CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

The Final Years of Curly (of Three Stooges Fame)

Original image
Getty Images

In 1932, Jerome Howard (soon to be universally known as "Curly") joined the Three Stooges comedy team. He was replacing his older brother, Shemp, as the third Stooge, joining his older brother Moe and frizzly haired Larry Fine.

In 1934, the team signed with Columbia Pictures and began churning out the series of comedy slapstick shorts that were to bring hilarity to the world. Within a year, Curly had established himself as the comedy star of the act. His "woo-woo"s and "n'yuk nyuk"s, as well as his incredible gift for physical, inventive, surreal comedy, made Curly Howard everyone's favorite Stooge. On the 60th anniversary of his passing, here's a look back at Curly's later years.

From 1934 to 1944, Curly Howard and the other Stooges made 80-odd of the funniest shorts in the history of movie comedy, but by 1945, something was obviously wrong with the brilliant Curly.

He was having a harder time than usual learning and remember his lines (although he was always a bad study anyway), his once graceful and quick movements now seemed slower and more lethargic, and his voice had lost its high-pitched vitality, now sounding deeper and more like a strained croak.

In early 1945, Moe Howard made an appointment for his kid brother at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. The test results proved shocking: Curly was suffering from high blood pressure, hypertension, a retinal hemorrhage, and obesity.

Failed Marriage

Curly loved the good life—drinking, hanging out at clubs, seeing and dating as many beautiful women as possible. Moe, attempting to help his beloved brother settle down, tried to fix Curly up with a glamorous beauty named Marion Buxbaum. Always a sucker for a pretty face, Curly married Marion after only two weeks. Curly was soon to discover that Marion was not a very nice person and was only after his money. The marriage proved a disaster, and the unhappy couple divorced after only three months together. In the terrible divorce proceedings, Marion said of Curly: "He used filthy, vile language, kept two vicious dogs, he shouted at waiters in cafes, struck and kicked me, put out cigars in the sink." These specious accusations were disputed by all who knew Curly as a jovial, good-natured, good-hearted fellow. Curly, always a free spender, had spent a fortune buying gifts for Marion, and the divorce really shook him up. He had his first stroke soon thereafter, in early 1946.

Stroke Aftermath

Curly's great vigor and boyish vitality, his comedy trademarks, sank lower and lower. Instead of enabling Curly to rest after his stroke, as Moe requested, studio head Harry Cohn kept Curly churning out new Three Stooges shorts. Sadly, these final Curly shorts show him looking very old and worn, his previously starring roles greatly reduced, and, indeed, they put a bit of a black mark on his body of otherwise amazing comedy performances. Curly's appearance grew worse until finally, while filming his 97th Three Stooges short, "Half Wit's Holiday," on May 6, 1946, the straw finally broke the camel's back. Curly was supposed to participate in the film's final, climactic pie fight, but Moe spotted Curly sitting in his chair on the set. "Come on, Babe," he said. ("Babe" was Curly's nickname among his close friends.) Moe found Curly slumped over in his chair with tears running down his face; Curly had suffered another stroke. He was taken to recover to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital, his career as a Stooge now effectively over. He was replaced in the act by older brother Shemp.

New Wife

Curly finally got a happy break in 1947, when he met an attractive brunette named Valerie Newman. The two fell in love and married on July 31, 1947. Valerie was to bear Curly a daughter, Janie, the following year. She truly loved Curly and stuck by his side, through his constant downhill ride over the next few years, feeding and even bathing him as his health continued its slow deterioration in the late 1940s.

Return to the Stooges

After his second stroke, Curly was confined to a wheelchair, but soon recovered enough to move around himself. In the days of Curly's slightly improved health, he made a cameo appearance in a Three Stooges short (with his replacement, Shemp) called "Hold That Lion!" Moe, knowing Curly was frail, made sure the set was cleared of all but the absolutely necessary actors and technicians, in order to take any pressure off his brother. Curly, a brilliant comedian to the end, acquits himself quite well in his brief appearance, coming across as very funny, even doing his trademark "woo-woo-woo" sound effects. This brief cameo was to be the only recorded instance of the three Howard brothers—Moe, Curly, and Shemp—appearing together on film. (At left, a photo of all four in "Hold That Lion!")

Renewed Life

In the post-stroke days, Curly loved playing gin rummy, watching the Hollywood Stars (a local baseball team), and going to the fights at the Hollywood Legion. He and Valerie had a swimming pool built in their home, hoping Curly could use it for physical therapy. (Curly had always loved swimming.) Crazy about dogs, he enjoyed playing with his beloved pets, a collie named "Lady" and two other canines named "Salty" and "Shorty." He watched the new device, "television," and loved a little kids' puppet show called "Time for Beany." He also watched and admired a young television comedian named Jackie Gleason.

During these final years, Curly let his thick, wavy hair grow back, instead of the world-famous shaved dome he had sported as a Stooge. He liked to wear a sea captain's hat (he had black and white captain hats) and, like any new father, he loved playing with and doting on his newborn daughter. In his last few years of "health," Curly was still upbeat and seemed happy, not down or sad about all that had happened to him. Contemporary photos show a smiling Curly, happily puffing on his cigar (despite his weak health, Curly still did not give up his beloved cigars), posing around the house, and horsing around with his little daughter.

Sharing His Good Fortune

Tom Emery, a good friend of Curly, recalls going on a drive with Curly one day in the late 1940s. Curly spotted a young girl in a wheelchair and told Tom to pull over. Curly talked to the girl at some length, asking her what she liked, what she needed, etc. Tom and Curly then drove off, and Curly bought the little girl everything she mentioned, dropping all the goodies off at her home with no card.

Declining Health

Curly's stay at his home lasted through the late 1940s, but his health deteriorated again, and on August 29, 1950, Curly was returned to the Motion Picture Home. Missing his pal, the collie "Lady," Curly asked Moe if he could bring the dog to stay with him at the hospital. (Curly liked sleeping with the dog when he was at home.) Sadly, when Moe brought Lady to see Curly, the reticent dog refused to enter Curly's hospital room, staying outside in the doorway.

During the next few months, as his health got worse, Curly became confined to bed. He was put on a strict diet of boiled apples and rice. After another stroke, he was moved to the Colonial Home, but it was soon closed down for violating local fire laws. Curly was then moved to the North Hollywood Hospital and Sanitarium.

As a consequence of his strokes, it became harder and harder for Curly to talk and communicate. One visitor during these last years recalls Curly crying because he couldn't communicate during one visit. Curly's sister-in-law remembered a time visiting Curly in the hospital when Curly was very frustrated by not being able to communicate as she and the other visitors tried to understand what he wanted. Finally, after a long and frustrating period of guessing, they realized poor Curly just wanted a bowl of ice cream. Another visitor recalls Curly trying to sit up in a chair and his hand continually falling off the arm of the chair. Moe, too, recalled Curly's tough time communicating as his health ebbed.

By the end, Curly could only communicate with Moe by squeezing his hand, sometimes just by blinking his eyes. The hospital supervisor told Moe that Curly's physical and mental deterioration was causing the hospital inconvenience and suggested that Moe move him to a mental institution. Moe adamantly refused.

Last Days

Curly was soon moved to his last residence, the Baldy View Sanitarium in San Gabriel, California. It was there, on January 18, 1952, that the great Jerome "Curly" Howard passed away. He was just 48 years old. Jules White, a great director of Curly in many Three Stooges shorts, recalls one of his final visits to Curly during Curly's waning days. White never forgot Curly's words to him that day: "Gee Jules, I guess I'll never be able to make the children laugh again."

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES