Stand-Up Stooge

Before his iconic turn in comedy, Philly-born Larry Fine was a fearless boxer and musician who helped save four people’s lives. 

Earlier this month, we wrote about our visit to The Stoogeum – a weird and wonderful museum just outside the city in Montgomery County. Technically it’s all about The Three Stooges, but as you take in the enormous collection of memorabilia, a bigger picture emerges. You discover a celebration of America you didn’t know you needed, from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the heyday of Saturday morning TV.

Though The Stoogeum is owned and operated by Larry Fine’s estate, one thing missing from the exhaustive legacy on display is his time growing up in Philadelphia. Such a shame, because Larry was quite a local character even before he was famous, remembered as smart, funny and charismatic by his classmates at Central High. He was also strong and athletic. Boxing as “Kid Roth” in his teens, he won his first and only lightweight match (I guess you could say he was undefeated?).

He was even a bit of a neighborhood hero, after helping rescue a family from their burning home in 1922. Philadelphia Stories’ Bob McNulty described the event in harrowing detail, as a first-floor dress shop goes up in flames, engulfing the upstairs apartment where four lives hang in the balance with no time to wait. It’s a great story, but of course it’s just a taste of the incredible things to come in young Larry’s life.

Back then, though, he was “Lou.” Born Louis Feinberg in 1902, he was raised with two brothers on South 3rd Street, the son of a jeweler/watchmaker from Kiev. While visiting his dad’s shop one day when he was very young, he was seriously injured by acid from a metal testing kit that accidentally splashed on his forearm. His parents gave him violin lessons as a way to rehabilitate the muscles, and this is how he discovered his talent for music and performing that would make him famous.

When Lou was 14, his father was arrested for buying stolen silverware from some guys off a truck. Unfortunately, it was a mail truck, so Papa Feinberg was charged with a federal crime – 2 years in the pen, no time off for good behavior. Lou quit Central to help support the family, selling underwear and entering every talent contest he could find. Soon, he was making a decent living as “Larry Fine,” a popular vaudeville singer and comedian. In 1926, at the age of 24, he married his sweetheart, Mabel Haney, from Lower Merion (he’d cherish her until her sudden death from a heart attack in 1967).

Fun Fact: a “stooge” is an old vaudeville term for an actor who is planted in the audience and called on stage ostensibly at random. In the 1920, one of the highest-paid performers was Ted Healy and His Stooges, who had several hit routines with Moe Howard (most of which ended with Healy pantsless). Moe was such a hit with crowds, Healy hired his brothers Shemp and Curly. At some point, Shemp stepped down and Larry was recruited as a replacement. The rest, they say, is history!

The Three Stooges starred in 190 short films for Columbia Pictures, which then seamlessly transitioned to television, becoming a staple of local UHF programming for generations of American children growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. Larry Fine continued touring and performing with the Stooges until 1970, when he suffered a paralyzing stroke.

He lived out his final years in the Motion Picture House in Southern California, a retirement community for former employees from the Motion Picture and Television industries. Despite his physical limitations, he enjoyed entertaining other patients solo and with Moe Howard, who was a frequent visitor. Larry passed away on January 24, 1975 at the age of 73 and was laid to rest in famous Forest Lawn Cemetery.

In 1999, artist David McShane painted a huge mural on the wall of Larry Fine’s childhood home at 3rd and South Streets, which had been turned into “Jon’s Bar and Grille,” a big corner pub with a lively patio and roof deck (sadly closed in 2018).

Get the Whole Story! 

Our summary here is just the tip of the iceberg! Bob McNulty’s full article includes more fascinating details, as well as the dramatic account of one family’s fiery rescue, with the help of Larry Fine.

Read More in Bob McNulty’s full article, originally published December 29, 2013 and featured in June’s Local paper.

Read Bob’s last Local column HERE.  Don’t miss the next great tale from local history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook. 

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About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 20 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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