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Stooges' Straight Man Took His Laughs, Lumps

Tribute: A son keeps alive the legacy of his father, who played foil to the comedy trio.

September 16, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with boxes, filing cabinets packed with cross-referenced folders, rows of chronologically arranged binders: But for the movie posters on the walls, Saxon Sitka's rented Camarillo office looks like a corner in the fluorescent depths of a presidential library.

In fact, it's a son's tribute to his departed dad--the longtime straight man for the Three Stooges.

Emil Sitka died four years ago at 83. Since then, Saxon has taken charge of his father's voluminous legacy, just as Emil so stoically took pies in the face, seltzer down the pants, pliers on the nose, the slings and arrows of outrageous Stooges.

After the actor's death, Saxon, a 47-year-old parts manager at a Santa Monica auto dealership, meticulously organized a lifetime of letters, unfinished manuscripts and memorabilia he discovered in his father's Leisure Village home.

Every three months, he draws material from the trove for one of the fan world's more specialized newsletters: "The Fourth Stooge," a loving look back at the man who played the butler, the banker and other accident-prone authority figures in more than 40 films with the slapstick trio.

"I never even was that big a fan," Saxon said. "But people would come up to me with all sorts of questions: 'What did Emil think of Moe? What was Emil's favorite role?' I felt a responsibility to get educated in a hurry."

About 250 aficionados pay $10 each for annual subscriptions to "The Fourth Stooge." This, after all, was an unusually outgoing Stooge figure, sending cards to hundreds of fans each Christmas. At fans' weddings, he would warble "Hold hands, you lovebirds!"--a famous line from "Brideless Grooms," in which he portrayed a daffy minister undone by the Stooges.

"Emil was always my favorite non-Stooge player," said subscriber Patrick Jordan, a newspaper ad salesman and crossword-puzzle designer in Ponca City, Okla. "He had such a range, and he was so expert in his pratfalls. The roles he played were almost as memorable as the ones the Stooges did."

His comic instincts had grim roots.

Orphaned as a teenager, Emil Sitka hit the rails with his brother, Rudy, and desperately looked for work during the Depression.

After Emil died, Saxon Sitka found his father's unpublished account of that bleak period, recalling the hunger, the squalid hobo jungles and the sexual predators of the boxcars.

For all that, young Emil managed to stay upbeat, as in his description of a roadside feast in Washington state:

"Many vegetables, a piece of white-lily (liverwurst) and hah Gawd, a real big hunk of 'red-Mike' (jumbo baloney). This all became a Mulligan stew at my deft hands, ahem. There was plenty of water coming out of a pipe, so we even washed our feet. Some of the drifters shaved. It was too, too de-lovely."

Eventually, he drifted to Hollywood, spurred by an early zest for acting in church Passion plays. When he wound up as a butler in the Stooges' 1947 "Half-Wits Holiday," he was ecstatic, according to one of his journal entries excerpted in "The Fourth Stooge."

"Their entire bodies are almost perfect 'clown-machines,' " he marveled. "They squeak just as the situation demands, they jump perfectly, they do everything instantly. Their bodies obey their minds (for comedy) immediately. This came with experience. This is what I want!"

Readers of "The Fourth Stooge" peek at the Stooges through Emil's eyes. They learn that in "All Gummed Up," the threesome blew humongous bubbles not with gum but with condoms. They find out that Shemp was a nervous wreck, who was scared of heights and so much else.

In "Hold that Lion," Shemp was "almost mesmerized with fear," Emil wrote. "The lion's teeth had been removed, and it was old and sickly looking with flies buzzing around its head. Sometimes it fell asleep in the middle of a take. But Shemp wouldn't work in the same scene with it, so the director had a large plate of glass put between the lion and the Stooges while shooting."

While the Stooges' mayhem frequently swamped Sitka's strait-laced characters, he always left the set unharmed. But readers learn that studio doctors dropped the ball after he took a vase in the face during a non-Stooge film called "Billie Gets Her Man."

"Blood squirted out of my nose," he wrote. "The hit caused a bluish flash in my mind, and I thought my upper lip was paralyzed."

He suffered severe headaches and frighteningly numb hands for several years until a cracked bone in his neck was correctly diagnosed.

Much of the material in the newsletter was also news to Saxon Sitka.

One of seven children from Emil's failed first marriage, he never paid much attention to the Stooges.

"How many kids care about their parents' co-workers?" he asked.

After Emil's death, though, he sifted through memories by the box load and dresser full, wondering what to do with it all. Saxon's wife, Dorine, took a year off from her job at an auto dealership to help organize it all.

The actor left behind his fourth-grade report card from Costello Elementary School in Pittsburgh, a letter from Charlton Heston advising him to get a new agent, meal tickets from his days as a hobo, scripts for Stooge projects never filmed, hundreds of pages from his quest to be declared a conscientious objector in World War II.

He also left notes for a show-business memoir that Saxon vows to complete.

Whether it will turn a profit can't be predicted. Last year, Saxon spent $10,000 on the newsletter and brought in only about $2,500.

But that's not the point.

"When I decided to finish his book, it was like a big weight coming off my shoulders," he said. "Now I knew what to do. My father had given me a big, positive indication. Now I had a purpose."

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