Gary Lassin (pictured with Stooges supporting actress Adrian Booth Brian), a life-long Philadelphia-area resident/Three Stooges fan, opened the Ambler, PA-based Stoogeum in 2004. The three story complex boasts nearly 4,000 of Gary’s 100,000+ item collection of Stooge artifacts, many of which are one-of-a-kind. From vintage toys, comic books, and LPs to Shemp Howard’s 1918 army discharge papers (the oldest Stooges-related document known to exist), the Stoogeum is a sight to behold even for those with little or no interest in the knuckleheads.
Visitors are greeted by an automated “Hellooo, hellooo, hellooo” and the sounds of the Stooges continue throughout the building’s many rooms. Highlights of the entrance floor include a professional screening room and Three Stooges-themed pinball and arcade machines. The basement floor acts as a full-on museum of artifacts and history including several handbills from the 1930s and 40s that advertise live performances at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. The top floor functions as an art gallery with work from both fans and professionals including a giant wall mural by the same artist who painted the Larry Fine mural on South Street. This floor also features a six foot stained glass tribute to the Stooges crafted by Stanley Livingston (aka Chip Douglas from My Three Sons) behind of which lies Gary’s poster and lobby card-adorned office where he recently sat down with Cinedelphia to discuss the appeal of the Stooges, collecting in the pre-internet age, and his thoughts on the Farrelly Brothers’ upcoming continuation of the Stooges’ legacy.
GARY LASSIN: Since I can remember. And that’s the typical response you’re going to get from a Stooges fan because most of us became fans as children. We can’t pinpoint exactly when, but as far back as we can remember we were fans of the Stooges.
C: How were you first exposed to the Stooges as a child?
GL: Sally Starr’s “Popeye Theater” [aired from 1950s – 1971 on Philadelphia’s WFIL]. Every city in the country had a kiddie show with a different host and on those shows they used to show cartoons and oftentimes the Three Stooges. There were only three channels back then, it’s hard to believe now. When the Stooges were on, one-third of all of the stations had the Stooges on. So you can imagine that everyone knew who the Stooges were, it’s not like today where there’s 300 channels and they’re not on any of them. Every kid knew the Stooges and most of us boys liked them a lot.
C: Were they marketed towards children at that time?
GL: Yes. Down in the basement you’ll see a whole slew of 29, 39, 49 cent toys and games and puzzles that they marketed for children to play with. If you look at them closely you’ll see that they’re well worn, they’ve been played with, they weren’t like Franklin Mint plates that people preserved and didn’t touch. So every kid from my generation got acquainted with the Stooges on television. They had finished making all of those 18 minute two-reelers with Curly. Curly was dead by then. They were making these feature films, The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962), The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962), that’s what was showing in the theaters at that time. But on television they continued to show these 20 minute shorts, that’s where most of us got acquainted with them.
GL: You can’t explain why something is funny, comedy isn’t something you can explain, it just sort of is. For me, as a kid, it was Curly Howard. He was the childlike figure, the one getting picked on by Moe, the father-like figure. It was easy to identify with him as a kid, he was the victim of coicumstance. As a kid you always felt like that, you were always the low man on the totem pole as a kid. And his childlike innocence was something that a child naturally fell in love with.
C: Does it take a particular mindset to pursue an interest in the Stooges into adulthood?
GL: Well, the people that discovered them as kids are lifelong fans. It’s unusual if someone who is 50 or 60 gets into them who didn’t see them as a kid, that’s not the norm. What’s unusual today is when a kid gets into them since typically kids today flip right over the channels that are black and white. The Stooges aren’t mainstream so if I see a 10-year-old boy who is interested in the Stooges and knows a lot about them I’m very surprised. That was the norm in 1960, but not today. That’s sort of my job, to try to get the next generation to pick up the ball and start carrying it.
C: There must be a timeless aspect to their comedy…
GL: The themes that they played on, boss versus the worker, high society vs. the lower class, those types of themes are universal. The physicality of their humor will always be funny. They did do some jokes that have been lost over the years because they were contemporary at the time. They were funny, but now we don’t know what they were talking about. But a lot of their comedy was not like that, the hitting and poking dates back to the Shakespearean days. People thought it was funny in the 1500s and chances are they will in 500 years. If Martians came down and didn’t know anything about us and just started watching the Stooges they would probably laugh.
C: Do you remember when you started collecting Stooge memorabilia?
GL: Around 1980 when I started dating my wife and I found out that she was related to Larry Fine, that’s what started me collecting. I’d been collecting baseball cards, which are so boring. They’re all the same size, they all fit neatly in binders, there’s really not that much to them. And when I started collecting the Stooges I found that there were so many genres of collecting: toys and games, posters, autographs, all kinds of different things to collect of all different sizes. No one else was collecting them at the time, it didn’t seem like anyone else was interested in collecting them at the time.
GL: No, even though she’s the one related to the Stooges. The Stooges are sort of like my mistress. The time I spend with the Stooges is time I’m not spending on her, not that she resents it. At least she knows where I am when I’m not around.
C: How did you go about finding collectibles in the pre-internet days?
GL: In the pre-internet days it was work. You had to go to shows and make calls and do a lot of legwork. So I’d go to a comic book show and spend all day looking for Stooges comics. Five hours spent for one $5 comic. Next weekend you’d go to a record show and go through the same thing there. A friend might have a friend that might have something, you left business cards here and there, that’s the way it worked back then.
C: So this collection was literally built piece by piece.
GL: Yeah, I got lucky in that I found several Stooge collectors who were getting out of Stooge collecting to get into other things. So a guy who collected the Stooges wanted to instead collect World Series rings and he was selling his Stooge collection and I was willing to buy the whole thing even though I had a few of the pieces. I did that several times with large collections, which was really helpful. I always paid people fair prices and made fair offers so when they had something new they called me first. If I tried to nickel and dime somebody then they wouldn’t call me first when they got a new piece in. Now with eBay things are totally different. I type in “Stooges” and 5,000 items come up and everyone else has access to the same 5,000 items that I do. I can’t outwork them, I can only outbid them.
C: Would it have been possible to achieve this collection if you’d started in, say, the late 90s?
GL: Well I got lucky in that I bought a couple of major collections, I had access to them before they sold stuff on the internet. It would be impossible to recreate this today because everyone is selling stuff on eBay and you have to compete against everybody. Back in the day people only knew three other Stooge collectors beside me. With the way prices are it would be impossible to do this today.
GL: Critical mass? Yeah, when I had to start putting stuff on the computer because I couldn’t remember everything I had. I had a whole lot of posters and somebody would offer me a lobby card for a film and I couldn’t remember if I had that one or not. I’d say it was the late 80s, after five or six years of collecting, when I could no longer remember what I had.
C: Did the concept for the Stoogeum arise around that time?
GL: This building didn’t come about until 2004. Stuff had been accumulating in my house for about 20 years until I pulled the trigger. The idea for a museum came way, way back because I’d visited the house of the guy who ran the Marx Brothers club. His house was a Marx Brothers museum. He had Marx Brothers dishes, a Marx Brothers shower curtain; the guy was single, he didn’t have a wife telling him things. The house was all Marx Brothers and I tucked the idea away, this was ’86. So it was a long time, I’d always wanted to do it, but it didn’t happen until 2004. This is what happens when a chip goes loose in someone’s brain.
C: Do people still contact you with one-of-a-kind items?
GL: It doesn’t happen that much anymore. I’ve tried to keep track of the items out there that my friends have, most of the Stooges collectors are friends and we have a network, we keep in touch and know who has what. There’s always the crazy hope that something you didn’t know about appears. I may know that this guy has Shemp’s social security card, but something like a letter that Curly wrote from camp would be a major find. There’s no Curly stuff, he didn’t save things.
C: Can you talk about the annual gathering of Stooge fans?
GL: It’s at the end of April, it’s a meeting of the fan club, we’ve been doing it since 1987. We bring in fans from around the country, dealers show up, we get actresses that used to work with the Stooges. We get impersonators, show rare films, the guys like to get together and talk Stooges because our wives aren’t interested in them, our kids aren’t interested in them, our friends aren’t interested in them, so we like to get together for a fun weekend.
GL: Y’know, I’ve gone 180 and 360 on this film. It’s a film that doesn’t need to be made, it’s a film that a lot of the fans don’t want to see made, but in the long run I think it’s going to be a good thing even if it stinks. It’s going to generate some new people and interest; it’s hard to get publicity for a property where the main players have been dead for 50 years. In Hollywood it’s still good publicity even if the film is a bomb. If an actress goes to rehab, that’s not bad for her career. Lindsay Lohan gets arrested tomorrow, that’s not hurting her career, she’s in the news, that’s good for her. Same thing for this film. I think the Farrellys honestly want to do a good job, I think their heart is in the right place, but their task is somewhat impossible. Is it going to be funnier in color? Are these impersonators going to be better than the originals?
I think the thing that bothers me the most about it is that they’re calling it a Three Stooges film. It’s not a Three Stooges film, it’s three people playing the Three Stooges. The Stooges are different than a lot of other properties. James Bond wasn’t a real person, Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a real person. Different people can play those roles and legitimately bring something to the table. But the Stooges were real people, Moe Howard was a real person, so a person portraying Moe Howard can’t bring anything new or good to the table because they’re not Moe Howard. To me, it’s sort of like getting four musicians together, putting them in a studio, and putting out a new Beatles album. This is being billed as the first new Three Stooges movie in 50 years. No, it’s not a new Three Stooges movie, it’s a movie called The Three Stooges. So maybe it’s just semantics, but I think the Farrellys are going to do as good a job as anyone could do.
The Stoogeum will be open this Saturday, February 18, from 10 AM to 3 PM. Admission is free.
In addition to running the Stoogeum, Gary Lassin is also the President of the Three Stooges Fan Club, membership info here.