THE BOXING ADVENTURES OF ABBOTT & COSTELLO
Lou Costello was born Luis Francis Cristillo on March 6, 1906 in Paterson, New Jersey. Although he would later be identified as a tubby and clumsy individual on film, he was actually a great athlete, competing at high levels in football and basketball in high school.
Costello’s hung up the gloves in 1926 and headed out to Hollywood to find stardom like his idol Charlie Chaplin. Unfortunately, all he could find was work as an extra or laborer. His first film as an extra was in MGM’s Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), but it was his second film appearance that same year that attracts the most curiosity of his fans. It was the classic film The Battle of the Century that featured the immortal comedy team of Laurel and Hardy. If a viewer watches that film today, Costello could be seen sitting at ringside during the boxing sequence where Stan Laurel is boxing with Oliver Hardy in his corner.
After eight film appearances, Costello left Hollywood discouraged and nearly broke in 1930. As he was hitchhiking home to Paterson, he ran completely out of funds in Saint Joseph Missouri and would up performing at a local burlesque theater as a comic. Changing his stage name from Cristillo to Costello (after actress Helene Costello), Lou bounced around various vaudeville and burlesque theaters until he met Bud Abbott (1895-1974), who was a popular burlesque straight man. When Costello’s regular straight man did not show up at a show at the Eltinge Theater on 42nd Street in New York City in 1935, Abbott filled in for Lou’s missing partner.
The two felt that they had great chemistry together and began a professional team in 1936. The team of Abbott and Costello soon proved to be a phenomenal act in burlesque theaters with their gags and word play routines.
The duo’s big break came in 1938 on The Kate Smith Hour, which was a popular radio program. Doing their popular, sure-fire routine, Who’s On First?, which they wrote with John Grant, the radio audience’s response was tremendous. So many letters came to the show that Smith hired the team to be regulars on her radio show.
Abbott and Costello’s star continued to rise as they starred in the 1939 Broadway musical, The Streets of Paris, which was a triumph. The Broadway production caught the eyes of Universal Studios, who signed the team for a film contract.
Their first film appearance was as the comic relief for the musical One Night in the Tropics in 1940. The film was a hit due to the comedy antics and routines performed by Abbott and Costello.
The duo’s next film was their first starring vehicle, Buck Privates in 1941. The movie was such a blockbuster in the theaters that Abbott and Costello went on to star in 35 more films together until their last outing, Dance with Me, Henry in 1956.
In between they also achieved success with radio shows (1942-1951) and on television throughout the 1950’s on The Colgate Comedy Hour and later The Abbott and Costello Show. The team also had a long-running comic book series.
Costello never gave up his love for the sport of boxing and appeared ringside at many fights. Lou is seen in the newsreel of former heavyweight champion Max Baer’s 7th round TKO over “Two Ton” Tony Galento on July 2, 1940 at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey, interviewing Baer and also the reigning heavyweight champion at the time, the great Joe Louis.
Abbott and Costello were a very generous pair who would donate their time and money to various charitable ventures. A few years after Costello’s son Lou Jr. died by drowning in the family’s swimming pool, Bud and Lou opened up The Lou Costello Jr. Recreation Center at 3141 East Olympic Boulevard in the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles, for underprivileged children. In the facility, the children participate in many sporting activities, especially boxing. The Recreation is still in existence today.
In 1956, Abbott and Costello were enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame with a plaque and a gold record of the famous Who’s on First? routine. The sketch still runs on an endless video loop in the exhibit area of the museum.
Abbott and Costello broke up in 1957 and Costello acted on various television programs and appeared in the 1959 film, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock, before dying of a heart attack at Doctors’ Hospital in Beverly Hills on March 3, 1959, three days before his 53rd birthday.
With their films appearing on television, Abbott and Costello’s fame continued to rise and in 1965, a compilation film, The World of Abbott and Costello proved to be popular at the box office.
Through funds set up by Abbott and Costello, the Lou Costello Gym was opened in Paterson that produced many Golden Gloves and professional champions.
In the 1960’s Abbott and Costello had their own cartoon series, where Abbott provided his own voice, while Stan Irwin voiced for Costello.
Sadly, on April 24, 1974, Bud Abbott succumbed to cancer.
In 2003, Montclair State University dedicated a student residential complex named The Abbott and Costello Center, which is located on Clove Road in the Little Falls portion of the school’s campus.
A few years ago, boxing Hall of Famer Lou Duva spearheaded a fund to have a statue and park built in honor of Paterson, New Jersey’s most famous person, Lou Costello. The Lou Costello Memorial Park features a life-size bronze statue of Costello carrying a bat and wearing his trademark derby. The statue is title, “Lou’s On First,” and shares a grassy area with a gazebo, park benches and horseshoe pits. The park is located at the corner of Cianci and Ellison Streets in Paterson.