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Lou Costello: Laughter is the Best Medicine

Published: 3/3/2014
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Lou Costello (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It was hard not to like Lou Costello, the comic to Bud Abbott's straight man during dozens of performances that took them from the vaudeville stage to film to the new medium of television. Abbott and Costello were arguably the country's most popular comedy duo for more than a dozen years in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Costello, who was only 52 when he died of a heart attack in March 1959, was a chubby-cheeked bumbler with a knack for getting into sticky situations, prompting him to shout, "Heeeeeyyyy Abbbottt," or sheepishly confess, "I'm a baaaaad boy."

Costello "made a world laugh away two wars and the hydrogen bomb while he clowned through a personal life filled with illness and tragedy," his obituary by The Associated Press said.

Indeed, Costello suffered the devastating loss of his only son and had multiple health issues stemming from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever. He found his joy in his family, friends and making people laugh.

"He just wanted to make everybody's life a little bit brighter," Chris Costello, the comedian's youngest daughter, told Legacy.com. "Especially kids. You put a child in a room with him and he lit up and became the character everyone remembers."

Costello was born in Paterson, N.J., in March 1906 and is still beloved there. The street where he was born is now called Lou Costello's Place, and a statue of the derby-clad comedian graces a memorial park that also bears his name. “Costello's name still resonates in Paterson,” the (Newark) Star Ledger wrote in March 2006, the centennial of Costello’s birth. “People tell you how Costello helped create the city's Little League, backed its youth boxing program and raised money to rebuild a local church."

Costello officially partnered with Abbott in 1936. They gained national exposure in 1938 on radio’s Kate Smith Hour, where they debuted their now legendary "Who's on First?" routine. The bit was a favorite of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Abbott and Costello performed it for the president five times, according to The Associated Press.



Their humor wasn't biting or personal. "My dad never felt you had to be dirty to be funny or that you had to poke fun at someone else to be funny. That was real important to him," said Chris Costello, who wrote Lou's on First: The Tragic Life of Hollywood's Greatest Clown Warmly Recounted by His Youngest Child.

"He did things to make people laugh. All the fun got poked back at himself."

In 1940, the duo played supporting roles in the Universal Pictures musical One Night in the Tropics. "Their scene-stealing performances landed them their own picture the next year, Buck Privates (1941), with The Andrews Sisters," according to IMDB.com.

The dynamic of the guileless Lou being tricked by the slick Abbott was one the pair perfected over the years. Buck Privates, "turned them into “bona fide movie stars," according to Wikipedia. It also inadvertently was used as Japanese war propaganda, according to www.abbottandcostello.net –– during World War II "the Japanese used to show the "Drill Routine" from Buck Privates to show how stupid the American Army was!"

Abbott and Costello made 36 films together and were top 10 box office draws into the 50s. "It is widely acknowledged that the team's films kept Universal Studios solvent during World War II and the early 1950s," according to AbbottandCostelloFanClub.com. "In 1999, Universal named one of the buildings on the lot after them."

Abbott and Costello also starred on television, completing 50 episodes of The Abbott and Costello Show, a 30-minute sitcom that ran in syndication for years.



Jerry Seinfeld, who hosted the 1994 retrospective Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld, credited the duo with preserving "many of the wonderful burlesque routines which are a part of the American fabric ... They were giants of their time, who truly immortalized burlesque forever."

Costello married in 1934 and he and his wife, Anne, had two daughters, Carole and Paddy, and a son, Lou, who was born in 1942. Costello cherished all of his children, but he had a special relationship with his son, nicknamed "Butch," Chris Costello says. Struck by another bout of rheumatic fever, Costello, who had been on the road working during his daughters' early days, spent six months at home after his son was born.

"He was on the floor, crawling with the baby," Chris Costello says. "He became very, very close with him."

Costello returned Nov. 4, 1943, to work on the team's popular radio show, asking his wife to keep the baby awake that evening to see if he would recognize his father's voice on the radio. That day, Butch accidentally drowned in the family swimming pool. He was two days shy of his first birthday.

Costello refused to cancel the broadcast. When asked how he intended to perform, he said, "Wherever God has taken my son, I want to know if he can hear me," Chris Costello says.

"It just zapped him," she says. Her father wore a bracelet engraved with his son's name until his death. The Lou Costello Jr. Recreation Center in East Los Angeles, funded by the comedian, still operates today.

Chris Costello, who was born in 1949, said her father never played "the star card." He was generous with fans, always willing to stop and talk and sign autographs. "He never thought he was better than anybody else," she said, and was good friends with Stan Laurel despite rumors of a rivalry.

He was also supportive of his co-stars. Just recently, Chris Costello said, she spoke with Beverly Washburn, the child star of Costello's last movie, Wagon Train. Washburn had found a card from Costello that thanked her for helping to make his first performance without Abbott so easy. "She said, 'I was looking at this and saying, "Lou Costello. One of my idols. And he is crediting me with his success in that show? It should have been the other way around,' " Chris Costello said.

Although Abbott and Costello parted ways as comics in 1957, the two remained close friends. Chris Costello says the pair, who had worked together for 23 years, had their ups and downs "but they always patched it up. They were like brothers –– and God help anybody who said anything bad about the other."

Abbott and Costello have three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame –– one for radio, one for TV and one for film. Their films are available on DVD, and Chris Costello gets messages from fans new and old through the Abbott and Costello Facebook page and website she oversees.

"I get so many people who say it was a big part of their growing up and now they're introducing their grandchildren to Abbott and Costello," she said. "A 10-year-old just sent a letter saying, 'Bud and Lou, thanks for making me laugh.' "

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

 

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