As Worthy as Popeye or Nixon

April 19, 1995|By NEIL A. GRAUER

The U.S. Postal Service may have trouble delivering the mail, but when it comes to selling stamps, Uncle Sam is second to none. The Postal Service is the world's largest stamp dealer. It earns millions annually from collectors here and abroad who buy U.S. commemorative stamps to save, not to put on the latest gas-and-electric bill.

In fiscal 1994, the postal service made $82 million selling stamps that will never be used. Among the 10 top-selling commemoratives last year were series celebrating famous performers -- jazz and blues musicians, popular singers and silent-movie stars. The all-time king of commemoratives is, of course, the 1993 Elvis Presley, which earned $36 million in profits for the postal service.

The service's marketing savvy could be called into question, however, by its repeated failure to issue a sure-fire seller: a Three Stooges stamp.

A Stooge stamp first was proposed in 1988, at the same time that the names of Presley, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe were listed as prospective subjects for stamps that since have been issued.

This year's commemoratives will endeavor to extend the postal service's stamp-selling streak. Among those being memorialized are Monroe and classic comic-strip characters. If Popeye deserves a stamp for continually bopping Bluto, why should't the Stooges be honored for clobbering each other -- and everyone else?

Except in the case of former presidents of the United States (such as Richard Nixon, who also will be among this year's commemoratives), persons must be dead for a decade before their image can grace a stamp.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the deaths of the knockabout trio's two constant members, Moe Howard, the team's mop-haired leader, and Larry Fine, he of the frizzy, fly-away tresses. Mr. Howard's younger brother, Jerome ''Curly'' Howard, the shaved-headed, roly-poly member, died in 1952. They constituted the Stooges as they are best remembered today. (Curly's older brother, predecessor and successor as a Stooge, Shemp Howard, died in 1955. Two later third bananas, )) Joe Besser and Joe ''Curly Joe'' DeRita, died in 1988 and 1993, respectively.)

That there is money in the memory of the Stooges' mayhem is undeniable. Moe Howard's heirs were socked with $3 million in legal judgments last year for allegedly short-changing the heirs of Fine and DeRita on the profits made from marketing Stooge merchandise. And during an October, 1993, bidding at New York's Herman Darvick Autograph Auctions, a photo signed by Moe, Larry and Curly fetched $1,870 -- compared with a picture signed by former presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, which sold for only $275.

More reasons than the strictly mercantile call for the postal service to commemorate the Stooges with a stamp: They merit it -- as their comic legacy amply demonstrates.

The postal service's criteria require that honorees have done or created something that has become an enduring part of American life. Surely the Stooges qualify. They have become an indelible part of American iconography. Editorial and comic-strip artists continually employ caricatures of the Stooges to make a point or get a laugh. Gary Larson, creator of the much-missed ''Far Side,'' once suggested that a Mount Stoogemore would attract tourists. In a recent episode of ''The Simpsons,'' Bart was scanning the night skies with a telescope and Principal Skinner pointed out a constellation of ''The Three Wise Men.'' The stars in question formed the images of you-know-who.

Donald B. Morlan, a professor of communications and film history at the University of Dayton in Ohio, lectures on the Stooges' ''Anti-Aristocracy Theme in Depression-Era American Film'' and their ''Slapstick Comedy Contributions to Pre-World War II Film Propaganda'' -- an impact they share, in Professor Morlan's scholarly opinion, with Abbott and Costello, who already are on a stamp. (Lou Costello's comic mannerisms owe more than a passing debt to those of Curly Howard, a bit of ''borrowing'' about which Moe Howard grumbled in later years.)

The Rev. Kenneth Heath, a Southern Baptist clergyman in Sykesville, impersonates Moe Howard as part of his ministry and uses Stooges films to put children and teen-agers he counsels at ease.

Long ago, Moe Howard himself recognized the impact of what he preferred to call the Stooges' ''Pure Farce, not slapstick.''

''People basically love to laugh, particularly when times are trying and the world is in sort of chaos as during the present time,'' he wrote to a young friend 35 years ago, at the height of the Cold War.

''They enjoy seeing offbeat characters like ourselves in desperate situations. They love to watch us upset dignity, which is the formula we use. The more dignified the person at whom we throw a pie the funnier it is. Placing ourselves in impossible situations (as we do), the audience roots for us, knowing that we are mental midgets and we accomplish our feats in a very funny and destructive manner.''

Perhaps it is the Stooges' destructiveness that bothers the folks the Postal Service. They should listen to Penn Jillette, of the popular comic magic team Penn and Teller. He has said the Three Stooges were his first artistic influence.

''The Three Stooges taught me the most important lesson a kid could learn, which is the difference between fantasy and reality. They taught about a kind of friendship that lived outside of society.

''And they also taught me by the age of 4 or 6 that you could do wonderful violence in art, and it didn't have to spill into life at all.''

Neil A. Grauer is the author of ''Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber,'' published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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