Fatty and the Three Stooges: Unpacking a Scranton mystery
By ANDREW MCGINN
Interviewing someone for a story is a little like tuning a piano.
It might take 20 minutes, or it may take two hours, but I tend to keep asking questions until I hear it: the one quote that just sings.
In talking the other day about old movies with Mike Piepel — a guy who could talk film history in his sleep — that magic quote came sailing along just as I was preparing to take my leave.
And if I can say so, this one had a most satisfying sound, like the sound effect that Columbia Pictures always used whenever Moe would take a monkey wrench to Curly’s nose and twist it with every morsel of his vicious, 5-foot-3-inch soul.
“If Fatty’s wife was in Jefferson,” Piepel said matter-of-factly, “I’m going to say the Three Stooges were in Scranton.”
What a quote!
Of course, now I have to explain what it means.
The Three Stooges? In Scranton?
What the nyuk?
And who’s Fatty?
With Scranton celebrating its sesquicentennial on Saturday with a day of festivity, I had hoped Piepel could elaborate on something he’s casually mentioned in his public talks on the history of cinema in Greene County — that the Three Stooges themselves once graced Scranton with their presence.
“Absolutely the Three Stooges could have eaten dinner in Scranton, Iowa,” Piepel explained.
If true — even Piepel, 67, isn’t 100 percent certain — it wouldn’t exactly rewrite the 150-year history of Scranton. However, it makes for a fun story as the town (pop. 557) celebrates a century and a half of existence.
’Tis the season for sesquicentennials in this part of Iowa.
Another local community, Grand Junction, is gearing up to celebrate its own sesquicentennial the first weekend in August.
We seem to do our share of in-fighting in Greene County — with Jefferson the Moe to Grand Junction’s Curly and Scranton’s Larry — but we should all be grateful that we still haven’t pulled an Angus or an Adaza, that we still get sesquicentennials to even celebrate.
To be honest, rural Iowa as a whole these days is looking a lot like Shemp — a little worse for wear.
While it’s hard not to dwell on all the slaps we’ve taken — the disappearing farmsteads, the lost schools, the vanishing retail — each of our communities has a history so full of fascinating people and places that it’s hard not to be inspired.
It’s amazing to think that each of our towns at one time had a theater, and Piepel has found evidence that Jefferson alone was home to four or five theaters operating simultaneously in the early years of motion pictures (between the turn of the 20th century and World War I).
A former county auditor, Piepel and wife Dianne are actively researching a new program for the Greene County Historical Society, “Theaters in Greene County,” that will be presented on Aug. 2 at the Grand Junction Community Center.
“We want to highlight, if we can, every little theater in Greene County,” Piepel said.
That’s surprisingly easier said than done.
“I can guarantee we’re going to miss some,” he confessed.
Researching movie theaters, it would seem, is about as challenging as researching gas stations.
“Someone would come in and operate for a year, then, boom, move on,” Piepel explained. “Some would close up for a while, then reopen down the street with another name.”
Of course, today, there’s only one theater remaining in all of Greene County — the Sierra Community Theatre in Jefferson.
But that one theater is among the top five oldest in Iowa, Piepel believes, having shown movies continuously since 1900 or 1901. The name on the outside may have periodically changed, but those same walls have seen the movie industry progress all the way from “Electrocuting an Elephant” — a crazy, minute-long silent film by Thomas Edison that does what it says — to “Avengers: Endgame.”
Scranton was home to the Pastime Theater in the teens, the Rialto Theatre from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, then the Rex Theatre well into the ’50s, when the seats were finally removed in 1958. (The marquee came down in 1961.)
This is where the research gets really tricky.
Boone also had a Rialto, as did Fort Dodge, as did Des Moines.
At various points, there was a Rex Theatre, not just in Scranton, but in Grand Junction and Perry, too.
“So,” I asked the Piepels, innocently unaware that I might be throwing a wrench into their research, “when and where was the Amuzu Theatre in Scranton?”
“Look, a whole nother one,” Dianne Piepel remarked, somewhat wearily, to her husband.
I happened upon references to a theater in Scranton called the Amuzu in a 1923 edition of the Jefferson Bee, as part of an advertisement for the sixth annual “Paramount Week,” a week in which only Paramount films would be shown. (Also participating were the Majestic Theatre in Jefferson, the Rex Theatre in Grand Junction, the Ideal Theatre in Paton and, while not in Greene County, the Star Theatre in Farnhamville).
Scranton’s movie theater made news countywide a few summers later — by then, it was the Rialto — when the town council there was hit with a petition demanding the theater be closed on Sunday evenings.
The Scranton Journal reported, rather cheekily, in July 1926, “There are people who feel that the Sunday evening picture show is one bright spot in an otherwise dull town, and there are others who think that the Sabbath law given to the world on Mount Sinai is being offended.”
Within a month, the Rialto was sold to a new owner, who appears to have kept right on showing movies on the Sabbath.
So what about the Stooges?
Up until the early 1930s, live entertainment — vaudeville — often shared the bill with movies at these small-town theaters.
At the Majestic Theatre in Jefferson (today’s Sierra), which heralded itself as “the temple of silent art,” patrons in October 1925 could have caught the latest Harold Lloyd comedy, “The Freshman,” on a Wednesday, then a live play on a Thursday, followed by more movies on Friday and Saturday, all before a 10-person vaudeville show, headlined by a hula-dancing dog (for real), the following week.
Vaudeville would prove to be the perfect breeding ground for Golden Age Hollywood.
“They could sing, they could dance, they could act,” Piepel said of the individual acts on the road.
That went double for famed conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who appeared in Jefferson in 1930 at the Strand Theatre (what had been the Majestic).
One played sax; the other, clarinet.
“The two most intimate persons in the world are coming to this city,” the newspaper trumpeted.
They later achieved a degree of immortality in Tod Browning’s 1932 movie “Freaks,” which ranks as one of the most infamous films of all time.
Many other vaudevillians, including the future Three Stooges, went on to become universally loved.
“I can’t say they played Scranton. I can’t say they played Grand Junction. I can’t say they played Jefferson,” Piepel conceded.
But one Scranton old-timer insisted he once saw Moses Horwitz, Louis Fienberg and Moses’ baby brother, Jerome Horwitz — aka Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard — dining at one of Scranton’s cafes.
Let’s just say that one short guy with a bowl cut, one short guy with frizzy hair and one tubby guy with none at all probably stuck out in Scranton, Iowa.
“Wouldn’t that have been a treat to be at the table beside them?” Piepel wondered.
The old-timer in question was Dan Healy, who died in 1975 at age 92. Piepel was given the story by Healy’s son, Jack, who passed away himself in 2004 at age 79.
“It’s one of those unknown mysteries,” he said. “You have to take everything for what it is.”
But the more Piepel started thinking about it, the more plausible it became.
“I’ve looked up everything from Stooges history to vaudeville houses,” he said.
If it actually happened, Piepel believes it could have been sometime after the addition of Curly to their stage act with then-leader Ted Healy (no relation, that we know of, to Dan or Jack) and before they returned full-time to Hollywood in March of 1934 for the filming of “Woman Haters,” the first of 190 classic shorts for Columbia.
Curly had debuted at a show in Cleveland in the summer of 1932.
That gives us a time frame of 1932/1933. The Stooges were on a Midwestern tour, Piepel said.
And Scranton, according to Piepel, had two cafes at that time.
Could it be that they hopped off the train for a quick bite? And it just happened to be Scranton?
“They all had to eat, didn’t they?” Piepel asked rhetorically.
In those days, you never knew who might be passing through on a train.
Case in point: Minta Durfee, a minor film actress herself who was known in 1921 as the estranged wife of disgraced silent comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
In September ’21, Arbuckle found himself at ground zero of the first big Hollywood scandal when a woman — naturally, a starlet — ended up dead following a drunken party at a hotel in San Francisco. In the aftermath, Arbuckle stood accused of rape and manslaughter.
The incident even made Page 1 of the Jefferson Herald on Sept. 14, 1921, with the then-editor offering his own thoughts on Arbuckle: “He is reputed to be a moral degenerate.”
But by week’s end, of all the possible places, the wife of the world’s most notorious man was spotted in Jefferson, Iowa.
“Minta Durfee, lawful wife of ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, passed through Jefferson last Friday evening in company with her mother on the way to San Francisco,” the Jefferson Bee reported on Sept. 21.
Durfee told the paper that Arbuckle was innocent of the charges.
“All the evidence submitted so far,” the Bee wrote, “proves that Minta is either an easy mark or that she is going out there to make doubly sure of the business end of the Arbuckle estate.”
Arbuckle was eventually acquitted, but it was too little too late: Despite his pioneering comedy, his career never rebounded.
In his movie poster collection, Piepel has an original lobby card from a 1916 short that Arbuckle both directed and starred in. The title? You can’t make this up: “He Did and He Didn’t.”
That brings us back to Piepel’s original quote.
“If Fatty’s wife was in Jefferson,” he said, “I’m going to say the Three Stooges were in Scranton.”