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No Laughing Matter for Stooges' Heirs : Suit Says Families Are Not Getting Fair Share of Profits

July 16, 1993|PENELOPE McMILLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe (Curly Joe) DeRita was one of the Three Stooges for more than a decade, but when his share of merchandising profits dropped to $34.65 this spring, his wife decided that was one slap too many. As her ailing husband lay in a hospital last month, Jean DeRita filed suit.

She and the grandchild of another member of the Stooges say they have been cheated out of $5 million in income by the heirs of a third Stooge, who call the dispute just "a sour grapes pie in the face."

Both sides are scheduled to appear Friday in Glendale Superior Court. The legacy of the slapstick comedy trio has come down to an all-too-familiar Hollywood squabble over profits, rights to a name, and whether an oral agreement to share earnings equally ever existed.

Jean DeRita and Kris Cutler, the granddaughter of Larry Fine, are seeking a court injunction to freeze funds until there is a trial and an accounting of money from defendants Joan Maurer, Jeffrey Scott and Norman Maurer Productions.

Scott and Maurer are the grandson and daughter of Moe Howard, the act's former second banana who took over after the departure of Ted Healy in the early 1930s. In recent years, they have run the company that distributes the Three Stooges' profits and Scott, 40, is developing a new film, television and stage show.

Joe DeRita was the fourth man to join the trio, playing the role of Curly as a fat and helpless fall guy. He did not perform in any of the pre-1950s comedy shorts that feature Jerome (Curly) Howard and are largely responsible for the Stooges' fame, but acted in feature films made during the 1960s, following a revival sparked when the shorts were released to television.

Moe Howard and Fine died in 1975, and Joe Besser, another Stooge, died in 1988, leaving DeRita as the last surviving Stooge. Early this month, the 83-year-old actor--felled by strokes and unable to recognize his wife--died at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills.

"I needed the money so desperately for Joe's medical bills," Jean DeRita, 75, said recently at her Burbank home as she displayed pictures of Curly Joe in his days as a burlesque, vaudeville and movie performer before joining the Stooges in 1958. A ceramic turtle created by Fine sat on a table, signed: "Made by Larry."

But Donald Zachary, the attorney for Scott, said this week: "Every penny owed has been paid."

Zachary insists that Moe Howard alone legally owned the Stooges' name and transferred it--along with exclusive film rights--to his heirs.

Jean DeRita said that Moe assured her and her late husband: "Joe gets what I get and Larry gets."

Jean DeRita, a former Hollywood dancer, had known her husband long before he became a Stooge but did not marry him until after he joined the trio.

By then, television had made the head-bopping, eye-poking team a hit with children, said Gary Lassin, president of the 2,300-member Three Stooges Fan Club. "They became a kids' act," he said. "That was a big transformation because they never were a kids' act before."

Among the Stooges' new generation of fans were Jean DeRita's two sons by her first marriage. Then divorced and living in Ohio, she told her boys that she knew Curly Joe from her performing days in the 1940s, she recalled, "but they didn't believe me."

One day, when the trio was touring Ohio, he showed up at their home. Jean DeRita recalled: "You should have seen their faces." The pair married in 1966, and her two sons, now attorneys, are handling her case.

The lawsuit centers on what agreements were made to divide the money from old or new Stooges films or licensing agreements.

Jean DeRita said her husband bought the rights to his role from the heirs of Curly Howard, probably the most popular Stooge and creator of the classic: "Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk."

According to Jean DeRita's son Robert Benjamin, an oral agreement between his stepfather, Howard and Fine provided that "any money that went to the Three Stooges was split three ways."

That pattern of payments endured for more than 25 years, Benjamin said, until Maurer's husband died and she and Scott took over.

But as Zachary sees it, the Stooges were not equal. Scott said he found a 1959 document signed by Joe DeRita saying he would take 25% in earnings only when his likeness was used. As Curly Howard's face became more commonly used on memorabilia in recent years, Zachary said, his clients determined that DeRita was being overpaid.

The company began cutting payments to Joe DeRita in 1988. At that time the retired performer, though ill, still had his mental faculties, Jean DeRita said, and did not agree with Scott's interpretation. Annual payments, she said, had ranged over the years from a few thousand dollars to more than $35,000.

Cutler, 38, joined their side because she noticed that her share of profits as Fine's grandchild "got smaller and smaller." The Burbank resident, who works for an insurance company, obtained a partial accounting showing that Norman Maurer Productions kept 90% of film income payments ranging up to $481,695. But her last check was for $1,000, she said.

Both sides say the Stooges always got along and that the dispute has soured that memory.

"To have things said that are not true is very hurtful," Maurer said. "I would like my day in court."

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