Louis Francis Cristillo (March 6, 1906 – March 3, 1959), professionally known as Lou Costello, was an American comedian, best known for his double act with straight man Bud Abbott and their routine “Who’s on First?”
The comedians, who teamed up in burlesque in 1936, were among the most popular and highest-paid entertainers in the world during World War II. During a national tour in 1942 they sold $85 million in war bonds in 35 days. By 1955 their popularity waned due to overexposure and their film and television contracts lapsed. The partnership ended soon afterwards.
Louis Francis Cristillo was born on March 6, 1906, in Paterson, New Jersey, the son of Helen Rege and Sebastiano Cristillo. His father was Italian, from Caserta in Campania, Italy, and his mother was an American of Italian, French and Irish ancestry (her grandfather was Francesco Rege, from Piedmont, Italy). He attended Public School 15 in Paterson and was considered a gifted athlete. He excelled in basketball and reportedly was twice Paterson’s free throw champion. (His basketball prowess can be seen in Here Come the Co-Eds (1945), in which he performs all his own trick basketball shots without using a double or special effects.) He also fought as a boxer under the name “Lou King”.
On January 30, 1934, Costello married Anne Battler, a burlesque dancer. Their first child, Patricia “Paddy” Costello, was born in 1936, followed by Carole on December 23, 1938, and Lou Jr. (nicknamed “Butch”) on November 6, 1942. On August 15, 1947, their last child, Christine, was born.
Costello was a great admirer of silent movie comedian Charlie Chaplin. In 1927, Costello hitchhiked to Hollywood to become an actor, but could only find work as a laborer or extra at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Hal Roach Studios. His athletic skill brought him occasional work as a stunt man, notably in The Trail of ’98 (1928). He can also be spotted sitting ringside in the Laurel and Hardy film The Battle of the Century (1927). He said he took his professional name from actress Helene Costello, although by this time his brother, Anthony (Pat) had used Costello in his career as a professional musician.
Burlesque and Bud Abbott
In 1928, with the advent of talking pictures, Costello headed back east intending to get theatrical experience. Stranded in St. Joseph, Missouri, he persuaded a local burlesque producer to hire him as a Dutch comic (“Dutch” was a corruption of “Deutsche”, and the comic performed with a German accent). By the end of the year he was back in New Jersey. He began working in burlesque on the Mutual Burlesque wheel the following year.
After the Mutual Wheel collapsed during the Great Depression, Costello went to work for different stock burlesque impresarios, including the Minskys, where he crossed paths with a talented producer and straight man named Bud Abbott. They first worked together in 1935 at the Eltinge Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City after Costello’s straight man fell ill. They formally teamed up in 1936.
Reportedly their first disagreement was over a booking in a minstrel show at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Costello wanted to take the gig, but Abbott was hesitant. Costello offered to give Abbott a larger split of their salary, and Abbott agreed.
Radio and Hollywood
Abbott and Costello were signed by the William Morris talent agency, which landed them featured roles and national exposure on The Kate Smith Hour, a popular radio variety show, in 1938. The team’s signature routine, “Who’s on First?”, made its radio debut on Smith’s show early that year. Many of the team’s sketches were further polished by John Grant, who was hired soon after the team joined the program. Their success on the Smith show led to their appearance in a Broadway musical in 1939, The Streets of Paris.
The team was hosting a summer radio series in 1940 when they were signed by Universal Pictures for supporting roles in One Night in the Tropics (1940). They stole the film with their classic routines, including a shortened version of “Who’s On First?” (the complete version was performed in The Naughty Nineties, released in 1945). The team’s breakthrough picture, however, was Buck Privates, released early in 1941. They immediately became the No. 3 Box Office Stars of 1941.
After working as regulars on the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy radio program in 1941–42, they launched their own show The Abbott and Costello Show, in October 1942.
Fame and tragedy
The duo made 36 films from 1940 to 1956, and were among the most popular and highest-paid entertainers in the world during World War II. Among their most popular films are Buck Privates, Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?, Pardon My Sarong, The Time of Their Lives, Buck Privates Come Home, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.
In the summer of 1942, the team went on a 35-day cross-country tour to promote and sell War Bonds. The Treasury Department credited them with the sale of $85 million in bonds.
In March 1943, after completing a winter tour of army bases, Costello had an attack of rheumatic fever and was unable to work for six months. On November 4 of that year, he returned to the team’s popular radio show, but while rehearsing at their NBC studio, Costello received word that his infant son, Lou Jr., had accidentally drowned in the family pool. The baby worked loose the slats in his crib, climbed out and fell into the pool, unnoticed by the nanny. The baby (‘Little Butch’) was just two days short of his first birthday. Lou had asked his wife to keep Butch up that night so the boy could hear his father on the radio for the first time. Rather than cancel the broadcast, Lou said, “Wherever he is tonight, I want him to hear me”, and went on with the show. No one in the audience knew of the death until after the show, when Bud Abbott explained the sad events of the day and how Lou epitomized the phrase “The show must go on” that night. Maxene Andrews of The Andrews Sisters, said that his entire demeanor changed after the tragic loss of his son, saying, “He didn’t seem as fun-loving and as warm … He seemed to anger easily … there was a difference in his attitude.”
As their careers grew more successful, serious cracks began to appear in Abbott and Costello’s relationship. In 1945, when Costello fired a maid and Abbott hired her, Costello announced that he would no longer work with Abbott. However, they were still under contract to Universal and required to complete two movies in 1946. They did Little Giant and The Time of Their Lives, but barely appeared together in either film and rarely spoke to one another off-camera. Abbott reached out to heal their relationship, suggesting that the foundation he and Costello had founded for rheumatic fever sufferers be named the Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation, which touched Costello deeply. The project became a youth foundation that still exists.
Their radio program moved to ABC (the former NBC Blue Network) from 1947 to 1949. It was pre-recorded.
In 1951, the duo began to appear on live television, joining the rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour. (Eddie Cantor, Martin and Lewis and Bob Hope were among the others). The following year their own filmed situation comedy, The Abbott and Costello Show, began running in syndication around the country. Costello owned the half-hour series, with Abbott working on salary. The show, which was loosely adapted from their radio program and films, ran for two seasons, from 1952 to 1954, but found long life in syndicated reruns.
They were forced to withdraw from Fireman Save My Child in 1954 due to Costello’s poor health — he suffered relapses of rheumatic fever — and were replaced by studio contract players Hugh O’Brian and Buddy Hackett. The team could not reach a contract agreement with Universal the following year and left the studio after 15 years.
Costello was surprised and honored by Ralph Edwards on NBC’s This Is Your Life in 1956.
Abbott and Costello split
By the mid-1950s the Abbott and Costello films were no longer box-office gold. With concurrent film and television appearances, they suffered from overexposure, and were further eclipsed by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who were the hot entertainment commodity of the 1950s that Abbott and Costello had been a decade earlier. After failing to come to terms with the team, Universal dropped their movie contract in 1955.
In the early 1950s, troubles with the Internal Revenue Service forced both men to sell their large homes and the rights to some of their films. Abbott and Costello made their final film together, Dance with Me, Henry in 1956. The film was a box-office disappointment and received mixed critical reviews[according to whom?].
Abbott and Costello dissolved their partnership in 1957 amicably. Costello worked with other comedians, including Sidney Fields in Las Vegas, and sought film and television projects for himself. He appeared several times on Steve Allen’s The Tonight Show, most often doing his old routines with Louis Nye or Tom Poston in the straight man role. In 1958, he played a dramatic role on The Tobias Jones Story episode of Wagon Train.
Shortly after completion of The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock, his only film appearance without Abbott, Costello suffered a heart attack. He died at Doctors Hospital in Beverly Hills on March 3, 1959, three days before his 53rd birthday. Sources conflict on the circumstances of his last day and final words. By some accounts, restated in numerous “quotes” aggregates, he told visitors that the strawberry ice-cream soda he had just finished was “the best I ever tasted”, then expired. By other reports, including several contemporaneous obituaries, the ice-cream soda exchange occurred earlier in the day; later, after his wife and friends had left, he asked his private-duty nurse to adjust his position in bed. “I think I’ll be more comfortable”, he said; but before the nurse could comply, he suffered a cardiac arrest and died.
After a funeral Mass at his parish, St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Sherman Oaks, Costello was interred at the Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, on March 8. His wife Anne died from an apparent heart attack nine months later on December 5, 1959, at age 47.
Family legacy in the entertainment industry
Costello’s older brother, Pat Costello (Anthony Sebastian Cristillo 1902–1990) was a stuntman and an actor, mostly performing the stunts in Lou’s place in the first 10 Abbott and Costello films.
Costello’s sister, Marie Katherine Cristillo (1912–1988) was married to actor Joe Kirk (Nat Curcuruto), who portrayed “Mr. Bacciagalupe” on the Abbott and Costello radio and television shows and appeared in supporting roles in several of the team’s films.
Lou and Anne’s second daughter, Carole, appeared in uncredited baby roles in several Abbott and Costello films. She went on to become a contestant coordinator for the game show Card Sharks as well as a nightclub singer. She died of a stroke on March 29, 1987, at age 48 while married to Craig Martin, eldest son of Dean Martin. Carole’s daughter, Marki Costello, is an actress, director and producer in film and television.
Lou and Anne’s youngest daughter, Chris, published a biography, Lou’s On First, in 1981.
In 1946, Costello was joined by Abbott to fund a 3.3 acre playground with baseball field on Olympic Blvd. in the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles. The “Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation” opened May 3, 1947. In 1951, the playground was sold (donated) to LA City Parks for less than one-third its cost, and the name changed to “Lou Costello Jr. Youth Recreation Center.”
On June 26, 1992, the city of Paterson, New Jersey, in conjunction with the Lou Costello Memorial Association, erected a statue of Costello in the newly named Lou Costello Memorial Park in the city’s historic downtown section. It shows Costello holding a baseball bat, a reference to the team’s most famous routine, “Who’s on First?”. The statue has had brief appearances in two episodes of The Sopranos: “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Cold Stones”. The statue and the “Who’s on First?” routine also featured in the film Paterson (2016). In 2005, Madison Street, in the Sandy Hill section of Paterson, where Costello was born, was renamed Lou Costello Place.
The centennial of Costello’s birth was celebrated in Paterson on the first weekend in March 2006. From June 24 to 26, 2006, the Fort Lee Film Commission held a centennial film retrospective at the Fine Arts Theatre in Hollywood. Films screened included the premiere of a digital film made by the teenagers of the present day Lou Costello Jr. Recreation Center in East Los Angeles. Also premiered was a 35 mm restored print of the Lou Costello-produced 1948 short film 10,000 Kids and a Cop, which was shot at the Lou Costello, Jr. Youth Center in East Los Angeles.
In 2009, Costello was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
Abbott and Costello are among the few non-baseball personnel to be memorialized in the Baseball Hall of Fame, although they are not inductees of the Hall. A plaque and a gold record of the Who’s on First? sketch have been on permanent display there since 1956, and a video of the routine loops endlessly in the exhibit area.
|1938–1940||The Kate Smith Hour||Costello|
|1940–1949||The Abbott and Costello Show|
|1947–1949||The Abbott and Costello Children’s Show|
|1927||The Battle of the Century||Ringside Extra|
|The Taxi Dancer||Extra|
|The Fair Co-Ed||Extra|
|Circus Rookies||Extra|
|The Cossacks||Extra|
|The Trail of ’98||Stunt Double and Extra|
|1940||One Night in the Tropics||Costello||Film debut of Abbott and Costello|
|1941||Buck Privates||Herbie Brown|
|In the Navy||Pomeroy Watson|
|Hold That Ghost||Ferdinand Jones|
|Keep ‘Em Flying||Heathcliffe|
|1942||Ride ‘Em Cowboy||Willoughby|
|Rio Rita||Wishy Dunn|
|Pardon My Sarong||Wellington Phlug|
|Who Done It?||Mervyn Milgrim|
|1943||It Ain’t Hay||Wilbur Hoolihan|
|Hit The Ice||Tubby McCoy|
|1944||In Society||Albert Mansfield|
|Lost in a Harem||Harvey Garvey|
|1945||Here Come the Co-Eds||Oliver Quackenbush|
|The Naughty Nineties||Sebastian Dinwiddie|
|Abbott and Costello in Hollywood||Abercrombie|
|1946||Little Giant||Benny Miller|
|The Time of Their Lives||Horatio Prim|
|1947||Buck Privates Come Home||Herbie Brown||Sequel to Buck Privates|
|The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap||Chester Wooley|
|1948||The Noose Hangs High||Tommy Hinchcliffe|
|Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein||Wilbur Gray|
|Mexican Hayride||Joe Bascom/Humphrey Fish|
|10,000 Kids and a Cop||Himself||Documentary short|
|1949||Africa Screams||Stanley Livingston|
|Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff||Freddie Phillips|
|1950||Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion||Lou Hotchkiss|
|1951||Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man||Lou Francis|
|Comin’ Round the Mountain||Wilbert Smith|
|1952||Jack and the Beanstalk||Jack||In color|
|Lost in Alaska||George Bell|
|Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd||Oliver “Puddin’ Head” Johnson||In color|
|1953||Abbott and Costello Go to Mars||Orville|
|Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde||Tubby|
|1955||Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops||Willie Piper|
|Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy||Freddie Franklin|
|1956||Dance with Me, Henry||Lou Henry|
|1959||The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock||Artie Pinsetter||Only starring film without Abbott|
|1965||The World of Abbott and Costello||–||Compilation film|
|1951–1955||The Colgate Comedy Hour||Costello||Rotating hosts|
|1952–1954||The Abbott and Costello Show||52 episodes|
|1956–1958||The Steve Allen Show||Himself||7 episodes|
|1956||This Is Your Life|
|1957||I’ve Got a Secret|
|1958||General Electric Theater||Neal Andrews||episode: Blaze of Glory|
|Wagon Train||Tobias Jones||episode: The Tobias Jones Story|