OFFSTAGE, MOE HOWARD, the head-knocking bully of the Three Stooges comedy team, is a small, quiet man who dreads the day the Stooges may be pitied instead of laughed at.
Hilarious violence has always been the Stooges' stock in trade. Howard has punched, slapped, gouged and poked partners Curly (Joe de Rita) and Larry (Larry Fine) and their predecessors since the act began as The Three Lost Soles back in Prohibition days.
Moe's fist rattles like a snare drum on Curly's bald forehead and booms like a bass drum as it thumps Larry's midriff. Both Saturday matinee audiences and sophisticated night club crowds laugh uproariously. But Howard — who began a long career playing a drunkard's son in a Mississippi riverboat drama — is wise in the ways of show business. He knows loud laughs could suddenly turn into soft moans of sympathy.
"The public can't see old people cracking each other," the diminutive, mop-headed comic said in an interview at the Imperial Hotel. "They'll wind up feeling sorry for us. We work hard to be funny. We want people to laugh at us, not pity us."
And so Howard, the only surviving member of the original Stooges that included his late brother Shemp, admits that his retirement is not far off. Curly and Larry will do the same or go their separate ways. And one of show business' oldest and best-loved acts will be laid to rest.
"Maybe," Howard says reflectively, "we could get three young guys and teach them all the routines and the pratfalls — and the timing, too. That s very important."
For Howard, there will be writing — his autobiography, "I Stooge to Conquer," recalling how he was drawn to footlights and. movie sets during his boyhood years in Brooklyn, when he played hooky to hang around the Vitagraph Film Studio and run errands for stars like John Bunny and Fatty Arbuckle.
He can relate how he worked with oldtime stars like comic Ted Healy, a childhood friend, and first grew his flamboyant sheepdog haircut in 1921, "long before those Beatles were even born."
Not many performers can recall the days when melodramas extolling virtue and temperance were performed on Mississippi riverboats. Howard can. His stage was a slanting deck in 1919, when he played Simon Slade, The boy who murders his drunken father, in "Ten Nights in a Barroom."
HOWARD dates himself with each recollection. But a blunt inquiry about his age brings only: "I'll celebrate my 45th year in show business June 11. And I started very young.."
Howard call tell, most of all, of one of the most marvelous and profitable comebacks iii show business history. It was up and down for the Stooges, who began playing the Borscht Circuit summer resorts, moved on to night clubs, and in 1934 signed with Columbia Studios to do two-reel comedies. There were a total of 204. The contract lasted until Jan, 15 1958 — the longest in motion picture history.
It appeared, at the. time, that the Stooges were finished. But a few months after the contract lapsed, the first of their old films was fed into television. The studio made $7 million. The Stooges, with no rights on the films, made nothing.
THE OLD movies went through the television millrace fast. The public liked them. The producers wanted more. The Stooges nodded, smiled — and held their hands out for 50 percent. More shorts, and full-length movies like "The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze" were to follow. Personal appearances took them as far as Toronto, Canada, where at the Canadian .National Exhibition, they broke a 76-year attendance record.
At a series of special shows in Pittsburgh — one in which an angle-minded promoter required parents to be brought to a nightclub by their children — the Stooges were heaped under fan letters laboriously printed or scrawled by very young fans.
"We didn't make any money out of those first TV movies," Howard says. "But they sure did a lot for us."
Howard said that while he and his partners are exceptionally good friends, they hardly see each other away from work.. Each is a separate and distinct personality. Curly, the crew cut buffoon, is a loner who stays home most of the time to read weighty stuff like "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." Larry is a gregarious extrovert who reads detective novels and likes to do the town now and then.
Howard and his wife are on a 'round the world vacation trip. However, Howard says, he may scout some locations for a comic travelog the Stooges plan to make.
"We'll be in Champagne, France, in one sequence. All three of us will jump into a wine vat and start crushing grapes. Curly eats one, I hit him and the fight starts. The owners chase us out ..."