How did ‘Three Stooges’ creator die?

Ted Healy, the comic genius behind “The Three Stooges,” kissed his wife and three-day old baby good-night on Dec. 20, 1937, and headed for his favorite Hollywood haunts to celebrate the birth of his first child.

The name on the future comedian’s birth certificate was “Ernest Lea Nash” or “Clarence Lee Nash.” No one seems to know for sure. But there is no doubt that it was issued in 1896 in the town of Kaufman east of Dallas.

By the time little Ernest (or Clarence) was ready for school, the Nash family was living in Houston. He was 12, when they moved to New York City in 1908. Dazzled by the bright lights of Broadway, the teenager decided his future was in the exciting world of show business rather than on the nine-to-five treadmill of his coat-and-tie father.

Ernest/Clarence was a few months shy of his sixteenth birthday, when he took the vaudeville plunge. Joined by pal Moses Horwitz, the future Moe Howard, he talked their way into male supporting roles in a water act called “Annette Kellerman’s Diving Girls.”

The two friends soon found themselves out of work after one of the featured females broke her neck in a mistimed dive. The New Yorker and the Texan went their separate ways, but before long the latter was back on stage as a comedian with a new name.

Ted Healy was a huge hit right from the start. By the early Twenties, he was the highest paid performer on the vaudeville circuit earning a whopping $9,000 a week. (Keep in mind the inflation of the past century makes the 1920 dollar worth $100 today!) He was, however, no longer alone in the footlights having added his new bride and a dog.

Healy reunited with Moe Howard in 1922, when he hired his old sidekick as a “stooge,” an audience member secretly a part of the act. Moe’s brother Shemp was brought on-board the next year as a heckler followed in 1925 by Larry Fine, a violinist in real-life.

Night after night Healy and his stooges had packed houses rolling in the aisles with the violent slapstick humor that had become their trademark. But by the end of the decade, Healy’s drinking was out of control and the reason Shemp left the act.

Moe replaced his unhappy brother with another sibling whose stage alias was Curly. The Howards and Fine tolerated Healy’s alcoholism but could not stomach his stingy refusal to share the wealth. The trio permanently ended the one-sided relationship in 1934 upon learning their weekly hundred-dollar stipend, which had to be split three ways, came out of the $30,000 Healy was pulling down.

There was animosity for awhile – Healy even sued his protégés for supposedly stealing his material – but mutual success softened the hard feelings. The Stooges were cracking up the country with their side-splitting films for Columbia, while Healy branched out into drama at MGM and had just signed a fat new contract with Warner Brothers in late 1936.

That same year, the screen actor married a woman almost half his age. Ever the impulsive type, Healy proposed to Betty Hickman within minutes of meeting the college coed, and the couple tied the knot in an Arizona ceremony after a midnight elopement.

According to Moe Howard, Healy had always wanted children. “He used to visit our homes and envied the fact that we were all married and had children,” the Stooge wrote. “He loved kids and often gave Christmas parties for underprivileged youngsters and spent hundreds of dollars on toys.” 

The birth of his son John in December 1937 was a dream come true for the wannabe dad. When visiting hours was over five nights before Christmas, he caught a cab for the Sunset Strip to spread the wonderful news and to buy drinks all around.

By the time Healy arrived at The Trocadero, he was already as drunk as the proverbial skunk. What happened next depends upon who you believe.

In the official and widely accepted version, Healy got into a fight with three anonymous college boys in the parking lot of The Trocadero. He sustained serious injuries and, despite the best efforts of his doctor and cardiologist, died at home the next day.

In the unofficial but likely accurate version, Healy argued with actor Wallace Beery, Albert Broccoli (the producer who made his fortune with the Bond movies) and a third man at The Trocadero bar. After Beery threw the first punch, Healy invited him outside to settle the matter.

But Broccoli, who had slipped out the door, was waiting and grabbed Healy in a bear hug. Beery proceeded to beat his helpless opponent to within an inch of his life before leaving him half-conscious in a pool of his own blood.

Hollywood in those days was a company town, where the studios called the tune and everyone – cops, courts and newspapers included – danced to it. MGM was not about to let a box-office draw like Wallace Beery be tainted by scandal much less stand trial.

The county coroner stuck to the script and ruled Ted Healy’s death was caused by nothing more than alcoholism. That verdict satisfied the police, and the investigation was closed never to be reopened.

Bartee’s four books “Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes,” “Murder Most Texan,” “Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil” and “Unforgettable Texans” available at barteehaile.com.

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