Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Day Lou Costello Cried on Radio

The date was November 4, 1943. Lou Costello was rehearsing at the studios of NBC with the cast and crew, including Bud Abbott, Mel Blanc, Ken Niles and the beautiful Lana Turner, when an emissary of NBC walked in and gave Costello the shocking news that his one-year-old son had drowned at their Van Nuys home. Lou Costello, Jr., nicknamed "Butch," escaped his playpen, crawled to the swimming pool and fell in. Costello immediately sped from the studio to his home while a pulmotor squad worked futiley to bring back a spark of life to the youngster.

As Costello later recalled in 1954: “Racing into the yard, [my wife] ran to the swimming pool and found the child floating face-down in water a foot and one-half deep. She pulled him from the water and screamed for help.” Neighbors rushed over when they heard the screams and firefighters and medics worked over the boy for more than an hour before Dr. Vincent Kovner pronounced him dead. The baby drowned two days shy of his first birthday.

Driving home from the studio Costello was in denial, convinced that his son was still alive, because he was playing with his baby boy only hours prior. He even told the infant, nicknamed “Butch,” that he would hear his father over the radio speaker that evening. The comedian arrived at his home just as the firefighters were leaving, and discovered the news was true.

Meanwhile, at the studio, producer Martin Gosch and Costello’s partner, Bud Abbott, started making calls for a substitute. Everyone, cast and crew, understood that Costello could not bear up under such grief and go through with a slapstick comedy show. Contact was made with Mickey Rooney, who was on a golf course at the time. After learning the news Rooney tossed aside the clubs, sped to his car and raced to the NBC studio, under the impression that the broadcast time was 5:30 instead of 7:00. He arrived shortly after five and began looking over the script. Even when Costello arrived at the studio, reportedly 25 minutes before airtime, Rooney took a chair with other members of the cast and followed every line in the script, sitting on standby in case Costello needed to be replaced. (During the afternoon Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante and Red Skelton heard the sad news and offered to take over for Costello.)

In the tradition of the theatre, "the show must go on," was deeply ingrained in Costello through his long years in show business, and most rationalized that was the motivation running through his mind. Even in his great grief he must have steeled himself against quitting, as the spirit of the trouper would call it. It was less than an hour before the Camel sign-in when Bud Abbott was called to the phone. It was Costello, telling him he would be there to go through with the show. He arrived at the studio a half-hour later and went through a final reading of his script. When Ken Niles signed in the show, Costello was in front of the mike, smoking a cigar and fidgeting with his script to contain his heartbreak.

None in the studio audience that overflowed onto the stage was aware of what Costello was going through. He gave no outward evidence of his great loss, ad-libbing quips and carrying on in the same old Costello way. The crowd howled at his gags, but as he read the last line and tossed his script to a WAVE in the front row, Abbott brought a hush to what had been a bedlam. Lou Costello broke down with tears moments before the closing commercial and supposedly rushed off the stage.

Following the announcer's closing commercial, Bud Abbott stepped up to the mike to explain to the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen. Now that our program is over and we have done our best to entertain you, I would like take a moment to pay tribute to my best friend and to a man who has more courage than I have ever seen displayed in the theater. Tonight the old expression ‘The show must go on’ was brought home to all of us on this program. More clearly than ever before. Just a short time before our broadcast started, Lou Costello was told that his baby, one year old tomorrow, had died. In the face of the greatest tragedy which can come to any man, Lou Costello went on tonight so that you, the radio audience, would not be disappointed. There is nothing more that I can say except that I know you, all of you, [will] join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to a great trouper.” Ken Niles then signed off with network identification, 40 seconds overtime.

If Bud Abbott had not apprised the audience of the tragedy that befell his partner three hours before broadcast, it is doubtful whether the average radio listener would have even suspected that there had been anything amiss about the show or its principals. Costello lost his place and ad-libbed a little more often than was his habit. What the nationwide audience was not aware was the sobs that were audible through the audience as the people left the auditorium following a three-minute silent tribute. Asked if Costello at any time had shown signs of cracking, Gosch replied to a reporter, “It was the greatest display of courage I’ve ever seen. Lou took it like the great trouper he is.” At one point in the script where Costello read, “I feel sad today,” there were dewy eyes on the stage. He closed it quickly with “I broke up with my girl today.” A less stoic performer would have asked for other lines.

It was the second misfortune to overtake that particular broadcast. The day before the broadcast, Veronica Lake, who had been booked as guest star, had to cancel on account of illness. Lana Turner was substituted. The actress, unable to suppress her own grief over Costello’s loss, read her lines woodenly and hardly above a whisper. In the audience were 25 convalescents from rheumatic fever with their nurses, brought there from the naval hospital at Corona as special guests of Lou Costello. He insisted that the party he had planned for them after the show be carried through, even though he could not attend.

Whether Costello, under the circumstances, should have appeared on the radio broadcast is a moot point. The cast went through the entire script but once and there was no opportunity for a dress rehearsal or final timing. For years a recording of the November 4, 1943, broadcast has been sought after by fans of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, not widely available to collectors for decades. Of recent, transcription discs were found and that very recording is now making the rounds among collectors. Some might consider the recording morbid but nothing could be further from the truth. Only at the close of the broadcast when Bud Abbott delivers his closing speech does it become apparent that the broadcast was monumental – now historical.

I have often said that collecting and listening to old-time radio is only a tip of the iceberg. Reading up on the history of vintage radio programs can -- many times -- be more fascinating than the recordings themselves. This particular Abbott and Costello broadcast is no exception.

Listening to the recording today I pose a few theories: At the close of the broadcast, when Bud Abbott steps out to address the audience, you can hear a reaction from those in attendance during the second sentence... before he even mentions the death of Costello's little son. I wonder if, when Abbott stepped out to address the audience, that was the moment Costello broke down and had to walk off the stage -- not after he concluded his final line. Else, why would the audience react at that moment? What would they have been reacting over?

Regarding the reason why Costello wanted to perform during a time of grievance, the comedian was off the air for nine months as a result of rheumatic fever (hence why he set up a party after the broadcast for rheumatic fever victims). It may be possible, because this was the first broadcast of the season and the first broadcast since he was back to health, that he felt a necessity to commit to the radio mike. Costello however, many years later, recalled bouncing his little boy on his knee earlier in the day and telling Butch that he would hear his father on the radio... and wanted to keep that promise.