Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Bold and the Bald: The Ted Healy Story

Wise-cracking Ted Healy, whose comic performances enhanced vaudeville programs, Broadway productions and major motion pictures, was a prominent, well-respected entertainer of the 1920s and 1930s.  But even the most talented and esteemed stars can easily be forgotten by the public.  This is a good reason to extol Bill Cassara's Nobody's Stooge: Ted Healy, a well-researched new biography that places the long-neglected Healy back into the spotlight.

Healy is best known today for his association with the Three Stooges, but Stooges fans have had a hard time agreeing on the importance of his role in Stooges' history.  Healy has been called the originator of the Stooges.  He's listed that way in his Wikipedia profile.  Some prefer to use the word "creator," but this offends people as it suggests that Healy was a god-like figure who endowed the Stooges with their very life while cloistered away in a desolate mountain laboratory.  Others will only acknowledge that Healy brought the Stooges together by hiring them as his comic foils.  This group refers to Healy as the organizer of the Stooges.  Still others refer to him as the Stooges' mentor, which means that he simply worked with the Stooges and a few of his notions about comedy rubbed off on them.  Originator, organizer, mentor.  We will never know for sure how important he was to the Stooges. 

Healy likely contributed more to the Stooges' act than most Stooges fans imagine.  To start, the Stooges started out as part of a vaudeville entertainment package that was carefully conceived by Healy.  He designed the Stooges to be clownish gremlins, causing mayhem as they repeatedly disrupted his act.  Didn't they remain clownish gremlins throughout their career?  And look at Healy's work.  You'll find if you watch Healy in his MGM films that he will occasionally spout a line that later became associated with the Stooges - "Spread out!" and "I'm a victim of circumstance!"  He displayed the sort of gruff mannerisms that were later adopted by Shemp.  Moe, Larry, Shemp and Curly are known to have developed their comic personas on their own.  Moe is credited with having written much of the Stooges' early material.  But Healy no doubt contributed significantly to the shape and form of the team.  You can see from the following clips that these performers were cut from the same cloth.


The Stooges were fortunate in that they had a number of clever individuals who helped to bring their unique talents to the fore.  What would the Stooges have been without Columbia director Del Lord?  The Stooges truly created magic when they teamed up with Lord, who combined the Stooges' stage personas with a freewheeling style of comedy that he had perfected in his days at Sennett.

Healy had busy career in Hollywood.  He appeared in thirty feature films in four years.  The book makes it clear, though, that Healy was too unsociable and self-destructive to maintain a long-lasting career in Hollywood.  He died of acute toxic nephritis, a condition that was caused by his excessive drinking. 

Much information is provided in Cassara's exhaustively researched book.  It was intriguing to learn that one of Healy's friends was Frank Fay, another big-time stage comedian who did not know how to play well in Hollywood.  If they had stuck around, Healy or Fay could have been wise-cracking their way through The Ghost Breakers (1940) or My Favorite Blonde (1942) instead of their protégé Bob Hope.  This is not to diminish Hope's talent.  He was more likable and engaging on screen than either the abrasive Fay or the even more abrasive Healy.  But the point could be made that Hope rose out of their burnt ashes.

Cassara is to be especially commended for putting to rest false rumors that Healy was murdered by a mob enforcer for gambling debts.  The official investigation was credible and thorough.  The rest is just gossip and myth. 

This book deserves attention for offering a rediscovery of the forgotten Ted Healy.  The author provides the straight and complete story of Healy, which makes this book worth reading.

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