On their first date, back in 1978, Gary Lassin's future wife told him she was related to someone famous. But she wouldn't say whom.

"She was a little embarrassed," Lassin recalls. No guy would let such a challenge lie. He coaxed and cajoled and finally got it out of her: Robin was the niece of Larry Fine, one of the Three Stooges. (He's the one with the Bozo-like Brillo hair and what Lassin calls "the stupefied, google-eyed stare.")

"I knew I had to get this girl to marry me," Lassin says.


Lassin managed to get the girl — and, more important to our story, he took on the fixation with all things Stooges that was somehow lacking in Robin's family. ("She was very afraid of the Stooges as a child because they hit each other and hurt each other," Lassin says. "So she was scared when Uncle Larry visited from the West Coast." Her family solved this simply by calling Larry "Uncle Max.")

Three decades later, Lassin is the proprietor, curator, designer, tour guide and publicist for the Stoogeum in suburban Philadelphia, the only museum in this galaxy devoted entirely to the history, lore, comedy and worship of a slapstick act that has shown remarkable staying power in a pop culture that has pretty well lost the very notion of a comedy team.

Tucked in the rear of a suburban office park behind a Wawa convenience store, the Stoogeum is a startlingly professional museum, with classy design, an endless array of Stooges documents, movie posters and tchotchkes, and a vault containing probably the world's most complete collection of the trio's movies and TV shows.

Lassin's wife still doesn't care for the Stooges. ("A wiseguy, huh?") Nor do most women. Maybe it's something about how the comedians were constantly conking each other on the skull (nyuk, nyuk). But to boys who grew up either with the original Three Stooges movie shorts or with the after-school TV show that recycled those shorts every day from 1958 well into the 1970s, the Stooges were the height of hilarity.

Strangely enough, though most Americans will pretty soon be too young to have any direct recollection of those lazy afternoons watching 15-minute, black-and-white capers in which Moe Howard, Larry Fine and either Curly or Shemp Howard (or one of their latter-day replacements) chase, whack and toss pies at each other, the Stooges remain fixed in pop culture.

Whether it's Curly pronouncing himself "a victim of soicumstance," Moe and Larry squeezing Curly's head in a vise, or the whole lot of them spraying puns so awful that the Marx Brothers seemed positively Shakespearean by comparison, the images and sounds of the Stooges have secured a place in Americana that has long outlived the films themselves.

The Stoogeum displays dozens of examples of the trio's staying power, from the beer cans and "Got Milk?" ads that used Curly's doofus face as a paragon of dumb guyness long after his death, to the wall full of magazine covers that play with the Stooges' classic lines. The Stooges made it to cereal box covers, jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, comics, board games, hand puppets, action figures, plates and even Three Stooges Hair Tonic.

With touch-screen videos, an 85-seat theater playing a loop of dozens of Stooges shorts and throwback artifacts such as a 1980s, Pac-Man-era video game based on the Stooges and the 1960s Stooges lunchboxes that I remember kids toting to school in second grade, the museum traces the comedy team from its 1920s vaudeville roots to TV appearances into the '70s.

There are three stories of this stuff, including what Lassin calls "the strangest art gallery in the world," featuring oils, charcoals, murals and an original Al Hirschfeld etching of the Stooges.

Lassin — who is also president of the Stooges Fan Club and editor of the Three Stooges Journal, a quarterly of mind-bogglingly serious (and fun) pieces on the trio's history and meaning — collected everything here, plus thousands more artifacts he hasn't yet worked into the exhibits. Amazingly, Lassin also holds down a full-time job as an executive at a mail-order firm. But to the everlasting joy and frustration of his family, he has devoted thousands of hours to finding, acquiring and displaying Stoogeiana.

For years, he haunted collectors' shows and badgered local TV stations for the old films they used to show each afternoon. Slowly but steadily, he acquired original costumes, props, ads, scripts and — I actually think I once owned one of these — records such as "Christmas Time With the Three Stooges."

More recently, eBay has taken most of the fun out of the hunt: "It's not as satisfying now," Lassin says. "On eBay, it's just a question of who's going to pay the most, instead of it being all about the skill of finding the stuff."

At 52, Lassin realizes there's a generation of younger people who don't know and don't necessarily care for the Stooges — his own kids among them. But he's thrilled whenever children visit who love the old shtick, and there are still plenty of boomers eager to dive into the silliness of their youth.

"I collected all this as if I was the Stooges' mother," Lassin says. "I don't do James Bond, Batman or baseball cards. I do one thing. Outside of playing a little golf, I am uni-dimensional. But the Stoogeum is not just for fans. I'll often see three generations sitting in the theater: a father, grandfather and son, all rolling on the floor in laughter together. I love to watch that."

Admission to the Stoogeum is free, and there is no museum shop. This is a labor of love, available by appointment, a shrine that is also a window into a zany, silly and wildly optimistic chapter of the great American story of possibility.

Nyuk, nyuk.

If you go . . .

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GETTING THERE: The Stoogeum is in Gwynedd Valley, Pa., about a half-hour outside Philadelphia.

THE STOOGEUM: Admission is free, but you must make arrangements to visit. Check www.stoogeum.com, e-mail garylassin@stoogeum.com or call 267-468-0810. To join the Stooges Fan Club or read the Three Stooges Journal, contact Stoogeum owner Gary Lassin at the museum or via the Web site.

EATING THERE: Lassin recommends the Drafting Room (900 Bethlehem Pike, Spring House, 215-646-6116) for its selection of beers and Ristorante San Marco (504 N. Bethlehem Pike, Ambler, 215- 654-5000) for its fish and pasta.

STAYING THERE: There are few places to stay near the museum; visitors usually overnight in or near Philadelphia (800-537-7676, www.gophila.com) and add the Stoogeum as a side venture. Or stay in Wayne, Conshohocken or one of the Main Line towns in Philly's suburbs and make the 20-minute trip to the Stoogeum from there.

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