Sunday, May 24, 2015

Biography breathes life into the career of Three Stooges' mentor Ted Healy

Review by Doug Gibson

I recently purchased "Nobody's Stooge: Ted Healy," by Bill Cassara (Bear Manor Media) here (and be advised it's much more inexpensive via Kindle), It's an entertaining fact-filled account of the life of a man who was a major star in 1920s vaudeville, the creator of The Three Stooges and later doing well as a studio contract star when he suddenly died near the end of 1937, mere days after becoming a father. Cassara's book has garnered plaudits; it was recently named a finalist in the biography category of the International Book Awards.

Healy was a mere 41 when he died, and his abrupt death was a real shame. Had he hung around for another 25 years or so, he almost certainly would have continued having strong acting roles, and likely would have been an early TV variety hour or comedy series star. He was a Master of Ceremonies superstar, a variety show talent with strong sketch comedy skills, as well as an ability to banter with audiences and co-stars. He defined being comfortable on the stage and screen.

He grew up in a somewhat dysfunctional family although their economic circumstances were better than most. He was a boyhood friend with "Moe" of the Three Stooges and both performed with a diving entertainment show as boys. Healy moved steadily into stage prominence. As Cassara reports, he was an early blackface star in the manner of Al Jolson. After he married a beautiful entertainer named Betty Braun, the pair's act, and their supporting players, reached Broadway star status. It was around that era that Healy developed the Three Stooges, as well as other Healy perennials, into his acts. As Cassara notes, an early "Stooge" was a show business plant in the audience.

Healy and Braun eventually split; Ted was not a faithful husband. It was inevitable that Healy's star would reach into the movies. Initially, he took Moe, Larry and Shemp/and sometimes Curly into the movies with him, including a stint of shorts. One of their first features (although it's Healy as the star and The Stooges in supporting roles) was the 1930 Rube Goldberg-scripted film "Soup to Nuts." While reading "Nobody's Stooge," I bought the film and watched it. Aside from Ted's role as a reporter in the MGM film, "Mad Love," I had never seen a Healy film.

I'm so glad I watched "Soup to Nuts." (imdb page) It's a time-capsule joy; the type of Hollywood romance with wisecracks and vaudevillian skits arranged into a Goldberg-esque plot. Ted plays the chief salesman of a failing costume shop. His bickering banter with his girlfriend, who works at the shop, has the timing and comedy of a Fred and Ethel Mertz. The characters are not unique, but fresh. There's Ted, his girlfriend, the proud shop owner, his lovely niece, and the nice young man who takes over the shop and falls in love with the niece.

Ted hangs around at a firehouse that employs Moe, Larry and Shemp, as well as an eccentric mute fireman, played by Fred Sanborn, a tiny man with bushy eyebrows, a Chaplin-like walk, an amusing running gait, and strong musical skills. He was one of Healy's vaudeville team and I guarantee that viewers will find him fascinating, whether they like him or not.

Much of the film has scenes with sketches that were likely related to vaudeville sets, physical and others, in the past, and there's a Fireman's Ball scene that features an extremely entertaining set of Ted and the Stooges. Rube Goldberg, by the way, has a cameo as do some silent comedy stars. Anyone who enjoys the Stooges, Healy, and early sound Hollywood variety comedy/musicals, or vaudeville, should watch the film. I'd love to see "Soup to Nuts" produced as a stage musical comedy.

Back to the biography; eventually The Stooges' screen time with Healy at MGM diminished and as Cassara notes, they were dropped and went on their own to eventual success with Columbia's shorts department. Healy continued working as a contract player, and worked with substitute Stooges as well.

As mentioned, Healy struggled with some issues, marriage fidelity, drinking, hanging out too often with cronies and hangers on, and he had tax problems. The government was attaching much of his earnings. Hurting for money, he filed suit against the Stooges of Columbia for allegedly appropriating his acts. This is a difficult charge to prove and the suit languished sans success until its dismissal long after Healy was dead.

The lawsuit has fueled rumors that Healy and the Stooges were highly antagonistic toward each other. Cassara makes a good case to debunk this with quotes from the Stooges praising Healy and paints the lawsuit as a not uncommon yet largely unsuccessful type of lawsuit that happens occasionally in the entertainment industry.

Cassara also debunks conspiracy theories, some published in prominent sources, that Healy was beaten to death or killed by the "mob" for gambling debts. As the book relates, Healy died after a long weekend of celebrating his son's birth (to his final wife, Betty Hickman) with a huge amount of drinking. He was involved in a fight that resulted in a wound to his head that was treated by a doctor very shortly before his death at his home. When his personal doctor delayed signing a death report, media speculation swirled.

Cassara is a retired law enforcement professional and he methodically deconstructs -- with some expert colleagues' help -- and discounts such conspiracies. The wounds from the fistfight don't seem severe enough to have killed Healy. The almost certain cause of Healy's death was an infection to his kidneys that was worsened to a grave condition by either a massive off-the-wagon weekend of drinking or a heavy drinking weekend from a severe alcoholic. Tragically, Cassara notes that Healy, certainly in agonizing pain from the kidney infection, may have unwisely been self medicating with drinking to alleviate the pain.

Healy died a few days before Christmas 1937; his wife Betty, recuperating from the delivery, was not told of her husband's death for a few days. Although still an in-demand Hollywood star, he did not save his money and left his family in poor financial condition

Although he's an entertainment footnote today, and certainly his relationship to the Stooges has him overshadowed by their iconic status, he was a far bigger star in 1937 than his former proteges, and his death and funeral were major news.

I urge cult movies fans, and particularly vintage talkie variety and comedy fans, to search for Ted Healy footage; he's really superb, and I envy anyone who gets to witness his talent for the first time. A pre-code YouTube clip short is below, and purchase "Soup to Nuts" and locate say, "Hollywood Hotel" the next time it's on TCM.

And buy Bill Cassara's biography of Healy, which besides debunking rumors provides a fascinating look into the stage star who created the Three Stooges and contributed strongly to the early years of cinema.

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