April 7-13, 2005

naked city

Big N'yuks

Lookout Larry: Gary Lassin in his Gwynned Valley Stoogeum.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan

Inside one man's Stooges shrine.

There's no mistaking the "Hello! Hello! Hello! — Hello!" that chimes when visitors enter the Stoogeum (think: Stooge Museum). "I wanted the experience to begin the moment you walked in the door," says curator Gary Lassin of his Three Stooges shrine in the Gwynedd Office Park off Route 309 in Gwynedd Valley.

"I don't like comparing myself to Michael Jackson, but he has his Neverland — and this is my Neverland," Lassin, 49, says of his private, year-old museum. This Friday through Sunday, the Stoogeum and the Holiday Inn in Fort Washington will host the annual Three Stooges Fan Club meeting. (Though it's open to members only, Lassin, the club's president, figures anyone interested in joining could put down the $9 annual dues on the spot. Contact the Stoogeum at 267-468-0810 for info.)

Although the Stooges are best known for filming 190 shorts for Columbia Pictures, the fan club will host a 40th-anniversary reunion of The Outlaws is Coming, the Stooges' final feature film. The last four living Outlaws (Philly favorite Sally Starr, Bruce Sedley, Hal Fryar and Johnny Ginger) will attend along with 200 to 300 fan club members from across the continent.

Some will visit Jon's Bar & Grille at Third and South streets, birthplace of original Stooge Larry Fine (born Louis Feinberg), where Belmont Hills muralist David McShane, 39, painted a 35-foot-by-17-foot mural of Larry in 1999.

Of the six men who played Stooges, two were born in Philly: Fine, a Central High alum born in 1902 (he died in 1975), and Joe "Curly-Joe" DeRita, born in 1909, who was the last, and last surviving, Stooge when he died in 1993. Fine, Moe Howard (Moses Horwitz) and Shemp Howard (Samuel Horwitz) comprised the original trio. When Shemp left for a solo career in 1932, he and Moe's younger brother, Curly Howard (Jerome Lester Horwitz), stepped in. When Curly had a stroke in 1946, Shemp rejoined. Following Shemp's death in 1955, Joe Besser rounded out the troupe. In 1959, when Besser, tending to an ill wife, couldn't tour with the group, DeRita joined the fold.

Much like the Stooges themselves, Lassin's passion is a family affair — he is Larry Fine's grand-nephew by marriage. He first followed the Stooges on Starr's after-school Popeye Theater on Channel 6 (then WFIL). His eventual wife Robin's maternal grandfather, Morris Feinberg, was Larry's brother. Morris ran the fan club (which started in 1974) from 1980 until his death in 1985. Lassin, who in real life is vice president of finance for Harriet Carter Gifts, a family-owned mail-order gift catalog company, inherited it — sort of.

"Growing up, (Robin) hated (Larry)," he says. "She was always afraid. She didn't like the hitting and poking."

So, stewardship of the club and its 1,500 or so members fell to him.

Among the local devoted is Jim Pauley, 45, of the Philadelphia Police Department's public affairs office, who does his part to perpetuate the merry mix. Twice a year, he travels to L.A. to find and photograph enduring outdoor Stooges' filming locations, like the stairs in An Ache in Every Stake (1941) and the firehouse in False Alarms (1936). His "Stooge Locations, Then and Now" appears in the "The Three Stooges Journal," the fan club's quarterly 16-page publication. "Even if I wasn't a policeman, I would have found these locations," he says.

Then there's Frank Reighter, 66, a retired Acme Markets stock clerk who has his own "Stooge Room" in the Northeast. He confesses, "I usually don't go far outside it," but admits nothing compares to Lassin's 25,000-item collection, 25 years in the making.

"You see the Stooges from cradle to grave" at the Stoogeum, Reighter says. "All the merchandise they generated tells you the impact they had."

Center City architecture firm Ueland Junker McCauley Nicholson played exhibit designer. The Stoogeum features customized arcade games, wallpaper comics, Lobby Card Lane and a 3-D wall of comic book covers. "Numskull Lane" leads to a room of movie posters. There are life-size cutout "tombstones" for each Stooge plus troupe founder Ted Healy, and an 85-seat theater.

The work of Fine-muralist McShane is also featured in the third-floor art gallery, where he's painted a ceiling mural of Moe, Larry, Curly and Shemp. "It's the Stooges looking down from heaven," Lassin attests. Viewed up close, it's simply unrelated shapes in black, white and grays, but step back, and you can almost hear a "N'yuk-n'yuk-n'yuk!" or "Wooo-wooo-wooo!"

Other than McShane's mural, the only other commissioned piece is the life-size composite replicas of the Stooges as bellhops in Idle Roomers (1944). Once, Lassin says, the Stoogeum's burglar alarm sounded in the pitch-black. The investigating officer pulled his pistol on the exhibit. And while having the replicas accidentally perforated would be rather Stooge-like, Lassin's since rigged the alarm to also turn on the lights.

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