Lou Costello – The Generous Jester

Fans of legendary comic duo Abbott and Costello have much to commemorate this year. Seventy-five years ago, the pair debuted on film for Universal’s “One Night in the Tropics.” They would go on to make almost 30 films for the studio, including “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy,” the last of their ‘meet the monster’ series, which was released 60 years ago this year.

Chris Costello was only 11 when her dad died in 1959. Nine months later, her brokenhearted mother passed away.

“Even though I was only a child when I knew him, the memories of our time together are vivid,” said Chris from Los Angeles. “My father was famous, but when he walked in the house at night he was just my dad, not Lou Costello. No, he didn’t do pratfalls around the home, but when he was with kids the funnyman could come out.”

Nor did she question him about his early career. “Okay, so he’s driving me to school – what am I going to ask him ‘gee, dad, tell me about your days in vaudeville?’ That’s just not something that would interest a 10-year-old kid!”

Lou with his daughter Chris around 1950.

Lou with his daughter Chris around 1950.

With both parents dead at such an early age, it wasn’t until Chris did research for her 1982 book, “Lou’s on First,” that she began to learn much more about her dad and his partner. “I interviewed over 100 people who knew them.”

Honed over years in early burlesque, Abbott and Costello’s most famous routine, “Who’s on First?,” was performed in condensed form in their first film. It later appeared in “The Naughty Nineties” (1945) as well as their TV show.

Despite being around “forever,” the routine is not public domain.

“Universal owns the rights to images from their movies, but the Costello and Abbott families jointly own that routine. We have a web site for fans with all our licensed products, abbottandcostellocollectibles.com, and a license is needed to perform that routine. However, the license is free for anything dealing with children, for example, schools or universities, because that’s what dad would have wanted.”

Despite problems with the IRS late in life, Lou was extremely generous and not just with friends or family.

“He was in a store his last Christmas and talking to the clerk when he heard a little girl crying because her mother couldn’t afford a doll she wanted. He told the guy ‘wrap it up and tell her it’s from Santa Claus.’”

As generous as he was, Lou was notorious for walking off sets with studio props.

“Mom used to say our home was decorated in early Universal!” laughed Chris. “Two of the miniature battleships used for “In the Navy” disappeared one day. They ended up in our pool! And I have a photo of him in our backyard with Ann Corio, who got him his start in burlesque. In the background is a giant swan from the Tunnel of Love ride which he sat in with Martha Raye in ‘Keep ‘Em Flying.’ I have no idea what happened to all that stuff. I imagine it was lost, given away, or just stolen after my parents died.”

Chris says Lou would also use his light-fingered reputation for leverage with the studio. When the Andrews Sisters began appearing in their films in 1941, Lou was upset they were given an army tent for a changing room, especially with the 100 degree heat.

“He told Universal they should have a trailer. If they didn’t listen, he’d say something like ‘fine, you know that clock in the upcoming scene, wouldn’t it be awful if it disappeared!’”

Lou’s generosity extended to the creation of a recreation center in East Los Angeles for underprivileged kids, which still operates today.

“For me, my dad was great not because he was a great comic, but because of what he did with his fame,” says Chris. “That is the footprint he made in the world.”

The official Abbott and Costello fan club is www.abbottandcostello.net.

Photo above right – Costello in a scene from the 1947 film Buck Privates Come Home.

By Nick Thomas

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 550 magazines and newspapers.