A scientific Saturday spent with the Three Stooges

13 Sep

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The organ player’s hands fly across three rows of keys, his legs pumping the pedals wildly, his body swaying with the rounded contour of the notes—robust and thick like the red velvet curtains of the Riviera Theatre. The way they’re draped across the stage remind me of a cocoon waiting to explode with life.  

The atmosphere here is a combination carnival and saloon, a rowdy, yet family oriented saloon, a thrilling, yet primarily sedentary carnival.

“Tiny man engulfed in organ.” My 10 year old sister Victoria looks up from my notebook and laughs at the first observation I jotted down.

“What, don’t you think so?”

“Yeah, actually he DOES look engulfed in it.”

From our seats in the front left corner of the theatre, I am scribbling down everything I can—most recently making note of the silver haired row of gentleman directly in front of me who embody the word “distinguished” and appear more suited to an evening of expensive cocktails with business associates than one spent at the 18th annual Three Stooges Fest in the City of Tonawanda.

I came tonight armed with a serious question for exploration: “Who comes to a Three Stooges Fest, and why?” My hypothesis is that they’re all old fogies.

They’re so serious (the silver haired gentlemen), in fact, I worry they’ve got the wrong show. Maybe they meant to go to a documentary movie at the Regal Cinemas and somehow ended up here.

But with all the paraphernalia, I don’t see how it could have happened. We had to run a gauntlet just to get to our seats, a Curly Moe and Larry gauntlet where people shouted at us to buy T-shirts and key chains and mugs and all kinds of bric-a-brac one later sells for 25 cents at a garage sale. We (my little brother, sister, dad and uncle) made it through the gauntlet intact, but oh were we ever so exactly sure of the event we were attending. There could be no doubt in our minds. If someone in this audience was misplaced, it would have to be because of a serious illness, like delirium, or something worse.

I need to confess something. I feel like a terrible fraud. If these crazies discover who I really am—someone who thinks the Three Stooges are obnoxious—surely they’d whisk out some Stooge antics on me, maybe pull my hair or poke my eyes, or throw me down a flight of stairs till I came to share their point of view.

So, you know, just to be safe, I act like one of them. I lean forward in anticipation as I wait in the snaking line wrapped around the front of the theatre, surrounded by people who have Three Stooges T-shirts and probably bought their tickets six months in advance. I blend in, incognito, and start talking the best Stooge talk I could muster to my younger brother.

“Jeffrey, aren’t you SO glad we’re here at this Three Stooges Festival?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.” Translation: dad dragged me here. I’d rather be watching football (I’m fluent in 15-year-old Jeffrey).

So much for that.

Just before the Stooges start, the Beatles reign. “I want to hold your hand,” is playing at a fast tempo, and the audience is almost singing along with it. It’s more like a murmur that can’t quite make up its mind whether it wants to become a voice. The song sounds funny and wonderful coming from the organ, an instrument I’ve only ever heard in a church, and certainly never emitting a Beatles song.

Organ boy stills his instrument like a mountain man quieting a grizzly bear. The great music stops. It hangs in mid air, and I wonder how all that sound can just end because the flying fingers and pumping legs end, too. Wouldn’t the momentum keep it crashing forward?

A spotlight hits the Master of Ceremonies dressed in a slick black tuxedo and red bow tie. “This is really going to be a blast tonight,” he bellows. “We have a great mix.”

He meant episodes, but all I could think about was people.

“Why don’t you give a hand for Dan over here.”

He points to the organ. Somewhere in it is Dan, who seems more like a mere extension of the instrument rather than the person bringing it to life.

“He’s 15 years old,” says tuxedo proudly.

I am shocked. So must everyone else be, because the last song Dan the organ player plays everyone claps along to until the end (clearly his youth makes the music that much more pleasing to hear, than if he had been, say, 40 years old).

I scratch my notes and write, “Tiny boy engulfed in organ.”

 The popcorn munching quiets down as the lights dim even lower, and the red velvet curtains begin pulling from either end of the stage, making chinking and swooshing sounds.

A sacred hush falls over the crowd, the kind of hush that happens during a wedding when the door of the church opens and the radiant bride steps forward into the isle. But in this particular ceremony, it’s the Three Stooges who appear on the screen for admiration.

Like joyous graduates, the audience explodes into life. A few kernels even soar into the air like caps at graduation, tassels flying and shimmering in the sun.

The curtain cocoon broke, the show has begun.

The popcorn munching resumes more fervently than ever before, crunching and crisping and crackling together into one splendiferous symphony of crunch. If I close my eyes it could be hoards of people in one room eating Rice Krispies cereal. Hey, why not?

And I’m back to my original question, solitarily pondering and observing amidst such raucous surroundings.

In an age of digital everything—DVDs, video games, computers, mp3 players, etc. etc. what is it that’s pulling this crowd together into a dim theatre on a Saturday night to watch black and white crackly, fuzzy episodes from the 1930s and 1940s? Why isn’t everyone back in their home theatres with their surround sound and high definition?

 In today’s gorged on newness world, a world of up-to-the-minute when it can’t be up-to-the-second entertainment, news, information, whatever, the first episode we watch—one from 1934—is the equivalent of digging something up from antiquity, something dried, shriveled, dust ridden and well let’s face it—positively ancient. What use could there possibly be for something that repulsively old?  

But somehow, amazingly enough, this episode is still alive—pulsing, beating, thumpingly, alive.

What is it breathing life into its brittle lungs? It’s rumbling now, somewhere from deep inside the chest cavities of the hundreds of people crammed into one theatre. It’s stealing underneath faces, like light under water, illuminating a hundred different expressions, flickering out across the audience and dancing around the silver haired men in front of me. Together, in almost perfect unison, the skin pulls back from their clean shaven faces, and like the red velvet curtains on stage, something like a smile is ecstatically brought forth into existence.

It’s pure electricity this laughter.

Soon I’m laughing with everyone else. I don’t know why, but I am. The Stooges are sticking light bulbs into each other’s ears, and I’m howling, whooping, hooting along with the rest of the audience. With each laugh I’m becoming less of a fraud. They crack at my exterior until it falls off entirely, revealing me for the true—gasp—crazy that I am, because of all things, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.

The funniest part is when Curly’s live oyster in his oyster soup starts snapping at him. I look across the isle at the man whose face is streaming with tears as he reaches for more popcorn without ever taking his eyes from the screen. It only makes it funnier. I guess I’m laughing because everyone else is. I guess I’m laughing because it doesn’t matter that the people are falling down stairs and getting poked and going through walls. It’s ridiculous. It’s not the kind of humor that is funny at all. Having said that, it’s hilarious.

As a full time nanny, I know well what triggers little kid laughter. It doesn’t take much—an abrupt smile, a peek-a-boo, a purposeful fall will all do the trick. This Stooge nonsense is the stuff of little kids. And what I hear all around me, mingling with the smell and sound of popcorn and slurping straws and bouncing off and mixing into the great red curtains pulled all the way back from stage, is little kid laughter.

It’s coming from stressed dads and worn mothers and silvery haired gentleman and giggly teenage girls and too cool for school punked out rockers and Elmwood skimming twenty somethings and of course, from every variety of child who was lucky enough to have parents bring them, and really, from everything in-between.  Here, no one demographic outweighs the other. Surprisingly enough, it appears that normal people from all ebbs and flows of life come to a Three Stooges Fest.

My dazzlingly scientific hypothesis is dastardly shattered, and this delights me immensely.

I can’t be sure, but I think I hear something like the sound of uncontrollable laughter coming from three little boys not far away. It’s coming from right in front of me, actually. No, it couldn’t be. But it is. The distinguished gentlemen.

The sound of it—the laughter—is enough to answer the “why” part of my question.

I’ll attempt the philosophical for a moment here by postulating that laughter is timeless, and we humans need the ridiculous, dare I say—to survive?

I wonder how many men and women here in this audience lost a job in the past few months, how many of them struggle to pay for groceries and all other pesky bills of necessity. But somehow they scrounged enough money to buy an $8 ticket.

I realize the Three Stooges are like lipstick or mascara. In an economic recession, you’ll skimp on some things, like the electricity bill, but not on the essentials—the little things that make you feel good, even if it’s fake, even if it’s only for a short while.

But instead of leaving now that I have my answers, I stay until the intermission.

I’m left with one last observation: My 10-year-old sister beside me reminds me of someone I once was, not too long ago.  If feeling like a kid again is what the Stooge Fest does for me, then how much more does it do for the people here who, for them, it brings back memories from not just a simpler time, but a time that included a whole different cast of characters—family members and friends—who aren’t around anymore? If a song can transport you back into another time, how much more can a T.V. show? Specifically, I’m talking about the elderly. They’re the ones who seem to enjoy this evening the most.

As I leave the carnival saloon like atmosphere, walking past the now innocuous gauntlet of bric-a-brac sellers and sweet old ladies selling popcorn, stepping out into the night—still and quiet as a photograph—I, for no rational reason whatsoever, turn on my heel and head straight back through the double doors into the theatre. It’s brimming with something I, no we, desperately need—laughter—sweet, aromatic, belly busting laughter.

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