A grave at Ceres Memorial Park contains the remains of a chorus girl who was once married to one of the celebrated film stars of the Three Stooges.
Just how she ended up buried in Ceres remains a mystery. There is little written about the wife of Joe DeRita, billed as the last of the Three Stooges. Internet research could not even turn up a photo of her. When we went to search for a Modesto Bee obituary on microfilm at the Stanislaus County Library, well, that reel was missing as of Monday.
Born Nov. 9, 1911, Esther M. Hartenstine was from Reading, Penn., and wanted to go into the entertainment industry. She found work on the stage under the name of Bonnie Brooks and met De Rita, who started out his career as a stage dancer. His mother, Florenz DeRita was a vaudevillian dancer. He moved over to burlesque in 1921 because the vaudeville era was nearing its end and even worked with Bud Abbott before teaming up with Lou Costello.
While working with the New Columbia Burlesque Circuit, the young comic took to dancer Bonnie Brooks. They were married July 13, 1935 by a justice of the peace in Cuyahoga County in Ohio just as he was starting a 30-week run at the Roxy Theater in Cleveland.
Joe DeRita eventually got into films, his debut occurring in 1944 with "The Doughgirls" with Ann Sheridan for Warner Brothers. During World War II, he worked with the USO and traveled extensively overseas to entertain the troops with many Hollywood stars including friend Randolph Scott. He made several tours with Bing Crosby to entertain servicemen in England and France. After the war, Joe made guest appearances on radio shows including Burns & Allen and guest appearances in films and television shows such as The Desilu Playhouse, This is Alice, and Bachelor Father.
In 1958 Columbia released the old Three Stooges to a TV audience that was the impetus for an immediate resurgence in their popularity. The original Curly, Curley Howard, had died in 1952. Joe DeRita looked much like the original Curly and was adopted as the third Stooge for a 12-year associate. With Larry Fine and Moe Howard, the Three Stooges made numerous appearances around the nation and made six full length feature motion pictures - "Have Rocket, Will Travel" in 1959; "The Three Stooges Scrapbook" in 1960; "Snow White and the Three Stooges" in 1961; and "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules," and "The Three Stooges in Orbit," both in 1962; and "The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze" in 1963. It happened to be the same year he and Moe Howard had a cameo role as a firefighter in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."
Bonnie became ill and eventually died on Sept. 6, 1965. It's not known how she ended up being buried in Ceres or if her famous husband ever came to the grave.
De Rita found love again and his second wife was Jean Sullivan. They married on Dec. 28, 1966.
Joe DeRita died of pneumonia on July 3, 1993 at age 83 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills. He was buried at the Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood where the epitaph on his tombstone reads "The Last Stooge."
Second wife, Jean followed on Nov. 22, 2004.