Noteworthy Connections / “Oh, a wise guy, eh?” Johnstown native made his mark with The Three Stooges by Jocelyn Brumbaugh April 19, 2016 (The Tribune-Democrat)
Saxon Sitka said he took his father’s Hollywood fame for granted until his dad was gone and fans started turning to him. Emil Sitka was born in Johnstown, grew up in Pittsburgh and enjoyed a successful television and movie career, including appearing in more than 60 episodes of “The Three Stooges” on TV and in film. Emil died in 1998, after spending his later years connecting with fans and keeping the spirit of “The Three Stooges” alive. Saxon now runs the informational website emilsitka.com
“My father really enjoy being an ambassador for ‘The Three Stooges,’ sort of like a history teacher,” Saxon Sitka said by phone from his home in California. “When he passed away, all of a sudden, the fans started calling me. The Internet was just coming about, so I thought that would be a great way to reach fans.”
Emil Sitka’s parents were immigrants from Czechoslovakia who had settled in Johnstown. His love of art and acting grew after the family moved to Pittsburgh. The oldest of five children, Emil tried to help his mother take care of the family after his father died suddenly of stomach cancer when Emil was 14 years old. When his mother became ill and had to be hospitalized, Sitka’s brothers and sisters went to live in foster homes, while Emil was taken in by Fr. James Cox, the priest at St. Patrick’s Church where Sitka served as an altar boy. “By chance, the artist John Kane was living in the same old convent building,” Saxon Sitka wrote in his father’s online biography.
“… At the same time, Emil was introduced to acting, drama and the theater. He accepted a role in his church’s annual passion play and he loved the experience. He was intrigued by the power of a strong performance and the effect it could have on an audience. This was the beginning of a career in acting that would take Emil from the solemn story of Jesus Christ to the wacky comedy of ‘The Three Stooges’!”
After the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936., Emil Sitka decided to head to Los Angeles in search of acting work. Once in California, he did odd jobs and lived in a room in one of the “little theaters” that put on live plays and he did stage construction to pay his rent. He was offered small roles in the theater’s productions and, after several years, began playing prominent roles and directing plays.
Sitka married “Sunshine” Donna Driscoll and they eventually had seven children. Because small theater actors weren’t paid, Sitka worked as a laborer during the day and rehearsed and acted at night. As he continued playing roles in dramas and comedies, he created his own troupe, The Tramp Mummers and was selected “Best Little Theater Actor” by Playgoer Magazine.
In 1945, Sitka was performing in a play called “The Viper’s Fang,” when he was seen by a talent scout from Columbia Pictures, who put him in contact with Jules White, a producer of short comedies. Sitka eventually passed an audition with White and appeared in his first film role in “Hiss and Yell,” which was nominated for an Academy Award.
From there, Sitka secured roles in numerous films before he was cast as “Sappington the Butler” in “Half-Wits Holiday” starring The Three Stooges. Over the next 20 years, Sitka worked with The Three Stooges dozens of times and played more than 70 roles in about 60 “Stooge” productions. Sitka worked with all six “Stooges” in the four different sets of The Three Stooges, including Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard, Shemp Howard, Joe Besser and Curly-Joe DeRita.
He was also in numerous other short films alongside Andy Clyde, Hugh Herbert, Harry Von Zell, Billie Burke, Sterling Holloway and Vera Vague. In full-length films, Sitka had the chance to work with Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Tony Curtis, George Peppard, Johnny Weissmuller, Betty Grable, Mickey Rooney, Bob Denver and many other well-known actors and actresses.
Sitka raised his three youngest children as a single father after his divorce in the early 1960s and maintained other jobs to support his family. In 1978, he married again to Edith Weber and moved to Camarillo, California.
When Larry Fine and Moe Howard passed away, Sitka was invited to speak at screenings and conventions celebrating “The Three Stooges” and gave several interviews detailing his experience with the team. Saxon Sitka is now invited to those Stooges events, and says he has probably signed 1,000 autographs since taking over for his dad. Saxon appeared at The Three Stooges Convention April 1-3, 2016, in Philadelphia, where fans of all ages wanted to hear Stooges stories. “It appeals to people across the generation,” Saxon said. “I get that positive feedback and it keeps me going.
“My dad was a dedicated actor and I kind of just grew up with him being on TV and in movies, and with ‘The Three Stooges.’ But I think I took it for granted. I didn’t truly understand how special it was. And until he was gone, I didn’t realize how much the fans appreciated him and his work. “I guess for a lot of people, now I’m as close as they’ll ever get to someone who knew the Stooges. I feel like it’s a special gift that my father left me.
“Hold hands, you love birds.” — Emil Sitka in “Brideless Groom”
• Born: December 22, 1914, in Johnstown.
• Died: January 16, 1998
• Occupation/profession: actor, comedian
• Played more than 70 roles in 60 productions of “The Three Stooges”; known as “The Fourth Stooge.”
• Appeared in many television shows, including “The Mickey Mouse Club,” “My Favorite Martian,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” and “Hazel.”
• Movie credits include “The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend” (1949); “The Lost Tribe” (1949 – with Johnny Weissmuller); “Gasoline Alley” (1951); “Blackboard Jungle” (1955); “An Affair in Reno” (1957), “Pendulum” (1969) and many others.
• On the web: www.emilsitka.com
Jocelyn Brumbaugh is a reporter for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter @JBrumbaughTD.