It happened thanks to Prohibition.
Shemp tried, and failed, to recruit Fine to join him as one of the sidekicks (called Stooges) in the act of Vaudeville legend Ted Healy. Fine at first declined. When a liquor raid shut down the Rainbo Room, he changed his mind. Jobless, Fine hustled across town to accept Healy’s offer.
Fine first took the stage with Shemp in April 1928 — Moe wouldn’t join them until 1929. They made their first movie together (Soup to Nuts) in 1930. Lenburg, who interviewed the Stooges before their deaths, said their memories of the group’s origins were conflicting and faulty. After months documenting the April 1928 date, Lenberg struck gold — a handwritten document in Moe Howard’s personal records, confirming the account.
With Healy, the Stooges became enormously popular. Historians say the Stooges subverted the vaudeville tradition of a headline star surrounded by yes-men. The Stooges brought a combative edge to their interaction with Healy, and audiences loved it.
“It was, frankly, an antagonistic approach,” author Hogan said. “It was a big part of the bit and inspired all of the violence. That’s where all the slapping and eye-poking started.”
Healy and the Stooges had a falling out when different studios offered conflicting contracts, but by then, the Stooges were their own brand. They went on to make nearly 200 short films before their two-decade run came to an end, and of course, the shorts became popular on television.
Hogan said Larry’s Philadelphia roots show up occasionally in the films — an episode featuring the Stooges as ironworkers, he said, is drawn from Larry’s brief stint at 18 as an ironworker at Hog Island, just before he devoted himself full time to showbiz.
On June 5, Sony will release its 20-disc Ultimate Three Stooges Collection, featuring 190 shorts, rare films of solo work, and other unreleased content.
On April 28 in Fort Washington, Three Stooges Fan Club will meet with Hogan, who will sign copies of Three Stooges FAQ, at the Holiday Inn on Pennsylvania Avenue. The event is being hosted by the Stoogeum (Stooges Museum) in Ambler, open once a month (check www.stoogeum.com for details) and featuring artifacts from Fine’s early days in Philadelphia.