Lou Costello - For the Kids

I was asked to write a blog about the upcoming Lake Placid Film Festival screening of the classic 1948 Universal Studio hit film Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.  I will have the honor of doing a Q&A with Lou Costello’s youngest daughter Chris Costello at this event.  Chris wrote a book about her father in the 1980s titled Lou’s on First, and this book remains the best way to get to know her dad and his legacy.   Chris has been a dear friend of myself and the Fort Lee Film Commission of Fort Lee, NJ  for two decades.

 My introduction to Bud Abbott & Lou Costello comes naturally as I was born in the state of New Jersey, which actually is as much a geographical location as a state of mind truth be told.  Not only is my state known nationally for our tomatoes but for two burlesque comics who became the darlings of wartime America in the early 1940s.  Lou Costello was and is Paterson New Jersey’s most famous son and that love of his hometown is seen in his constant comments in film, radio and TV about Paterson.  Bud Abbott has a connection to New Jersey, some say he was born in Asbury or at least lived in Asbury for a time as a very young man.  Other states can boast about their natural beauty or as the home to many Presidents but New Jersey can lay claim to the greatest comedy duo of all time, two gents who helped Americans get through the last vestiges of the Great Depression and the onslaught of World War II.

 Some of my earliest memories of TV was watching reruns of the Abbott & Costello TV show as well as their Universal movies, both on NYC’s WPIX in the 1960s and 1970s.  This led to my interest in film and in learning more about Lou Costello.  The greatest Christmas gift I received was on my 10th birthday when my mom, aka Santa, gave me an 8mm projector and my Uncle Jimmy, who owned a film storage facility, presented me with a box full of Castle 8mm silent films which included many Abbott & Costello titles.

 Years passed and I became more interested in local film history and eventually founded the Fort Lee Film Commission in the town where the American film industry was born.  From 1907 through World War I Fort Lee was the center of film production in the USA and it was truly the first American film town, the birthplace of studios such as Universal and Fox.  In fact, Universal’s first studio from 1912 was still standing at the end of the block I grew up on in Fort Lee.   After we formed the Fort Lee Film Commission via ordinance from our Mayor & Council, we began public  screenings which led to our now 20-year-old annual Movies & Music Under the Stars where we have showcased films old and new, and almost annually we screen an Abbott & Costello film, most recently this past summer we screened their MGM 1942 hit film Rio Rita.  And we researched the history of the Riviera Nightclub of Fort Lee, owned first by Ben Marden then after WWII by Bill Miller.  This amazing nightclub with the retractable roof for dancing under the stars and  the revolving stage, operated atop Fort Lee’s Palisades near the George Washington Bridge from 1931 through 1953, closing January 1, 1954.  I mention this because in the last few years we established that Bud & Lou performed at the nightclub.  We always heard the story but we did not have definitive proof until we were able to get a photo of Bud and Lou at the Riviera Nightclub with owner Bill Miller.  I have included that photo in the blog.  That spot is about two blocks from where I live today.

 In 2000 the NJ Motion Picture & TV Commission contacted me and asked if we would like to speak with Chris Costello.  Though she lived and still lives in Burbank, she wanted to start a film festival to honor her dad in her dad’s native state of NJ.  There was no film commission in Paterson so she asked the state film commission if there was any organization she could reach out to – and fortunately that was us.  Chris flew out to NJ and thus began a great friendship.  We hosted many Abbott & Costello film festivals in many locations in NJ from Fort Lee to Paterson to Asbury Park.  Along the way we visited Los Angeles many times and Chris took us to the Lou Costello Jr Youth Center in the Boyle Heights district in East Los Angeles.  This facility was built by her dad and Bud Abbott in 1947 and still operates to help the kids of the 21st century.  The center was named after Lou’s only son, Lou Costello Jr (Butch) who died in a pool accident a few days before his first birthday.

There’s that connection again of Lou Costello helping kids…I can speak to this personally for it wasn’t just the kids of East LA whose lives were changed for the better by Lou and his generosity but those of us on the east coast as well.  In the 1970s a friend of mine wanted to enter the New Jersey Diamond Gloves, a boxing contest open to teens in NJ.  The only boxing gym in northern NJ was located in Paterson and called the Lou Costello Gym. The trip from Fort Lee to Paterson was short and with my pop’s second-hand Chevy Nova we spent the summer at the club, my friend training and I helping him train with the staff at the center, and what a staff.  Most of the older gents knew Lou Costello personally and had nothing but great things to say about him and his desire to help any kid in need.  The large sign on the outside of this converted firehouse and now boxing gym read “Lou Costello Gym For The Kids.”  When I saw that sign I looked at Lou Costello in a different light.  I always loved Lou as a comedian but here he was some 18 years after his death, still helping kids stay out of trouble and keep busy in this gym.  The 1970s was a time when trouble was never hard for a teen to find but thanks to Lou many of us stayed out of trouble and learned how to help others in that little gym in Paterson.  Years later, in 2005, members of the Fort Lee Film Commission including myself and Nelson Page, worked with Chris and her sister Paddy to restore the film her dad produced in 1948 about life at the Lou Costello Jr Youth Center titled 10,000 Kids and a Cop.  Lou wanted to have this screened across the nation to encourage towns and cities alike to build youth centers to help the kids in their communities. Paddy and Chris sent us their dad’s print and we restored the film back here on the east coast with the help of Sirk Productions in NYC.  At the same time the Fort Lee Film Commission donated digital film equipment to the Lou Costello Jr Youth Center and with the assistance of filmmaker Andi Hicks, worked with the kids of the center to produce their own documentary of life at the center in the 21st century.  Through their work they learned that their center was not just built by a then famous Hollywood star but really it was built by a father who in the sadness of his loss of his son wanted to help other children.  In 2006 for the centennial of Lou Costello’s birth, the Fort Lee Film Commission and the Costello family held a film festival in Los Angeles  and in addition to screening the restored 10,000 Kids and a Cop, opening night saw the kids of the Lou Costello Jr. Youth Center walk down the red carpet and into the cinema to see their documentary screened along with members of Lou Costello’s family.  I will never forget that night as you could visually see that this sweet man from Paterson NJ was still helping children decades after his death.

So why all this as I am here really to discuss Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. So many of you are aware of and love this film and in a way for many kids this is their introduction to Bud & Lou.  What I want to leave you with is something to think about and emulate…that this little baggy pants comedian who made a nation laugh also, through the pain of losing his baby boy, saw that we all have a responsibility to help kids and the best way to honor his legacy is to get involved in your community and help the children of America today.

Tom Meyers

Executive Director, Barrymore Film Center

Executive Director, Fort Lee NJ Film Commission

Photo #1 -Bud & Lou at Fort Lee's Riviera Nightclub with  nightclub owner Bill Miller circa early 1950s / photo courtesy of Fort Lee Film Commission / Barrymore Film Center

Photo #2 - Members of the Fort Lee Film Commission with Chris Costello at the Lou Costello Jr, Recreation Center in East La circa 2004.

Photo #3  -Bud & Lou with the kids of the center circa 1948,

 Photo #4 - Lou's Daughters Chris and Paddy with the kids of the Lou Costello  Rec Center.

Charlene Trotter