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Chris Costello Interview
Chris Costello, the youngest daughter of Lou Costello of the comedy team Abbott and Costello, is most well known for her biography of her father "Lou’s on First." This wonderfully touching biography of her talented father has been in print for over 20 years. I got the pleasure to interview this absolutely marvelous woman who gave the readers of Classic-Horror a very lovely tribute to her father and the history of the Abbott and Costello monster movies.
Classic-Horror: Hi, Chris. Are you ready to do this right now?
Chris Costello: Yep.
C-H: Listen, thank you so much for doing this interview with us.
Costello: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Listen, is there anyway I can give you our two websites?
C-H: Yep. Why don’t you do that right now.
Costello: The first is www.abbottandcostellocollectibles.com The second is about my book, www.lousonfirst.com. By the way, I looked at your website and it’s great!
C-H: Thank you! We’re actually running a review of Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein and we’re putting this interview with it.
Costello: Beautiful! Thank you so much!
C-H: By the way, I’m not sure if you remember, but I actually met you at the Monsterbash this year.
Costello: You know, I do vaguely remember. Those two days in Pittsburgh were such a blur. But, I do vaguely remember. It was a fun two days.
C-H: Yep, it was a great, great time. I really enjoyed seeing those home videos you had of your father.
Costello: Oh, thank you!
C-H: Not to mention, your book Lou’s on First has passed it’s 20th year anniversary.
Costello: It certainly has.
C-H: Wow! Congratulations. I have an older version of it and it truly is a fabulous book.
Costello: Thank you. When the hardcover came out 20 years ago, I was giving them out left and right. Finally, it occurred to me that I never kept one for myself. So, finally, someone located one for me and paid some ridiculous amount and I thought, MY GOD! But, at least I got a copy. I got it up on my shelf and I’m sure not giving this one away.
C-H: Your book is fabulous, but I also read that travesty called "Bud and Lou" which was just terrible and extremely inaccurate.
Costello: Yeah, it’s part of that sensationalistic junk that Hollywood grabs on to. But, this book is my pride and joy. It’s been out 20-some years and is still going strong.
C-H: That is fabulous.
Costello: It’s funny going into Ebay and seeing someone auction off my book. I say, hey, if it’s a hardcover, I might bid on it!
C-H: (laughs) Well, I’m going to start with your dad’s early career. I’m sure many horror fans do not realize that your father’s name is not really Costello; it is in fact Cristello.
Costello: Yep, that’s true.
C-H: So, why don’t you let our Classic-Horror readers know why he changed it to Costello and give us a brief history of your dad’s early years in comedy and how he got hooked up with Bud Abbott.
Costello: Well, for one thing there are various stories, and I wish to God that dad was here to give the correct one! But, the story I heard as when he came out to Hollywood in 1925 or so, he tried to get into the studios and be an actor. He was under the name Lou Cristello. He slept in a lot of parked cars and
ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, because acting jobs were lean, and so was HE at that time. He finally got onto the construction crew at MGM and from there he landed some stunt work. His first one was some cowboy film and they wanted him to ride a horse with a herd of cattle following behind him. He told them he could ride a horse, but he’s never even SEEN a horse coming from New Jersey.
C-H: Right, that would be a problem!
Costello: It turned out to be absolute chaos as his saddle loosened and he ended up going UNDER the horse.
C-H: Oh my God!
Costello: He determined that stunt work wasn’t for him and he got some work as
an extra. One of the big films at the time that he was an extra in was Trails of 98. He also did Battle of the Century which is a Laurel and Hardy film and he played an extra. I guess what happened was that he was getting a little discouraged, and it was Delores Costello that pulled him aside and told im to go back to New Jersey or New York, hone your craft, and wait for Hollywood to call you. So, out of a thank you to her, he became known as Lou Costello. He hitched back to New Jersey, as he didn’t have money for bus fare, and he got as far as Missouri.
Story has it, according to my grandmother, that he was sitting in coffee shop having a cup of coffee and he happened to look out the window and saw the theater across the street was advertising for a Dutch comic. So, needing money, he went across the street and saw the stage manager and he hooked him up with whoever. Then they asked him if he knew what a Dutch comic was, and my father wasn’t too sure, so the man said “Well, you’d speak in a Dutch accent, wear a putty nose, oversized clothes, and a derby hat”. He said “No, no, no. I will not wear a putty nose and I will not speak in a Dutch accent. But, I will wear the oversized clothes and the derby hat.”. So, he got the job. What’s interesting is, if you see him later with Bud Abbott, he still carries this theme with the oversized clothes and the derby hat.
Costello: So he worked as a Dutch comic in Missouri and he worked for, like, $16 a week. He was there close to a year, and he had enough money under his belt to go back to New Jersey and started working in various burlesque clubs. He ended up as a Dancing Juvenile. A Dancing Juvenile was kind of a comic that would go out and warm people up for the “top banana”. But, the top bananas started to really dislike my father because he was getting more laughs than they were. He later teamed up with a couple straight men and was working the burlesque circuit. I guess one night his straight men got sick and Bud Abbott was on the same bill and offered to team up with him. History was made. You know, people like to say how much they love dad and they always put the spotlight on my father. But you know, you didn’t have Costello without Abbott. Bud, in my opinion, never receives the kudos he deserves because he was a true genius in his craft.
C-H: Oh, absolutely.
Costello: I mean, to keep my father on track had to be a full time job, number one. Dad was always ad libbing. I always say that in films, he always ad libbed because it was his way of keeping the material fresh. For example, in Buck Privates, out of the blue dad says to Bud, “What time is it?” and Bud just brings him right back in to the point of the departure. So truly, Bud, to me, was a mastermind.
C-H: He really was. Now, back in the 40’s when Abbott and Costello started
doing movies, they pretty much saved Universal Studios from going under.
Costello: Oh, absolutely.
C-H: Weren’t they offered to buy the studio at one point?
Costello: Story had it that when Universal was really fighting to keep their door open, Abbott and Costello were offered to buy Universal Studios and they turned it down. So after we heard that story, we just kind of banged our heads against the desk and say “OH MY GOD!”
C-H: (laughs) Right!
Costello: But, it was really my dad when negotiating with Universal, which was a B-movie studio back then, who got their 10% gross on their films. That was
unheard of back then for any up-and-coming stars.
C-H: I heard this rumor, and I don’t know how true it is. In WWII, the Japanese army used to show clips of Buck Privates to their soldiers as a training video to show how stupid the US army was. Is that true?
Costello: Bud Jr. actually heard that from his father. We really don’t know, but it’s really a great story, regardless if it is true or not.
C-H: It really is. Now, obviously since I’m from Classic-Horror, what our readers are most interested in is the Abbott and Costello meet the Monsters movies. Nowadays we have many horror/comedy movies, but back in Abbott and Costello days there weren’t really any movies that were 50/50 horror and comedy.
Costello: Right, there weren’t.
C-H: The question I’ve always wondered was, what made Universal decide to combine Abbott and Costello with its famous movie monsters?
Costello: That’s an interesting question. If you talk to my dad he’d say that they were losing faith in Abbott and Costello and had to pair them off with Frankenstein and Dracula and the others. As a result, dad was not too keen on doing it. In fact, when I was interviewing the director of the film for my book, he tell how Lou used to come into his office screaming “My daughter could write a better script than this!” So, he went into it not really wanting to do it. I guess, at the premiere, my grandmother went up to the producer of the film and said “This is one of the best Abbott and Costello movies ever made”, and my dad was so pissed off at her that he didn’t talk to her for a month. It’s funny to think how 50 years later this film has really become an Abbott and Costello cult classic.
C-H: It really has. It’s perhaps the most well known of all the Abbott and Costello films.
Costello: Oh god, yes. My sister can remember going on the set, and I was maybe a year old. She was about 12 at the time. She said that it was a very colorful set which is not something you see in a black and white movie. However, what really got her was seeing all these monsters sitting in directors chairs smoking cigars, chewing gum, and reading the newspaper. That was absolutely amazing to her.
Costello: But, she said Glenn Strange, who was really a sweetheart of a man…
C-H: I’ve heard he really liked kids a lot.
Costello: Oh, yes. She told me, “You know Chrissy, they brought you on to the set and Glenn Strange was in his full makeup and said ’Come to Uncle Glenn’ and you just lost it, man. Just lost it!”
C-H: Well, you WERE only a year old!
Costello: I know, I know. But, she said the man was so sweet and he just felt so bad, scaring me like that. Actually, I heard something about that the scene at the end where he lifts up the dark haired woman and throws her out the window. I heard he injured his foot and Lon Chaney had to fill in for him. So, I guess in that scene, it is not really Glenn Strange, it is Lon Chaney, Jr.
C-H: That’s right. Wasn’t the part of the monster originally offered to Boris Karloff?
Costello: I believe so, yes.
C-H: Didn’t he turn it down because he thought a horror/spoof would never work?
Costello: You know, I’m not sure. I can’t remember my own research to be honest with you. But, I do know that Bela Lugosi, who took his character VERY seriously, was kind of like going back and forth about doing a movie with two comedians. So, in some of the outtakes, you see my dad doing his antics like coming down the staircase with the cape in front of his face and Bela Lugosi would see him and just freeze. He had no response. And he just kind of gave a look like “Come on guys, get it together”. Dad had some fun on the set. There’s this great outtake where the Frankenstein Monster is sitting in the chair, and Dad is backing up with his hand in the mouth. Dad sits on the chair, but he’s really sitting on the Frankenstein monster. In the outtakes, you saw Glenn Strange break character and start laughing, and my Dad started laughing. It must have been a funny, funny film to work on.
C-H: It must have been. I heard after the film, Boris Karloff did some
publicity stunts for the film.
Costello: I believe he did, yes.
C-H: I heard he had publicity photos of him buying a ticket to get into the movie.
Costello: Yep, I think you’re right. Of course, Boris Karloff later did Abbott
and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, which is a great, great film.
C-H: It really is.
Costello: Also, Vincent Price was the voice at the end of the Invisible Man which sets everyone up for the next film which was Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.
C-H: Which is another fine film. Now, you were alive for many of the monster films. Do you remember being on the set with your father?
Costello: I do remember being on Abbott and Costello Meets the Mummy. I remember it being a very colorful set on a sound stage and I was sitting on the sound stage with my two cousins, Tony and Joe. The actors were breaking for lunch, the Mummy started walking toward us, and we all let out screams. But, that’s the only monster movie I really remember being on.
C-H: Do you remember being on Abbott and Costello Goes to Mars. Were you ever on the set there?
Costello: No I wasn’t, but I remember watching it and being fascinated with Mardi Gras, and the capsule, and everything. The spaceship is actually with some collector here in California. I thought, wow, that would be a good collector’s piece to have.
C-H: That was really a wonderfully conceived film. It was different in premise than the other Abbott and Costello films.
Costello: It really was. But, I look at the Abbott and Costello films in the 50’s and see that they are starting to get older, and their energy wasn’t as high. I think you can definitely see in Abbott and Costello Goes to Mars that they were slowing down.
C-H: Yeah, they were. Now, I know you already mentioned Glenn Strange. But, do you remember anything your father said about working with Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney?
Costello: You know, I really don’t. But what I have heard from various people I talked to for my book, that it was always a happy atmosphere on the Abbott and Costello movie set. There was always a lot of antics going on. There was a lot of pie throwing backstage, cellophaning the toilets, etc. That was Dad’s and Bud’s way of keeping that energy levels high.
When you do comedy like that, which was so stop and go, the energy level can dip. So, they would bring friends of theirs on set from the burlesque days. Bobby Barber, who appears in bit parts of their films, was a close friend of my fathers. He would tell the story of how Lou used to send him to this bakery shop in the San Fernando valley to pick up all these pies. The guy that ran the bakery shop was just so ecstatic that Lou Costello thought enough of their pies to buy them up every morning. He had no idea that they were being bought to be thrown! But, that was their way of keeping the energy level up because it was so stop and go.
C-H: That’s great stuff. Did your dad have a favorite of the Abbott and
Costello: I have no idea. I’m asked that a lot. I’ve asked my sister who’s 12 years older, and she has no idea. But, we both kind of thought it would have to be the earlier films where they were new to the industry. I could say that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was probably his least favorite.
C-H: (laughs) That’s funny. So what’s your favorite?
Costello: Oh Lord. See, I grew up with The Little Rascals. I love Buck Privates. I love Keep em Flying. Hold That Ghost, with Joan Davis, is brilliant.
C-H: Hold That Ghost is my personal favorite.
Costello: And much like many others, I love The Time of Their Lives, which they were not paired up as a comedy team.
C-H: That is a great, great film! It is Number 2 on my list.
Costello: That’s the film after Meets Frankenstein that we get a lot of response on. People are always trying to track down a copy of that film.
C-H: At one point, that was released on video, because I have it.
Costello: Yep, actually we have a link on the website to www.moviesunlimited.com. We’ve been dealing with them for years. They have a copy of that.
C-H: That is an outstanding website. I buy about everything from there. They have the rarest most obscure stuff you can find…
Costello: That’s true.
C-H: Now this is something that many of our readers may not know. Abbott and Costello actually got to meet the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It wasn’t in a movie, but instead on the Colgate Comedy Hour. How did that come to be, as Abbott and Costello were not really with Universal any longer?
Costello: You know when the Colgate Comedy Hour came out, there would be people like Jerry Lewis who would co-host for a week. I think they were jut trying to capitalize off the spoof from their old monster films. But, it’s true, a lot of people think they did the movie. People always ask me, “Are you sure they didn’t do the movie?” I say, “Yeah, I‘m pretty positive.”
C-H: (laughs) Well, you would be the one to know!
Costello: The Colgate Comedy Hour really got them back to their roots, which was on the live stage. All the classic burlesque acts came out, like “Who’s on First“, 28 divided by 7 is 13, and all of them. When they did the 52 half hour specials, all their burlesque partners came on. They were very good at supplying work for the burlesque comics who were down on their luck. They supplied jobs for these people.
C-H: Well, what impresses me about the Colgate Comedy Hour is that it’s the only medium left we have for the old burlesque and vaudeville routines. So, all of burlesque was preserved through Abbott and Costello.
Costello: That’s true. Jerry Seinfeld said that in "Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld." He said, if it wasn’t for Abbott and Costello, all these classic vaudeville routines would be lost. Through films and television, they have preserved them for future generations who are discovering them for the first time. In actuality, so many of those routines are from the turn of the century, just modernized. You look at “Who’s on First,” all Abbott and Costello did was take a pattern and modify it into a baseball routine.
C-H: Speaking of “Who’s on First“, isn’t there a version that Bud and Lou did that is based on soccer?
Costello: Yeah, what happened is that they were going to London for the first time. While the are crossing the ocean on the Queen Mary, they discovered that England may not be familiar with United States baseball. So, they switched it into a soccer format which was brilliant. Somewhere out there, there must be a tape of them doing that.
C-H: Now what’s up an coming for you? I know you work as a publicist and are always promoting your book.
Costello: I am wearing so many hats on my head! I just came back from New Jersey where they just did a big USO salute to Abbott and Costello, and I took my lecture back there. One of the things I’m having fun with is my slide and clip show. This gives people a chance through photos and archival clips to learn more about my dad. I’m having a ball with it. Going back to Pittsburgh for the Monsterbash was fun, and now Fort Lee. I promote my book, I’ve got the Abbott and Costello website, I’ve got my own website, and I do PR, which is becoming like my second business. I represent a lot of people who are special effects artists.
C-H: So, any new Abbott and Costello merchandise coming out soon for us
Costello: Actually, we have a limited edition talking "Who’s on First" Christmas ornament coming out this season.
C-H: I saw that! I’m going to get it and put it on my tree next to my Laurel and Hardy ornament.
Costello: Oh, good! We’ve also got some anamatronics dolls coming out next year. We’re working on getting on some of the videos out there. We’re actually thinking of releasing The Best of Abbott and Costello, Live! again.
C-H: That is a wonderful special. Watched it last night, in fact!
Costello: It really is. And that’s the video that actually brought about the revival of Abbott and Costello in 1989.
C-H: I have one tricky question for you, and I’ll let you go. So many comedians and comedy writers, including myself, have been influenced by Abbott and Costello. What is the one thing you think Abbott and Costello taught to future comedians?
C-H: I told you it was a tricky question!
Costello: Number 1, Bud and Dad always believed that comedy should not be dirty. It shouldn’t be poking fun at other people, but bring the poking back to yourself. They didn’t believe off-color language should be a part of it. They thought that comedy should be enjoyed by everyone, young and old. I think what they would love to know is that 50 and 60 years later there is another generation that is discovering them.
You know, the comedy of people like Andrew Dice Clay and Lenny Bruce is so negative to me. I think that my father would be elated to know that an entire family could sit down, watch one of their films, and not have to worry about any off colored language. Especially with the times being the way they are.You know, Abbott and Costello brought comedy to World War II, much like Laurel and Hardy did in World War I. I think we sometimes want to go back in time and recapture something that’s very close to us, like the old-fashioned belly laugh versus just a chuckle here and there. I know because of 9-11 last year, I got hooked again on all the old "Leave it to Beaver," because it brought me back to my youth which was a simpler time. So, I think that’s what it would come down to: rediscovering the real belly laugh. You don’t have to be off-color to be funny.
C-H: Chris, thank you so much for doing this interview.
Costello: You are amazing!
Classic-Horror would like to thank Chris Costello for doing the interview with us. She is truly a wonderful lady, with so many good stories about a man so adored in the comedy world and the horror world.