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How Early TV Gave New Life To A Comedy Trio

By Ken Foote, CBSDFW.COM

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Commercial television has been in existence since around the end of World War II. The movies were the most dominate form of entertainment going back to the nickelodeons of the early 1900’s, the silent movies, and the early talkies. Then radio came into existence commercially in a big way in the late 1920’s between CBS and RCA’s two networks: the NBC Red Network and the NBC Blue Network. But when television was introduced, it came on like a bang.

Many actors got their start on the stage or in vaudeville, then moved to theatrical films, then to radio, and then to TV. When one venue dried up for them, they moved to another. The Three Stooges are a great example of how their career was reinvigorated by TV.

The comedic slapstick team started in early silent movies and vaudeville, but made their way west to work for Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures. Cohn was like most Hollywood studio bosses back then: tough and ruthless. The boys thought they were going to be cast in feature length productions but Cohn sent them to the shorts department. Theatrical shorts, also called “one reelers” or “two reelers”, usually preceded the main attraction being shown in the theatre and ran 10-20 minutes in length. From 1934 to 1959, the boys made 195 shorts for Columbia and made Cohn and Columbia Pictures a lot of money. Unfortunately, Cohn did not reward them very well financially. They made several movies for Columbia but they didn’t quite have the pizzazz of their earlier work. By the late 1950’s, their theatrical film career was over for the most part. They did a cameo appearance in the 1963 film, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” as firemen.

In the 1950’s, independent TV stations started popping up and, since they did not have a network affiliation with CBS, NBC, or ABC (there was no FOX or CW back then), they had to acquire programming for an 18 hour a day plus schedule. The programming directors of that day saw value in acquiring the local TV rights for the Stooges shorts as part of their children’s programming block. When the Stooges hit their airwaves, they found a whole new generation of fans that had never seen them before. Independent stations began to attract audiences. KTVT was an independent station from 1955 until 1995 and during that time had the rights to the Three Stooges locally from the late 1950’s until as late as 1986. And every time KTVT aired it, it was the #`1 show in the time period. And everywhere the Stooges appeared in person for live events around the country during the 1960’s, those events were always sold out! America loved the boys!

While some of the shorts are better than others, the majority of them were well produced, well written, and well directed. It is generally considered by film critics that their best work took place from around 1937-1944. And the ones directed by Del Lord are the best! Today you can only see their work on cable. American Movie Classics (AMC) has had the rights in years past and on New Years Eve would air a Stooges Marathon! Make no mistake, while these guys may have appeared as goofs on the screen, they were far from that in real life. They were just plain geniuses.

Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, Joe, and Curly Joe: thank you for your contribution to the American entertainment scene.

See you next time.

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