PHILADELPHIA — The City of Brotherly Love doesn’t lack for museums, both traditional and offbeat — the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Insectarium, to name two — but don’t overlook the tribute to brotherly love of sorts — the Stoogeum.
Whether you’re a fan of The Three Stooges (which means you probably have X and Y chromosomes) or not (meaning you likely have two X chromosomes), the Stoogeum (stoogeum.com) in suburban Ambler offers a well-curated collection of 100,000 items of memorabilia, documents, photographs, movie props and artwork of the trio, as well as a theater for viewing the comedy classics of the famous knuckleheads.
Those knuckleheads made 190 short films, as well as a few feature films, in a career that got its start in the vaudeville-era 1920s and lasted into the 1960s. Despite all its members being long dead, black-and-white Three Stooges shorts can still sometimes be seen on TV, and a new movie that was a loving reimagination of their antics hit theaters in 2012.
Five of the six men who played Stooges were Jewish, the exception being Joe “Curly Joe” DeRita, a Stooge from well past the team’s heyday. But mainstays Moe Howard, Curly Howard, Larry Fine and Shemp Howard were all Jewish, as was short-timer Joe Besser.
Spread over 10,000 square feet across three floors, the Stoogeum is the brainchild of Gary Lassin, who married into Fine’s family in 1981, becoming grandnephew-in-law to the Stooge born in Philadelphia in 1902 as Louis Fineberg. Fine died in 1975, so Lassin didn’t get to meet one of his idols.
Lassin was collecting baseball cards at the time when he first met Fine’s brother. A look at some Stooges memorabilia sent him into a different direction. And when years of collecting left Lassin with boxes upon boxes of material, he figured there had to be a better way to showcase his wares.
The Stoogeum opened to the public in 2004.
Although the museum is open only on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. because of limited staffing, it draws a few thousand visitors annually.
Lassin explained why the Stooges remain popular.
“They make you feel good about yourself. Look at how dumb these guys are,” he said, comparing it to when a “Wheel of Fortune” contestant can’t solve a puzzle that has only one letter blank, leaving viewers at home shouting out the answer in dismay.
Then there’s the Stooges’ ability to get away with things the average person can’t. After all, dropping dynamite at your feet and walking away only with singed pants and soot on your face doesn’t happen often.
“It’s almost a world of human cartoons,” Lassin said. “It’s a way for grown-ups to get in touch with their inner kids. These are cartoons with real people.”
What a lot of people don’t know about the Stooges is the frequent use of Yiddish and Hebrew in their work.
Of the 190 shorts the Stooges made, Hebrew or Yiddish is spoken in about 50 of them, said Lassin, who chronicled the usage in a 2011 issue of The Three Stooges Journal he edits.
Sometimes it’s something as simple as someone saying “mazel tov” or “l’chaim,” but occasionally it’s more elaborate.
In “Mutts to You,” Larry and Moe are dressed as Chinese laundrymen when a police officer asks them where they lived in China.
Larry responds with, “Ich bin a China boychik mit Slovakian bayner. Hak mir nicht tscheinki and I don’t mean efhser.” Translated: “I’m a Chinese boy with Slovakian bones. Don’t bother me, get off my back and I don’t mean maybe.”
Considering the Stooges’ audience was widely gentile — and probably didn’t know they were Jewish — why use Yiddish and Hebrew?
“My theory is if you weren’t Jewish and you heard a Jewish or Yiddish term, you assumed it was gibberish — and gibberish is funny,” Lassin said, noting that the Stooges spoke plenty of straight gibberish, too.
While they could poke each other’s eyes at the drop of an anvil, Lassin said off-screen the Stooges were mensches.
“I learned they did a lot of charity-type events and benefits,” Lassin said. “And I love the stories about how approachable they were. … They really related to their fans. They signed [autographs] and posed [for photographs] for everyone.”
Lassin, who also runs The Three Stooges Fan Club, said members tell stories about looking up the Stooges in their Hollywood homes, knocking on the doors and being invited in. He’s also seen handwritten personal letters that aren’t the generic responses celebrities typically send.
“They knew without their fans, they really were nothing,” Lassin said.
A few of those letters are displayed on the museum’s bottom level, along with movie theater lobby cards advertising their shorts, and examples of games, puppets, bobbleheads, puzzles, comic books, trading cards, costumes, vinyl albums and scripts, among other gems. Some other items of interest include Shemp’s Army discharge papers and Larry’s driver’s license.
There’s also a display that pays tribute to the comedy team’s supporting players: Ardent fans will recognize the familiar faces that made regular appearances in the shorts.
The ground level houses the Stoogeum’s 85-seat theater, a customized pinball machine, an arcade game, a Stooges “Whack a Mole” game, comic strips and other memorabilia. You can even play a Stooges trivia game. There’s a gift shop, too.
And the top floor displays artwork, posters and life-size (the Stooges were all short) versions of Moe, Larry and Curly dressed as bellhops. The art came from both professionals and amateurs alike and includes animation cells, charcoal drawings, watercolors and folk art.
Lassin said the Stoogeum does update its collection regularly — a display case is dedicated to new items — and noted that only about a third of the artifacts are catalogued. He said to expect future changes to the collections, although he didn’t provide specifics.
“I don’t look that far ahead,” he said. “This is a place that goes back.”
Andy Gotlieb is managing editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.