The Nyuk, Nyuk Stops Here
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
On their first date, back in 1978, Gary Lassin's future wife told him she was related to someone famous. But she wouldn't say whom.
"She was a little embarrassed," Lassin recalls. No guy would let such a challenge lie. He coaxed and cajoled and finally got it out of her: Robin was the niece of Larry Fine, one of the Three Stooges. (He's the one with the Bozo-like Brillo hair and what Lassin calls "the stupefied, google-eyed stare.")
"I knew I had to get this girl to marry me," Lassin says.
Lassin managed to get the girl -- and, more important to our story, he took on the fixation with all things Stooges that was somehow lacking in Robin's family. ("She was very afraid of the Stooges as a child because they hit each other and hurt each other," Lassin says. "So she was scared when Uncle Larry visited from the West Coast." Her family solved this simply by calling Larry "Uncle Max.")
Three decades later, Lassin is the proprietor, curator, designer, tour guide and publicist for the Stoogeum in suburban Philadelphia, the only museum in this galaxy devoted entirely to the history, lore, comedy and worship of a slapstick act that has shown remarkable staying power in a pop culture that has pretty well lost the very notion of a comedy team.
Tucked in the rear of a suburban office park behind a Wawa convenience store, the Stoogeum is a startlingly professional museum, with classy design, an endless array of Stooges documents, movie posters and tchotchkes, and a vault containing probably the world's most complete collection of the trio's movies and TV shows.
Lassin's wife still doesn't care for the Stooges. ("A wiseguy, huh?") Nor do most women. Maybe it's something about how the comedians were constantly conking each other on the skull (nyuk, nyuk). But to boys who grew up either with the original Three Stooges movie shorts or, far more likely, with the after-school TV show that recycled those shorts every day from 1958 well into the 1970s, the Stooges were the height of hilarity.
Strangely enough, though most Americans will pretty soon be too young to have any direct recollection of those lazy afternoons watching 15-minute, black-and-white capers in which Moe Howard, Larry Fine and either Curly or Shemp Howard (or one of their latter-day replacements) chase, whack and toss pies at each other, the Stooges remain fixed in pop culture.
Whether it's Curly pronouncing himself "a victim of soicumstance," Moe and Larry squeezing Curly's head in a vise, or the whole lot of them spraying puns so awful that the Marx Brothers seemed positively Shakespearean by comparison, the images and sounds of the Stooges have secured a place in Americana that has long outlived the films themselves.
The Stoogeum displays dozens of examples of the trio's staying power, from the beer cans and "Got Milk?" ads that used Curly's doofus face as a paragon of dumb guyness long after his death, to the wall full of magazine covers that play with the Stooges' classic lines. The Stooges made it to cereal box covers, jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, comics, board games, hand puppets, action figures, plates and even Three Stooges Hair Tonic.
With touch-screen videos, an 85-seat theater playing a loop of dozens of Stooges shorts and throwback artifacts such as a 1980s, Pac-Man-era video game based on the Stooges and the 1960s Stooges lunchboxes that I remember kids toting to school in second grade, the museum traces the comedy team from its 1920s vaudeville roots to TV appearances into the '70s.