HOWARD, his hair slicked down over loving-cup ears, became one of
the most famous comedy stooges in the history of stage and screen.
The third eldest brother of Moe Howard, the team leader, Shemp was
born Samuel Horwitz in Brooklyn, New York, on March 17, 1895 (not
1900 as listed in studio biographies).
once recalled how his brother acquired the name Shemp. "Shemp was
given the Hebrew name Schmool, after his mother's grandfather. Schmool
was Anglicized to Samuel and then shortened to Sam. When his mother,
with her broad European accent, would call him, the name 'Sam' came
out 'Sams,' and if you weren't listening carefully it could sound
like Shemp... which it did! So from the time he was seven that's what
his family called him. It was Shemp in school and in the world of
the theater. In later years, no one knew it was anything else."
was a very mischievous child, and Moe recalled his favorite pastime
was stuffing everything from woolen stockings to sweaters down the
hallway toilet. "I remember one time when Shemp tore the pages out
of our brother Irving's history book and jammed them into the toilet
in our home in Bensonhurst," Moe chuckled as he recalled, "Because
of this he had to run the family gauntlet: a smack from Mother, a
belt across the head from Dad, a shove from Irving and a kick in the
fanny from me.
Shemp reached the age of thirteen, he was a completely different person
and had outgrown most of his mischief-making. Moe remembers that friends
of the family had always predicted that Shemp was going to be an actor
or a great comedian. But Shemp thought otherwise and never seriously
entertained the idea of entering show business. Moe, on the other
hand, worked like a demon at it, planned his future, and eventually
made it to the footlights before his brother.
graduated from P.S. 163 in Brooklyn, the same grammar school his brother
Moe attended, and got as far as starting New Utrecht High School.
Since he and Moe failed to finish school, their parents, Jennie and
Solomon Horwitz, urged them to go to a trade school. Late in 1911,
Moe and Shemp enrolled at the Baron DeHirsch Trade School in New York,
where Shemp took up plumbing and Moe studied to be an electrician.
While Moe learned the definition of an ampere, an ohm and a volt,
Shemp learned the basics of threading and cutting pipe. Neither of
the boys ever finished these courses but instead put their lessons
into practice in a rare act of mischief.
remembers that while learning the tricks of their trade they got the
tricks down pat: "Neither Shemp nor I ever finished the course, but
we did find a use for lesson #1-"The Push-Button Door Latch." We wired
it into our apartment so that by pushing a concealed button we could
open the front-door latch when we got home late at night without our
parents being the wiser. I'd just reach under the door step, press
the button, wait for the click of the latch and open the door from
the outside. This worked well until Dad found out. One night we came
home very late, and reached for the button, but the button wasn't
there. That particular evening Shemp and I had borrowed Jack and Irving's
new long-pants suits to go to a party. We came home about three in
the morning and there was no way to get in without waking our parents.
Then I got the bright idea of going to the back of the house. The
bathroom window was open and I climbed through the darkened opening,
head down, arms outstretched and probing, right into a half-filled
tub that either Irving or Jack had left from that night's bath. I
landed face down in the water. I rolled over and sat up laughing hysterically.
I had forgotten all about Shemp and letting him in. A moment later
he climbed in and found himself in the same boat. There we were when
my father entered, the two of us sopping wet with our brothers' good
clothes on. Somehow our father's smacks on our wet faces sounded much
louder and were more painful than on a dry face."
recalling his school days, Moe has said that Shemp was not athletically
inclined and as a student he was nil. He tried to pay attention in
class but seemed unable to concentrate. Jack and Irving tried to help
him with his schoolwork, but Shemp was already playing the comedian.
He'd laugh everything off with a cute remark, draw funny drawings,
or make faces at the other students to make them laugh and get them
in trouble along with himself Shemp craved attention.
also recalled that Shemp was industrious for his age. The two brothers
worked together at many different neighborhood jobs. First, they tried
the plumbing business, but when Shemp burned his hand on hot solder
he quit. The Howards next tried setting up pins in a local bowling
alley, then delivering newspapers for the Brooklyn Eagle. This continued
until, finally, Shemp realized there was nothing left for them but
the hope of acquiring some stage experience, Shemp agreed to do an
act with Moe at dance halls and theater amateur nights in the area.
Comedy was neither Moe nor Shemp's forte at the time. Moe had been
directing his energies toward dramatic theater while Shemp, except
for fooling around at parties, had practically no theatrical experience.
The two boys wrote a short skit, rehearsed it and went on stage at
an amateur night at the Bath Beach Theater. Three minutes into their
performance, they were thrown bodily out of the theater. Needless
to say, Shemp was terribly discouraged but Moe felt it was a step
in the right direction.... Shemp had finally performed on a stage.
Shurman, an old Bensonhurst friend of the Howards when they were in
their twenties, watched many of their performances around the neighborhood.
She recalled: "They were just starting out in dance halls and everyone
got a big kick out of them and the shows they put on. Shemp and Moe
worked together and I followed them around wherever they went ...
because I was so proud. I remember Shemp. He was a riot ... simply
a riot. And it came so naturally."
during the course of World War I, Moe and Shemp formed a blackface
vaudeville act which disbanded for a brief period when Shemp was drafted
into the army. He was discharged after only a few months (he was discovered
to be a bed wetter) and rejoined Moe in vaudeville. In 1917 Shemp
and Moe took their comedy act back to the boards and played on both
the Loew's and RKO circuits, managing to work for the rival outfits
through a ruse: They played a blackface routine for RKO and a whiteface
one for Loew's. They continued with their stage appearances through
1922. Shemp jokingly recalled the blackest moment of his life as the
time he was working blackface in a minstrel show and the manager skipped
with the payroll and the cold cream. Despite his show business desires,
Shemp once said, "My parents wanted me to grow up to be a gentleman."
one afternoon in 1922, Shemp got his biggest show business break.
A former schoolmate and vaudeville comedian, Ted Healy, was playing
at the Brooklyn Prospect Theater and needed a replacement in his current
act. He prevailed upon Moe and then Shemp to come up out of the audience
and perform in the show. The Howards went on stage with Healy and
fractured the audience with an entirely ad-libbed routine.
act with Healy and his Stooges kept up its frantic pace from that
night on. A short-lived problem arose at the beginning of the brothers'
careers. Their mother, Jennie Horwitz, was totally against the idea
of her sons joining Ted Healy.
Howard remembers what Ted Healy said to persuade her to change her
mind. "It seems my mother did not want Shemp or Moe to be actors.
She thought it would be much better if they became professionals.
Ted Healy came to the house one day to plead with my mother to let
Moe and Shemp join the act. He was getting nowhere. Suddenly, Ted
said to my mother, 'Jennie, I'll give you $100 for your synagogue
building fund if you let the boys come with me. She thought about
the good that the money would do and agreed, reluctantly."
his debut as a stooge, Shemp's association with Healy continued to
prosper. He was prominently billed in such J. J. Shubert musicals
as A Night in Spain and A Night in Venice. In 1925, Howard married
Gertrude "Babe" Frank. She gave birth to a son, Morton, in 1927. (He
died on January 13, 1972, of cancer.) In this same year, Larry joined
Healy, Moe and Shemp.
in 1930, it was off to Hollywood to co-star in Rube Goldberg's critical
sensation Soup to Nuts. A short time later Larry, Moe and Shemp left
Healy to form an act of their own, "Three Lost Souls." But a year
later they returned to Healy to star in The Passing Show of 1932,
a J.J. Shubert Broadway revue. Healy left the show over a contract
dispute, taking Moe and Larry with him. Shemp decided to stay behind.
the team gave Shemp a chance to use his wide-ranging talents in various
film productions, in- cluding features and featurettes. He went on
to star in countless two-reel comedies for Vitaphone in 1932 and he
later played the role of Knobby Walsh in the Joe Palooka series. Shemp's
leaving the act also gave his kid brother Curly the opportunity of
a lifetime-to become the world's favorite Stooge.
1937, Shemp Howard returned to Hollywood, this time to open the "Stage
One" nightclub (now Andre's restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard) with
actor/partner Wally Vernon. Shortly after the club opened, Shemp signed
a contract to do a comedy series at Columbia and later feature film
roles at RKO, MGM and Monogram. In the 1940's, he was given numerous
roles in such Universal films as Buck Privates, The Bank Dick and
Hellzapoppin! He also worked in films starring Abbott and Costello,
W.C. Fields, Broderick Crawford and John Wayne.
times were good, Shemp and his wife Gertrude's greatest pleasure was
entertaining actor friends in the movie community. The Howards' parties
at their North Hollywood home included such guests as Morey Amsterdam,
Phil Silvers, Harry Silvers, Huntz Hall, Gabe Dell, Martha Raye and
Murray Alpert. On rare occasions, brothers Moe and Curly would drop
by with their wives, but when things went sour work-wise, some of
Shemp's friends were known to abandon ship. Clarice Seiden, Moe Howard's
sister-in- law, recalls: "I remember when Shemp's contract was not
renewed with Universal, the partygoers that were always at his house
disappeared. When his contract was renewed everyone would come back."
the situation, no matter how unnerving, Shemp was always a warm, caring,
understanding man, though a bit of an introvert at times. Once he
was at ease with people, Shemp opened up and the jokes and humorous
anecdotes poured forth. Dolly Sallin, daughter of Jack Howard, remembers
Shemp as informal and casual. She says, "Shemp was really a quiet,
family man who had evening get-togethers where friends would drop
in. He was quite devoted to his 'wife and son. Moe was the one who
kept up on world affairs and kept his mind active, while Shemp simply
didn't care. He wanted things to be easy and uncomplicated." Friends
also reveal that Shemp was not a businessman and spent most of his
time sitting at home listening to his favorite radio show or, in his
later years, watching television.
also shared many intimate moments with his son Mort, who was an only
child and bore more resemblance to his mother than to Shemp. Irma
Leveton, Helen Howard's friend, remembered that Shemp liked to go
fishing 'with Mort. Dolly Sallin added that Shemp and Mort used to
produce their own tape- recorded music on a reel-to-reel recorder
Maurer, who first met Shemp in 1945, remembers the comedian as always
being jovial and never without a kind word. Maurer recalls: "Shemp
was a delightful man. He was the funniest of the three brothers ...
he was a riot. He would just open his mouth and he was funny. He was
also the world's greatest environmentalist. He couldn't step on an
also had his share of phobias that he was never able to outgrow-a
fear of heights, a fear of driving or being driven in a car and a
fear of water. Moe told of the time that Shemp insisted he was getting
seasick.. .just standing on the dock fishing. The Stooges always traveled
by train whenever they went across country on personal appearance
tours because of Shemp's paranoia; it was impossible to get him on
an airplane. Irma Leveton recalled Shemp's fear of dogs, even though
he had a dog of his own, a collie named Wags. As Leveton said: "He
used to walk down the street with a stick in his hand to protect himself
If a dog ever came near him, he would have fainted. There was no way
he would ever hit a dog. He couldn't kill a fly. It's hard to imagine
that a man with a face like that-he looked like a killer-was really
a gentle man."
Sitka, who worked with Shemp in many comedies, remembers his fear
on the set of Hold That Lion (1947). "We had a lion in this film who
was so sickly he would fall asleep in the middle of a take. When Shemp
heard that there was a lion on the set, he was really panicked. I
thought he was kidding, but he wasn't. When he finally shot the scene
the technicians had to put a glass plate between the lion and Shemp...he
was that scared."
anecdote concerning Shemp's phobias occurred during the filming of
Africa Screams, a 1949 romp featuring Shemp and starring Abbott and
Costello. In it was another future Stooge, Joe Besser. Charles Barton
directed the epic and remembers that Shemp's fear of heights and water
seemed funny to everyone but Shemp: