They came by the hundreds, those who proudly call themselves "Knuckleheads." The occasion was the first West Coast Three Stooges Convention, where the normally sober Burbank Airport Hilton Convention Center last weekend resounded with the nyuk-nyuks of Curly impersonators, the "Pop Goes the Weasel" theme music and--OK, there's no referent for it in the Three Stooges filmography--the hissing of impromptu Silly String ambushes.
Since the heirs of the Stooges--the original three, Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard, and three later members--were granted joint licensing rights after a 1994 lawsuit, there has been a spate of Stooge merchandising, which includes videos of newly discovered and rereleased film footage, a number of books and even a retail outlet, called Knuckleheads, in the Glendale Galleria. The idea of a convention seemed inevitable.
"A fan club had conventions, but they were back in Pennsylvania," said Jean DeRita, widow of Curly Joe DeRita, the last of the Stooges. (He replaced Joe Besser, who replaced Shemp Howard, who replaced the original third Stooge, Curly Howard.) "We wanted to do one for the people on the West Coast, so after we had all the rights to the Stooges, we decided to have our own convention," she said. DeRita is also president of Comedy III Productions Inc., the corporation that holds the licensing agreements.
The principals have died, so autograph seekers went after the signatures of Jean DeRita and other family members. Also on hand was actor Adam West, who starred in the last Three Stooges movie, "The Outlaw Is Coming." After an opening ceremony hosted by "Laugh-In's" Gary Owens, who spearheaded the drive to get the Three Stooges star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, there followed a weekend of events, including the nonstop screening of Three Stooges films, tours to Stooge sites in Los Angeles, talks with the heirs and other Stoogologists such as Robert Kurson, author of "The Official Three Stooges Encyclopedia" and "The Official Three Stooges Cookbook."
There were Stooge artifacts on display (letters, canceled checks, scripts) and even more for sale. Most momentous was the arrival of the never-before-seen Three Stooges television pilot, "Jerks of All Trades." Since 1949, the only print had languished among the files of Phil Berle (brother of Milton Berle). "It took 50 years to bring this to light," said the 97-year-old Berle, who brought the print and the original script with him to the event and donated it to Comedy III, which gave it its first public screening in the convention center's theater.
Roaming through the crowd, playfully harassing passersby and participating in various events were two sets of hired Stooge impersonators. David Knight, a heavy, bald 49-year-old construction worker from Rochester, N.Y., was a Curly without a calling until the Stooges heirs got down to business.
"For about 15 years I was a solo Stooge, and then I teamed up with Comedy III, and here we go, 'Whoo-whoo-whoo! Why, soitenly! Nyuk-Nyuk! I'm not as dumb as you look!' " Knight said.
Willard Morgan showed up at an audition last week at Planet Hollywood to film the event for a documentary. Instead, the frizzy-haired filmmaker walked off with the Larry role. Despite the fact that he had only two days to prepare his character, he showed keen insight into the man many agree was the most enigmatic of the Stooges.
"He was the reactive one," Morgan said. "I think he was dealt a difficult hand, and through the study of Eastern religions, he rose above it. I think he is the highest evolved of the Stooges."
The fans here said the Three Stooges would always be a part of their lives, but Steve Blakeman of Downey could say this literally. In addition to the usual houseful of posters, souvenirs and other Stoogeabilia that most people here boast of, the Curly-esque Blakeman sports a potato-sized tattoo of his three idols on his left bicep.
"A lot of people have noticed," he said. "I haven't seen another one like that even here. And that's what I wanted--something nobody else had."
Another fan, Luis Rial, came from Buenos Aires. He said he's been a fan of los Tres Ciflados since he was 4.
"I collect every bit of memorabilia I can get," he said. "Magazine, newspaper clippings--you name it, I have it."
Rial's wife had entered him in a
TV fantasy-vacation game show in Argentina, and the program flew him here. She stayed behind. Not surprisingly, although convention-goers ranged from toddlers to the very old, Stooge worship seemed to be a predominantly male endeavor.
A few industry heavies dropped by the convention, including director John Landis with his 13-year-old son. "I think the Three Stooges influenced everyone's career, not just mine," he said, citing "There's Something About Mary," as the latest example of the still-pervasive Stooge influence in Hollywood. "I don't think anyone has produced as much material as they have."