Ted Healy, the Stooges' original straight man, was born Charles Earnest Lee Nash on October 1, 1896, in Kaufman, Texas. He was educated at Holy Innocents School in nearby Houston and completed his high school education at De LaSalle Institute in New York, where his family had moved in 1908.
According to Moe Howard, young Ted never intended to go on the stage; he had his heart set on being a businessman in Texas. It took Ted over ten years to realize that he wasn't cut out for business life and he finally tried the theater.
Healy worked hard at polishing his skills as a comedian, coming up with an act as a single in blackface, comprised of imitations and burlesque jokes. The act was entirely impromptu because Ted was unable to memorize his lines. His graphic impersonations of such film luminaries as Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, which he performed at local amateur shows, sparked considerable audience interest, but though the audiences appreciated his talent, he made little headway toward a stable career. He finally abandoned his amateur act and decided to become a full-fledged, professional performer. It was then he changed his name to Ted Healy.
Healy's comically crushed hat, an integral part of his wardrobe, received as many good reviews as his act. A critic for a Baltimore newspaper wrote: "Healy is remembered for the dilapidated hat he always wears, and about which there is much speculation as to whether it is always the same one. Many, as a matter of fact, hang on the wall of his dressing room. Healy's one of the most informal of comedians. His naturalness makes for his success."
Healy became a Broadway star and continued with his solo act through the pre-World War I years. Then, in 1922, he teamed up with a dancer-singer named Betty Brown, whom he later married. They were divorced ten years later in 1932.
Ted wrote all the comedy sketches for the act. Their first performance at a Keith Theater in Jersey City was a smash success and they were signed to a 46-week contract by the Keith Circuit. Healy's slick-talk and quick-wit made him the highest paid vaudevillian of his day, earning as much as $8,500 a week. Throughout his career, Healy found that it took a particular blend of physical, slapstick comedy for him to induce audience laughter, and he realized he would need "stooges" to take the brunt of his comedy, shtick. In 1922, he brought his boyhood pal Moe Howard into his act. Later, Moe, on stage with Ted, heard his brother Shemp's unmistakable laugh coming from the audience; he had Healy call him up on stage, and what resulted was a completely ad-libbed, wild, slapstick performance that had the theater vibrating with laughter
In a newspaper interview, Healy once explained the purpose in having stooges: "They're handy guys to have around. If a star's too busy to give an interview he can send his stooge. And a stooge is a swell alibi. If a star's wife or girl friend says she saw him in Sardi's - a swank Hollywood restaurant - with another doll, he can always say, 'It must've been my stooge.' "And then a stooge always comes in handy when you feel like throwing something at somebody. Whenever I'm in doubt or feel mixed up, I always hit the nearest stooge. Makes me feel better. Nothing like it. Hollywood's tired of 'yes-men.' That's why the stooge is coming into his own. A stooge is a 'guess-man.' You can never guess what he's going to do next."
With Moe and Shemp, his new Stooges, continuing to fracture audiences, Healy added a third Stooge in l925 and thus a violinist named Larry Fine started on a long and successful career.
With his trio of Stooges, Healy appeared in a string of Broadway shows, including, A Night in Spain and A Night in Venice. (Moe Howard did not appear in A Night in Spain, nor did Larry. Moe left the team for a year to pursue a career in real estate and Larry had just married Mabel Haney.) Ted Healy and His Stooges made their first screen appearance in the classic 1930's comedy feature Soup to Nuts, for 20th Century-Fox. This film was followed by a series of comedies for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
After Larry, Moe and Curly left his act in 1934, Healy appeared in a succession of films for 20th Century- Fox, Warner Brothers and MGM. He was forty-one and under contract to MGM at the time of his death on December 21, 1937. His untimely passing occurred only a few hours after preview audiences had acclaimed his work in the Warner Brothers film Hollywood Hotel (1937).
A cloud of mystery still hangs over the cause of Healy's demise. Newspaper accounts attributed his passing to serious head injuries sustained in a night club brawl while celebrating the birth of his first child, a son. Conflicting reports stated that the comedian died of a heart attack at his Los Angeles home. Apparently his physician, Dr. Wyant LeMont, refused to claim a heart seizure as the cause and refused to sign the death certificate. Despite his sizable salary, Healy died penniless. In fact, MGM's staff members got together a fund to pay for his burial. Moe later mentioned that comedian Brian Foy of the Eddie Foy family footed a great part of the bill for Healy's funeral.
Two days before his death, Healy visited Moe's wife, Helen, at their Hollywood apartment with the news that Betty (Hickman), his second wife, was expecting. Excited at the prospect of his first child, he told Moe's wife, "I'll make him the richest kid in the world." Moe later related in an interview that Ted had always wanted children and that it was ironic that the birth of his first child came the night of his death. Moe recalled, "He was nuts about kids. He used to visit our homes and envied the fact we were all married and had children. Healy always loved kids and often gave Christmas parties for underprivileged youngsters and spent hundreds of dollars on toys."
At the time of Ted's death, the Stooges - Moe, Larry and Curly -were at Grand Central Station in New York preparing to leave for a personal appearance in Boston, Before their departure, Moe called Rube Jackter, head of Columbia Pictures' sales department, to confirm their benefit performance at Boston's Children's Hospital that during the conversation, Jackter told Howard that the night editor of The New York Times wanted to talk to him.
Moe phoned the Times, The editor, without even a greeting, queried curtly, "is this Moe?" Howard replied, "Yes." Then the editor asked, "Would you like to make a statement on the death of Ted Healy" Moe was stunned. He dropped the phone. Then, folding his arms over his head, started to sob. Curly and Larry rushed into the phone booth to warn Moe that their train was about to leave and saw him crumpled over, crying. Since Moe never showed his emotions, Larry cracked to Curly, "Your brother's nuts. He is actually crying." Moe didn't explain the reason for his sudden emotional breakdown until he got aboard the train.
It was when Howard arrived back in Hollywood that he learned the details of Healy's death from a writer friend, Henry Taylor. He told Moe that Ted had been out drinking at the Trocadero night club on Sunset Strip and an argument broke out between him and three college fellows, Ted had called them every vile name in the book and offered to go outside the club to take care of them one at a time. But once outside, Ted didn't have a chance to raise his fists; the three men jumped him, knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the head, ribs and stomach. Healy's friend, Joe Frisco, came to the scene and picked him up from the sidewalk and took him to his apartment, where Ted died of what medical officials first claimed was a brain concussion.
According to Moe, even in the heyday of his stage career, Ted refused to put any money away and spent every dime of his salary as fast as he received it. Healy was also a heavy drinker, loved the horses and enjoyed hunting and fishing; his favorite reading matter was race track charts.
Moe had often said that Ted's drinking led to outbreaks of violence, such as the night of his tragic, untimely death. When sober, he was the essence of refinement. Ironically, liquor had killed Ted's father and uncle and ruined the life of his sister, Marcia. As a result, Ted made a pledge when he was very young never to touch liquor, but the strain of show business life got him started and he was never able to stop.
As a salute to Healy and his many contributions to the world of show business as a comedian, Helen Howard, Moe's wife, wrote the following poem to Healy on one of his birthdays;
The poet, the scholar, the painter
Each in their own art reign
But we don't chant much of the actor Who has slowly risen to fame. Of the man who uses his talent
To make us laugh as he'll joke While deep in his heart there's an aching And round his neck is a yoke.
We lounge in our chair at the theatre And laugh at his merriment Then when it is o'er we go to our homes
Feeling light-hearted and content. But when the curtain drops And we leave the man who clowns
The greasepaint of smiles is rubbed away And naught is left but the frowns. So let's drink a toast to a "comedian"
Who has reached the heights to which not many soar Health, happiness and long life, Ted Healy - Could we wish you anything more?
Healey married twice, was survived by his widow, the former Betty Hickman, whom he married on May 15, 1936, and a son, John Jacob (who was baptized in St. Augustine's Church, across from MGM, a week after Healy's death).
The legendary success of Ted Healy can best be explained in a remark the comedian made to actor Jimmy Stewart. "Never treat an audience as customers - always treat them as partners."
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