B Y L E O W . B A N K S
JON SOLOMON, RESPECTED scholar, professor of the classics at the University of Arizona, is sitting in his finely-appointed Foothills living room discussing the Curly Shuffle.
It was a sort of moon-walk dance performed by Curly Howard of the Three Stooges, a staple of his physical comedy. It's impossible to describe and even harder to pull off.
"I just can't do the Curly Shuffle," says Solomon. Then he pauses and his face brightens: "But I can do this."
He snaps his fingers while slapping one fist into his palm, then uses his fingers to play a little riff on his chin.
Such foolery is tricky stuff for an academic of Solomon's credentials. He's written three books and translated two more. He's won numerous teaching awards. His first specialty is the music of ancient Greece.
The second is the Stooges. He studies Moe, Larry and Curly. He pores over their short films and writes erudite papers explaining how there's really more to them than woobwoobing and eye-gouging.
What's more, he bears a strong resemblance to Larry. The similarity doesn't bother him a bit. "Why should it?" he asks. "Only my hair doesn't clump out on the sides the way Larry's does."
Stooge studies have become a kind of cottage specialty among academics. Cottage is the right word, because the number of professors who do it could fit in one. There are about 10 nationwide.
It's not hard to figure out why. Professors are supposed to delve into weightier subjects. The more inaccessible, and the less popular, the better.
Chaucer beats Curly. Mao tops Moe. Larry isn't even on the map. What is there to study about a guy whose nickname is porcupine?
"This isn't something I talk about a lot. I rarely put it on my resume," says Solomon, who polished his renegade image in a late-February appearance on CBS' 60 Minutes, in which he blasted the UA administration for not requiring professors to teach more.
Don Morlan, communications professor at the University of Dayton, another Stooge expert, says the sidelong glances of colleagues aren't as obvious for scholars who manage to link their Moe, Larry and Curly research with serious academics.
"I study their World War II-era shorts as propaganda films," he says. "That carries a lot more weight than belly poking."
All of this started five years ago at a meeting of the Popular Culture Association, a scholarly group headquartered at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Solomon was about to deliver a paper on alien language in films, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, when the Association's president remarked that she hated science fiction.
"You either love it or hate it," Solomon said. "It's like the Stooges." In unison, everyone in the room said, "I love the Stooges," or "I hate the Stooges."
The strong reaction convinced Solomon the Stooges were fertile ground, and ever since he's been encouraging other Association scholars to look at them from an historical and cultural perspective.
"Until the Association was formed, it wasn't acceptable for academics to study popular culture," says Solomon. "But over the past 20 years it's become clear that America's contribution to the arts is popular culture. It's being studied in that context more and more."
In one paper, he argued that Stooges' shorts provide a good window on the times in which they were made--from vaudeville to the Great Depression and World War II, to resettling and getting married after the war and the economic boom of the late '40s and '50s.
"It's hard to find another cinematic unit that gives you such a long look at what was going on in America," said Solomon.
In the Stooges' Depression-era films, for instance, Moe, Larry and Curly always represented the down-trodden against the wealthy. "They'd go into an aristocrat's home to exterminate bugs or something and wind up trashing the place," says Solomon.
Ever since he broke the ice, other scholars have come out of the shadows with papers of their own. Last year
What is there to study about a guy whose nickname is porcupine?
Morlan picked up on the Stooges versus the rich theme with a paper on how pie fights improved American spirits during the Depression.
Morlan was also the first to show that the Stooges' anti-Hitler shorts actually predated Charlie Chaplin's much-studied work, The Great Dictator.
In January 1940, the Stooges came out with You Nazty Spy, beating Chaplin by nine months. In July 1941, they released I'll Never Heil Again, an even more pointed jab at Hitler. Making Hitler look bad was highly controversial.
"All the Stooges were Jewish and they were sensitive to what was going on in Europe," says Morlan. Of the 190 shorts the Stooges made from 1934-1958, You Nazty Spy was Moe's favorite because his dream was to be a dramatic actor.
Other Stooge papers delivered at Association meetings include one from Jason Danielian, an assistant state prosecutor in Illinois, analyzing their courtroom scenes.
At the Association's recent meeting in Philadelphia, Danielian gave a videotaped analysis of shorts in which the Stooges perform as musicians. He called it Songs in the Key of Moe.
"The musical episodes just show how multi-faceted they were," says Danielian. "Not many people realize that Larry trained as a concert violinist, and was very talented."
Kathleen Chamberlain, a professor of English at Virginia's Emory & Henry College and a rare female Stooge fan, spoke on the trio's portrayal of women. They were usually shown as caricatures--the snooty dowager or the damsel in distress and always as foils to highlight the Stooges' antics.
"For example," says Chamberlain, "when Curly is trying to pawn off a fat girl on Moe, he calls him up and says, 'Moe, you better get over here, you're missing the biggest thing of your life.' There's nothing politically correct about them."
All of those who present papers grew up watching the Stooges, either in their original films or on syndicated TV. Except for Chamberlain they're all male and except for Danielian, they're all academics.
Solomon says the atmosphere at Association meetings is scholarly, although occasionally someone will refer to a distinguished colleague as a "knucklehead," or sign off correspondence with "nyuck, nyuck, nyuck."
But Stooge professors share another characteristic: Their affection for individual Stooges changed as they aged and followed the same progression--starting with Curly, then going to Larry, then Moe.
Solomon, 45, grew up in Philadelphia, and says that as the youngest of three brothers, he felt obligated to be a Curly man. "I'd get up during dinner and run out to the foyer and do Curly's Chicken-with-his-head-cut-off," remembers Solomon.
He'd get down on the floor on his side, kicking his legs in such a way that it propelled him around and around in circles. He did it so often in college that he wore a hole in the shoulder of his jacket.
"My Curly phase lasted a long time," says Solomon.
Some time in his 30s, he came to appreciate Larry's subtleties. Then he moved into his Moe phase. He's still in it. A few years ago at an Association meeting, Solomon met Moe's sister, Joan Maurer, and the two had a heart to heart.
"She was very helpful to me in understanding what Moe was all about," he says. "He was a kind man who looked after the other Stooges, studied their contracts to make sure they were getting what they deserved, and he was a great pie thrower."
As for the Curly Shuffle, prosecutor Danielian says he does it in the office all the time, and has a tip for Solomon.
"When you flip your left leg back, you use that momentum to slide the right foot back along on the floor," he says. "That's the key, the momentum. But it takes practice."
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