Memories of Abbott and Costello: Chris Costello Talks 'Who's on First,' Frankenstein, and Growing Up in Old Hollywood

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·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Bud Abbott and Lou Costello performing “Who’s on First” in 1945′s The Naughty Nineties. (Photo: Getty Images)

Quick, what’s the funniest comedy routine of all time? No … what’s on second. Who’s on first! And, indeed, “Who’s on First” doubles as the only possible answer to our initial query: Line-for-line and laugh-for-laugh, the routine performed by comedy legends Bud Abbott and Lou Costello is an easy all-timer not only in comedy’s Hall of Fame, but also in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The duo donated their gold record for the sketch they had been performing since the late 1930s to the Cooperstown, N.Y., museum in 1956, where it remains 60 years later.

And that’s not the only significant Abbott and Costello anniversary date to celebrate this calendar year. It was 80 years ago, in 1936, when the burlesque-trained funnymen decided to insert an “and” between their two names, forming a team that would last through two decades, almost 40 films, several TV shows, and countless sketches. With the Paterson, N.J.-born Costello bringing the bluster, and Asbury Park, N.J., native Abbott serving as the straight man, Abbott and Costello were an odd couple that couldn’t have been more perfectly matched.

Watch a version of the routine:

Offscreen, Costello’s life had its fair share of drama, including a run-in with the Internal Revenue Service and, most tragically, the death of his infant son, Lou Jr., in a drowning accident. Those stories, along with many happier ones, are recounted in the book Lou’s on First, written by Chris Costello, the youngest child of Lou and Anne Costello. The biography, co-written with Raymond Strait, first appeared in 1981 and has recently been republished as an ebook, available from Amazon and other booksellers.

“What I tried to do with the book is bring out Dad as best I could through the words of the people who knew him,” Costello, 68, tells Yahoo Movies. “He had his faults, as we all do, but he was a real humanitarian. Writing the book definitely had its challenges emotionally, but it also was a way for me to repay him for giving me and certainly my sisters an amazing childhood.” Costello filled us in on that amazing childhood — which included cameos from screen icons like Clark Gable and Veronica Lake — as well as the origins of “Who’s on First” and her father’s least favorite Abbott and Costello movie — which, surprisingly, happens to be a lot of other people’s favorite! — in the wide-ranging conversation below.

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Chris Costello (Photo: Bobby Bank/WireImage)

Yahoo Movies: As I understand it, you wrote Lou’s on First in order to set the record straight after the 1977 biography, Bud & Lou: The Abbott & Costello Story, which you felt was an inaccurate portrayal of your father.
Chris Costello: Yes. Bud & Lou was a book penned by Bob Thomas, an Associated Press writer, [with the help of] their manager, Eddie Sherman. The book then became a TV movie [1978’s Bud & Lou] starring Harvey Korman and Buddy Hackett. It was not accurate — it was actually very scathing. When the book, and certainly the movie of the week, came out, both the Abbott and the Costello families were adamantly opposed to them. People who see the movie are not seeing that Bud Abbott had a wife and children, and that Dad had three daughters aside from the baby who passed away. That’s what launched me into four years of research and interviewing everybody I could get my hands on to write Lou’s on First. It was also good therapy for me because I was getting to know my parents for the first time as an adult. I was only 11 when my dad died [in 1959 at the age of 52] and then turned 12 when my mother passed away. The Bud & Lou book [is out of print,] and my book, God bless it, has lasted 22 years on the stand.

The section of the book dealing with his rise through the ranks of the old studio system — working on a construction crew and then as a stuntman — is fascinating. It’s a peek into a version of Hollywood that doesn’t exist anymore.
The studio system is what molded the careers of so many of the great comics. Also, vaudeville and burlesque, which was the training ground for comedians like Jackie Gleason and everyone down the line. But Dad didn’t set out to become a comic — he set out to become an actor. That’s what he wanted to do and why he first went to Hollywood. One of his idols was Charlie Chaplin, but he looked at Chaplin more as an actor than as a comic.

During his first stint in Hollywood, he was doing everything he could to get noticed. He had a bit part as an extra in Laurel and Hardy’s 1927 short The Battle of the Century. During the boxing sequence, you can see a very young, very thin Lou Costello sitting ringside! He was also in the silent epic The Trail of ’98. I think it was Dolores del Rio, who starred in that film, that said to him: “Go home and hone your craft. Let Hollywood ask for you.” And that’s what he did! He headed back to Paterson, but got as far as St. Joseph, Mo., where he ran out of money. He saw a marquee advertising for a “Dutch Comic.” That was a comic who wore a putty nose, baggy pants, oversized shoes, and spoke with a Dutch accent. He told them, “I’ll do everything, but I’m not going to put on a putty nose, and I won’t have a Dutch accent!”

He worked in St. Joseph for maybe a year, and then made his way back to New Jersey, where he started working in some of the burlesque houses as a “dancing juvenile,” [which was] the warm-up act for the top banana. Later on, of course, he teamed up with Bud, which was purely a fluke. Dad’s straight man had gotten sick that night, and Bud happened to be on the same bill and offered to fill in for him. History was made that night!

You write about how they inadvertently hijacked the first film they appeared in as a team, 1940′s One Night in the Tropics.
One Night in the Tropics was actually an Allan Jones film. But after the studio saw it, they kept adding more and more Abbott and Costello routines. Even after the film was completed, they would bring them back in and insert more routines until finally it was almost an Abbott and Costello film. It was the test film for them, and the audiences just went nuts for them, so that’s when they made their first starring film, Buck Privates [1941]. When I interviewed Allan, he told me that, years later, he was in South America and saw a theater marquee advertising: “Abbott and Costello in One Night in the Tropics” and said, “Where the hell am I?” [Laughs]

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Costello clowns around with Dracula and Frankenstein in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Like a lot of kids, my first Abbott and Costello movie was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Is that the movie you’re asked about the most?
There’s two. No. 1 is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein [1948], and then the other film that people really seem to gravitate toward is The Time of Their Lives [1946], which is interesting because that’s a film where Bud and Dad are not acting as a team. I kind of like it because Bud just shines in that film. I think he’s exceptional. But, of course, Frankenstein has become the cult classic of Abbott and Costello films, although Dad hated it! He thought that Universal no longer had any faith in Abbott and Costello and therefore just wanted to bring in all these monsters. He was not very partial to that film, but I think if he could come back and see new generations of fans locking onto Abbott and Costello because of the film, he would just glow.

Do you have any memories of being on the sets of your father’s films?
They’re so fleeting. I remember being on the set of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy [1955] with my cousins and being so terrified about the mummy coming out. And I remember their last film, Dance With Me, Henry [1956], because I was a little bit older and was able to take some school friends to the location where they were doing the carnival scenes. My sister Paddy has a lot of memories. Although I was on the set, I don’t really recall many details. I wish I did.

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The Costello family in 1950. (Photo: Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

How about the experience of watching his movies? Was it strange to see your dad on the big screen?
Most people think I grew up watching nothing but Abbott and Costello, like that’s all that was ever shown in our home. Wrong! [Laughs] I grew up on the Little Rascals. If I saw one of Dad’s films — and I did — I was just watching a film. That guy up there was my dad performing a character. I never equated him with the person sitting there. It was his job; he went to work, came home, and was just Dad. But the first time I met Spanky McFarland [of the Little Rascals] in person, I was so excited that I couldn’t talk. I thought I’d pass out!

Besides the Little Rascals, what other celebrities did you meet as a child? I’m picturing comedy legends like Groucho Marx coming in and out of your house.
If they did, it would not have meant anything to me, and I’ll tell you why: I was a kid, so when adults came to the house, it was like, “Say hello. Now go out and play.” So I wouldn’t think, “Oh my God, that’s Groucho Marx!” He would just be an adult coming to visit. My sister Paddy remembers that we had a film library with a lot of movies, which we would loan out. She can recall hearing the doorbell ringing, opening up the door, and there would be Clark Gable saying, “Your dad told me he has a film that I could borrow.” And she would give him the film and then go back inside. You know what I’m saying? When you’re growing up in that community, you’re not starstruck. Movie stars walked into the house, but they were everyday people.

My other sister, Carole, remembers a party my parents gave when she was very young, maybe 3 or 4. Veronica Lake was there with Clark Gable, and Carole went into the kitchen. There was a turkey cooling off on the counter, and she took a piece of the skin, peeled it off, and started to eat it. The next thing she knew Veronica Lake came up and slapped her hand and said, “Don’t you do that!” Carole looked up at her and then kicked her in the shins, and then went hightailing it up the stairs. Clark Gable came up a few minutes later, peeked his head around the corner, winked at her, and said, “Good going, kid.” [Ed. note: Carole Costello passed away in 1987.]

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Abbott and Costello meet Joe DiMaggio and his wife Dorothy Arnold on the set of Hold That Ghost in 1941 (Photo: Everett Collection)

Your father and Joe DiMaggio were close buddies. Do you have any good Marilyn Monroe stories?
I don’t. I spoke to Dorothy Arnold, Joe’s first wife [Arnold and DiMaggio were married from November 1939 until May 1944], when I was working on Lou’s on First, and she gave me all these wonderful stories. She and Joe and Dad and Mom were young newlyweds together, so she remembered palling around. Joe had come out to Hollywood with her, and they would always visit the sets, and they were guests in our home. I remember Susan Hayward, who lived up the street from us because I used to play with her kids when I was very young. And I remember Bill Bendix [The Babe Ruth Story] because he and his wife Tess were very good friends of the family. One time, at our ranch, Bill had come over to show Dad his brand-new car that he had just picked up from the dealership. I had one of these little two-seater Thunderbirds that ran on electricity — it had a big battery in it. I would tool around the ranch in this thing, and I remember coming along the dirt path and seeing Uncle Bill, and as I got closer to his car, I raised one hand to wave at him and my other hand turned the wheel, and I went crashing into the side of his car! I put a nice sized dent in it too. [Laughs]

You mentioned that your dad was an admirer of Charlie Chaplin. Did they ever meet?
Yes. There are some photos of Chaplin at our home. Universal did a photo shoot, and the expression on my father is just priceless because he was meeting his idol. It’s one of the most genuine, from the heart, deep in the soul type of smiles, and it’s just beautiful. As to what they discussed, I have no idea. I know Chaplin seemed to appreciate the comedy of Abbott and Costello very much, and Dad certainly was such an admirer of Chaplin. I’m sure he had his moment to shine as a fan when Chaplin was at our home.

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Lou Costello clowning around with his idol, Charlie Chaplin, in 1942. (Photo: AP)

Something I hadn’t known before reading your book is that Lou Costello was a fervent anti-communist and even supported Joe McCarthy during the blacklist. Chaplin famously had to leave the country after being denounced for alleged communist sympathies. Did that change your father’s opinion of him?
I really don’t know the answer to that question. I interviewed Lucille Ball, and she told me that when she was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee, “Everyone in Hollywood, the ones that I thought were my friends, turned their backs on me. Not one person came to my door except your father. I opened up the door and he looked at me and said, ‘What can I do?’ I just broke out crying.” So he supported people, especially the people that he knew. I just don’t know about Charlie Chaplin.

Had Dad really investigated a little bit further and really knew what was going on with the McCarthy era, I know he would never have supported it, but he got so caught up in this idea of communists infiltrating Hollywood. He was so patriotic and so much for his country that I think he just kind of went a little bit overboard on it.

He really got caught up in the moment. I write in the book about how he asked John Grant, Abbott and Costello’s comedy writer from their burlesque days, to sign a loyalty oath, and John said no. My dad fired him. Later on, everything was patched up and John worked on some of the films with them, but it was very hurtful. Dad just really didn’t go that extra mile to investigate a little bit further as to how totally damaging McCarthy was and the careers that were lost because of that.

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Abbott and Costello perform “Who’s on First” for eager radio listeners. (Photo: Gene Lester/Getty Images)

Abbott and Costello made some great films, but do you feel their stage performances, and routines like “Who’s on First,” represent their lasting legacy to comedy?
Oh, yeah. Whenever they went onstage, they were returning to their roots, which was burlesque. And they got that instant applause and laughter, which you don’t get when you’re doing a film. Whenever they had the chance to go back on a live stage, they loved it. I don’t know if I have a favorite routine, but “Who’s on First” is certainly the classic of classics. I love listening to it. And, again, they started performing it in burlesque. At that time, hundreds of routines would come from British musicals and crossed over to America, where they’d be performed by burlesque comics who would try to personalize them and make them something new. I think “Who’s on First” started as “Who’s the Boss” or something like that. But my dad loved baseball, and was friends with Joe DiMaggio, and wanted to pay tribute to him. So they changed the format and inserted baseball names. Not another comic would touch “Who’s on First” because of Dad and Bud!

I always get a chuckle when I would look at obituaries of writers and comedians and see them trying to squeeze in the claim: “He was one of the writers of ‘Who’s on First.’” Wrong! The writers were Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, with John Grant contributing dialogue. To set the record straight, my dad’s first cousin, Lou, remembers watching Dad and Bud rehearse “Who’s on First.” Dad and Mom were living at my grandparents’ home at the time, and he and Bud would rehearse in the basement. Dad told his cousin, his cousin came over, and they went through the routine, and at the end, Dad looked at Lou and there’s just no reaction coming from him. Lou sat there and he just shook his head and said, “You know what? It’s never going to fly. Scratch it.” Later on, he said, “Thank God they didn’t listen to me.” [Laughs]

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Abbott and Costello in Africa Screams. (Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The Abbott and Costello team lasted 20 years. What was the secret to their longevity?
First of all, you have to like each other! Any [long-term] relationship is going to have its arguments, especially when you’ve got two different personalities in the room. But there was a deep love between these two guys. They could storm off in a huff and not speak to each other for a week, but at the end of the day, they loved each other. If anybody said anything derogatory about Bud Abbott, my dad was the first one in there to defend him, and the same thing with Bud toward my dad. And even when they dissolved the partnership, there was still a deep love there. The families, to this day, are very, very close. We’ve got a Facebook page where I answer a lot of questions and put up a lot of posts.

Toward the end of their careers, these guys were older and Dad was not in the best of health due to rheumatic fever and the taxing of his heart. I think it was just time. It was really time. There was a new form of comedy coming up in the ranks: Lenny Bruce and other people were shying away from the slapstick of Abbott and Costello. But everything old becomes new again, which is what I’ve seen.

Watch a trailer for ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’: