Shemp's Last Cigar
Ponder poor Shemp, the Stooge we never loved.
Dear Shemp, his mangy puss suspended in time on grainy Columbia stock, scowling out from beneath klieg light sweat and dripping Brylcreem. He did his best to make us laugh, this Shemp Howard, with his patented shadowboxing routine and "ee-bee-bee-bee" snuffle snores, though, truth be told, the more Shemp mugged, the more we shrugged.
Our problem with Mr. Howard? He was OK...but he wasn't his brother Curly.
For that reason little has been written about one Samuel Horwitz, a.k.a. Shemp Howard, the eldest performing Howard brother of Three Stooges fame. (Moe, Curly and Shemp had two more brothers at home in the Brooklyn enclave of Bensonhurst, though neither professed interest in Stooging as a profession. Regarding the name "Shemp," it came from his immigrant mother, Jennie Horwitz, who in struggling with "Sam!" often blurted out "Shem!") Shemp Howard would have turned 100 in 1995, a year that also marked the 40th anniversary of his passing in the back seat of a Los Angeles taxicab. Legend has it Shemp was returning home from a fight card at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, when he pitched over dead with a smoldering Havanaclenched between his jaws. Or so goes one version.
Other accounts have Shemp in the act of lighting or unwrapping said cigar, and yet a third story has the Stooge passing away in eerie silence, the only clue to his demise being a slumped shoulder followed by the odor of burnt wool as his cigar brushed gently against the thigh of great friend Al Winston.
Nobody alive today knows for certain what happened the night of Nov. 23, 1955, though in fact Shemp's final cigar remains the lone constant in all accounts. Indeed, even the cause of death has been muddled over the years. Moe's daughter, Joan Howard Maurer, wrote in The Three Stooges Scrapbook that Shemp died of a heart attack. Shemp's daughter-in-law, Geri Greenbaum, maintains he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
Whatever the case, the sad truth is Shemp Howard was gone at 60, and with him went the final Three Stooges comedies worth watching, though Moe Howard and Larry Fine would soldier on gamely for another 13 years, filling out the team with ersatz Stooges Joe Besser and Joe DeRita. (Stooges director Jules White once referred to Besser as "a very cute little man in his own way." Stooges sidekick Emil Sitka remembers DeRita as "difficult to work with; he didn't take direction well.")
Perhaps ironically, it seemed in death Shemp had achieved a measure of public respect, because like it or not, Stooges fans finally had to admit what Hollywood insiders knew all along: Shemp Howard was good...damned good! Yet even so, more than 40 years after his death the simple question remains: Who was Shemp Howard?
Joan Howard Maurer remembers her Uncle Shemp as a gentle, warm-hearted man who loved nothing better than a good cigar and a few laughs with show business cronies. As for his smoking habits, Maurer says: "They all smoked! Moe used pipes, cigars and cigarettes until the day he died. Larry sometimes had a cigar, I think, and my Uncle Babe, which is what the family called Curly, always had a cigar in his hand, as did Shemp.
"My clearest childhood memory of the Stooges and cigars involves my cousin Morton, Shemp's son. Morton idolized his father and would entice both Shemp and Curly to give him their cigar bands, which he collected and wore on his fingers. I seem to recall Morton wearing those cigar bands in one of our old home movies, probably around 1932 or so, but I can't say for sure." Morton Howard, Shemp's only son, died in 1972.
Incidentally, Morton was a character in his own right, having originated the self-serve gas station with his Ce-How chain of service stations--18 Los Angeles locations replete with "Change Girls" on roller skates!
Shemp the family man is remembered by daughter-in-law Greenbaum as a doting father and devoted husband to Gertrude "Babe" Howard. A little-known fact about Shemp: He was, without question, the original "Third Stooge," not just a hasty replacement for the ailing Curly. Quite to the contrary, Shemp worked with younger brother Moe and Larry Fine as early as 1925, when the Stooges were part of comedian Ted Healy's act, one of the hottest tickets in vaudeville. Alternately billed as "Ted Healy and His Southern Gentlemen" and "Ted Healy and his Racketeers," the group performed together until 1930, when Shemp set out on his own. (The other Stooges, who also split that year, rejoined Healy in 1932.) Shemp appeared as Knobby Walsh in the Joe Palooka series and took on feature roles in such classics as The Bank Dick with W.C. Fields and In the Navy with Abbott and Costello. Shemp made 87 films apart from the Three Stooges before rejoining the team in 1946 for the first of his 77 Stooges shorts. Emil Sitka, the only surviving member of the Stooges stock company, witnessed the difficult transition from Curly to Shemp as Third Stooge.
"Curly Howard was terribly sick when I met him on the set of Half-Wits' Holiday in 1946," recalls Sitka, who, at 80, is still seen tearing up and down the streets of his Camarillo, California, neighborhood in a Toyota bearing the vanity plate STOOGES. "I'd heard the stories about Curly's wild life, his marriages and drinking, though by the time I came along he'd already had several strokes and Moe was literally coaching him through his scenes line by line. By the way, that's a side of Moe Howard the public never saw. I've heard him described as a stern, humorless guy, and that wasn't Moe at all. The Moe I knew was a loving brother who looked after Curly and cared deeply for Shemp.
"Now Shemp, he was a real original. We all loved Shemp! Forget that gruff, dominating voice; he was the most unselfish actor I ever worked with...and he was afraid of everything!"
Shemp's phobias were legend. He didn't drive or fly. He couldn't stand heights, elevators made him nervous and he'd only step into a fishing boat if it remained tethered to the dock. Shemp also had a deadly fear of working with animals. No matter how old and docile the stunt bear or lion might be, Shemp would insist on a glass barrier between himself and the critter.
Edward Bernds directed the Three Stooges in dozens of films from the mid-1940s until the end of their career. Today, at 91, he recalls the afternoon he asked Shemp to drive a Ford sedan: "Shemp hadn't been behind the wheel of a car in 25 years, not since he'd put one through a barbershop window in the mid-1920s. He really didn't want to drive in the scene, but I told him I needed a short turn out of a driveway, then we'd cut away. Shemp gave it a few tries and became so jittery, I didn't have the heart to make him continue. I think we ended up having two or three young grips pull the car on ropes. All Shemp had to do was sit behind the wheel and steer, which he managed without incident."
The image of Shemp Howard as confirmed coward seems at odds with his rough-around-the-edges screen persona, that is until old friends fill in the details by offering up his other side. Huntz Hall, of Bowery Boys and Dead End Kids fame, worked with Shemp in Private Buckaroo at Universal Studios and refers to him as "my father in this business." Hall became a close friend and regular visitor to Shemp's and Babe's home in Toluca Lake, California. (The loose-knit group also included Morey Amsterdam, Phil Silvers, Milton Berle, Martha Raye and a young Shecky Greene.)
"Shemp was a sweetheart," says Hall, "until you got him into a serious card game. Then he was all business. If Shemp didn't like your play at pinochle, he'd kick you under the table ... hard! He was ruthless that way; it didn't matter if you were a friend or not.
"But he also had this manner about him, like no other actor," Hall adds. "Shemp was naturally funny. I remember one morning, we were changing into our wardrobe and I noticed a huge, ugly carbuncle on Shemp's leg. I said, 'Shemp! You should see a doctor and have that thing removed.' He just shrugged and said, 'Nah, it holds up my socks.'"
Geri Greenbaum, who married Morton in the early 1950s, recalls the Howard home being a nightly stop on the social circuit. Shemp's wife, Babe, was "an excellent cook" and usually had a delicious meal warming on the stove for any and all unexpected guests.
"The Howards were show people who loved to entertain their friends," says Greenbaum. "Shemp and Babe didn't travel much because Shemp was so afraid of airplanes and ships. They never went to the East Coast, let alone to Europe, so Shemp spent much of his spare time watching sports on television or going to the fights with his friends.
"When Mort and I were first dating we'd go along, and Shemp always had us in the best seats, front row," Greenbaum recalls. "He'd get all caught up in the fight, shadowboxing from his seat, and after Round 2 he'd be as much a part of the show as the boxers themselves. Between rounds the ring attendants would come down and towel Shemp off and give him a drink, which always got a big hand from the crowd, and that pleased Shemp because he loved his fans so. Shemp was never above signing autographs or stopping on the street to chat with people who recognized him." Stooges director Bernds agrees. He says Shemp was always "on," always performing, though he never came across as affected. Shemp simply considered himself a working actor.
The Three Stooges were approaching late middle age in November 1955 when Shemp quietly passed away in the aforementioned taxicab. Greenbaum's memory of that evening remains, arguably, the most accurate surviving account.
"Shemp did not have a heart attack or a stroke," Greenbaum says, "at least not that I ever heard of, and I was there with Mort and his mother the entire time. It was my understanding that Shemp had a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was returning from the fights with Al Winston and Bobby Silverman when he leaned over to light a cigar and died. Just like that. Al and Bobby thought Shemp was teasing them, since he'd been laughing only a moment before, but Shemp was dead. It happened just as their cab came over the rise on Barham Boulevard."
Regarding the type of cigar Shemp may have been firing up, nobody knows the brand for certain. Emil Sitka swears he paid no attention to the cigars Shemp chewed. The same goes for Greenbaum and Maurer. Morey Amsterdam couldn't recall either, and, when contacted, Shecky Greene's agent, Jerry Levy, offered a curt "Shecky wouldn't know."
Did Milton Berle have a clue? No, afraid not. After all, Shemp Howard's last cigar was a long time ago. A long time.
Jim Mueller has written for Chicago and Pittsburgh magazines and several other publications.