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Abbott and Costello
"Costello 'had it running out of his ears.' "
Next to Laurel and Hardy, the most well loved comedic duo of the Golden Age of Hollywood was, for many people, Abbott and Costello. A brief FBI document of January 10, 1948, titled "Lou Costello, Information Concerning," provides background on Costello and reveals how the two met and developed their career:
Lou Costello was born March 6, 1908, and was christened Louis Francis Costillo. While in his teens, he quit high school and began to work in a haberdashery, which job he soon quit to become an actor. His first attempts were unsuccessful and he then decided to become a prizefighter. Fourteen fights later he ended up on the West Coast where he became a Hollywood stunt man. He met Bud Abbott in 1929 at the Empire Theater in Brooklyn, when his regular straight man was taken ill. Bud agreed to substitute and they have been together ever since. They have played most of the burlesque and many of the vaudeville circuits together. Their first break came in 1938 when they were given a 10-minute spot on Kate Smith's program. Their real success came when they began making movies in Hollywood. Since then they have made numerous pictures and their success is well known.
Indeed, their success was well known: having signed to Universal in 1939, Abbott and Costello went on to make a wealth of hit movies, including Buck Privates, In the Navy, and Hold That Ghost. At the height of their phenomenal career, however, Abbott and Costello had more than just faithful fans following their exploits and antics. None other than the all-powerful Federal Bureau of Investigation was secretly doing likewise. Indeed, declassified FBI memoranda on the pair are almost as entertaining as their cinematic output, albeit for very different reasons. Stories of covert wartime espionage, "lewd" girl-on-girl action, deep-running Mob ties, impressively huge porno collections, prostitution, and more all made their way to the desk of bureau head honcho J. Edgar Hoover after the duo caught the attention of government intelligence agents.
The first real inkling of FBI interest in Abbott and Costello surfaced in 1943, when, on February 23 of that year, Arthur H. Crowl, the special agent in charge of the bureau's office at Springfield, Illinois, forwarded a highly unusual report to his boss Hoover and to the FBI Technical Laboratory titled: "BUD ABBOTT and LOU COSTELLO, Radio Program on February 4 And February 18, 1943. ESPIONAGE."
According to Crowl, he had been recently contacted by a woman from Illinois who was described in the documentation "as writer of radio script and an author," and who had come to the distinctly strange conclusion that Abbott and Costello were carefully and secretly inserting "key words" and phrases into their radio shows that, when correctly interpreted, could potentially be utilized for espionage purposes by unfriendly nations. Given that this was at the height of the Second World War, this could really only mean the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Declassified FBI files demonstrate that the woman had gone to truly extraordinary lengths to carefully record for the bureau's Springfield office no less than eighty-five words and phrases that she believed were directly relevant to her distinctly odd theory. As Special Agent Crowl noted, those same words and phrases included:
"Fog," "Boats," "Rocky coastline," "Kick in the France," "Fire," "South," "Turn north quickly," "Two weeks," "High-powered boats," "Dive bombers hit a rock," "Hole in Boat," "Army and Navy," "Camel caravan," "Telegram," "Important," "Platoon," "Parachute," "Cartographer," "Rand McNally," "T-Zone Test," "Dead of night," "Twenty miles of desert," "Egypt," "Rommel," "Sphinx," "Battle," "Moonlight," "Guard"[and] "Eleven camps."
Crowl further advised Hoover that the woman was "very nervous and upset over the long illness and loss of her husband," that she was acquainted with "several government officials in Washington," and more intriguing, that she was "distantly related to Mrs. Roosevelt, and assisted in preparing material for the President's recent campaign." Top secret messages and codes, international espionage, and even allegations of presidential links to the story inevitably led Hoover to take a keen and personal interest in the matter. However, after having done so, the crime-fighter-in-chief came away hardly impressed by the woman's so-called incriminating evidence, and he made this clear to Crowl two weeks later.
Stressing that the bureau could "draw no conclusion from the information furnished concerning her reliability," Hoover explained to the Springfield office that "although she has furnished eighty-five key words, she has furnished definitions of only twelve of these words. From the information furnished the Bureau does not understand how or why [she] chose the words contained in the list, labeling them key words, and was only able to give definitions of a small fraction of these." Hoover also rightly noted that selecting such "key words" in such a haphazard fashion "could be similarly applied to practically any radio program." Hoover's final word on the affair was: "No further action is being taken by the Bureau in this matter."
One and a half years after this particularly bizarre episode, the FBI was still carefully watching both Abbott and Costello, but by this time allegations of wartime espionage had been replaced by a plethora of other issues. This is made abundantly clear in a bureau report of 1944 that focused its attention on Costello's private life:
In October of 1944 during the course of an investigation of a purported ring of obscene motion picture operators in Hollywood, information was received that the best-known customers for obscene film in Hollywood were Red Skelton, Lou Costello, George Raft and others. One informant, who, it has been shown, tends to exaggerate the facts, said that Lou Costello had the largest library of obscene film in Hollywood. The informant remarked that Costello "had it running out of his ears."
Somewhat amusingly, while J. Edgar Hoover was privately looking at Lou Costello with distinctly disapproving eyes, at a public level he pretended to be a big fan of the man and his partner, Bud Abbott. "On February 28, 1946," according to an FBI internal memorandum, "the Director wrote a letter to Abbott and Costello in Beverly Hills, stating that he had the pleasure of listening to their radio program the preceding night and enjoyed their play on words on the meaning of the FBI. Costello answered this letter on March 8, 1946, and invited the Director to be his guest at lunch should he come to California." Hoover declined the invitation.
Of greater concern to the FBI, however, was the fact that bureau agents had learned that Lou Costello had disturbing links with some distinctly dangerous characters within the dark and feared world of organized crime. On October 22, 1946, the Los Angeles FBI office had informed Hoover that Costello had then recently "requested assistance" from a New Jersey-based crime lord who was going to secretly arrange for a "hoodlum" in Los Angeles to "take care of" a man who was apparently "making a play for Mrs. Costello."
In monitoring the situation, the FBI learned that Costello had been given a guarantee that the matter would be "handled" to Costello's satisfaction, and that the unnamed Casanova would "cause no further trouble." Given the fact that Costello was later told that the man hadn't been "touched," it seems reasonable to assume that, at the very least, the fear of God was placed in him by the criminal underworld. Ominously, however, Costello's criminal contact elaborated that if stern words were ultimately not enough to convince the man to leave Costello's wife alone, and "additional trouble" loomed on the horizon, he would "hurt him."
"What a tie-up to the underworld," Hoover noted, in a handwritten response to the story. The available FBI files contain no further data on this episode, which strongly suggests that whoever the man "making a play for Mrs. Costello" was, he wisely decided to back off.
Although Lou Costello was fully determined to ensure that his wife did not play away from home, those rules seemingly did not apply to the Hollywood funnyman himself. The FBI knew that the comedian was more than partial to a bit of girl-on-girl action when he was out of town on business. In December 1946, and "during the course of the investigation of a White Slave Traffic Act case in the Portland Division," the FBI learned that "two prostitutes put on a lewd performance for Lou Costello, the movie actor, while he was in Portland in connection with the premiere of a motion picture. The girls were paid $50 apiece for their part in the show." Four months later, on April 17, 1947, the FBI uncovered information to the effect that Lou Costello was a member of a "local Italian-American Citizens Committee" that "planned a banquet for Ferruccio Parri, the non-Communist former premier of Italy." Interestingly, the FBI noted that Parri was touring the United States under the sponsorship of the American Society for Cultural Relationships with Italy, an organization that, according to the FBI, was "under investigation at the present time as a Communist front."
The following year, 1948, the pair really hit it big with their movie, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein a movie that remains a true favorite among aficionados. That movie also led to a series of highly successful spin-offs, including Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Wolf Man. Their television series, The Abbott and Costello Show, aired in 1952, and the pair continued to work together through 1957, when they amicably went their separate ways.
The FBI's surveillance continued, however. Like his partner Lou Costello, Bud Abbott also had a great fondness for porno flicks and also possessed a truly huge collection of such movies, something that is borne out by the FBI memorandum of March 5, 1958, titled "Bud Abbott, Interstate Transport of Obscene Matter:"
On 3/3/58 Los Angeles PD [Police Department], advised that a police informant furnished information to the effect that Bud ABBOTT, the well known motion picture and TV star, is a collector of pornography and allegedly has 1,500 reels of obscene motion pictures which he shows in his home where he has a projector of his own. The police informant was approached by ABBOTT to furnish some girls for a private party he is having at an early date.
On 3/4/58 [the police informant] advised he had received no further specific date as to when the party is to be held but stated that Vice intends raiding the party when and if it is held and will confiscate all films they are able to find in their search incidental to their arrests.
Although Abbott is an alleged collector and there is not an allegation of interstate transportation of this matter, a case is being opened in this office as a control file to follow and report to the Bureau information coming to the attention of this office through police liaison with Vice, LAPD. [The police informant] is well aware of the Bureau's interest in this category and any films obtained will be submitted to the FBI Lab for examination and comparison purposes.
This affair ultimately fizzled out, however, and while fans always hoped that the duo of Abbott and Costello would reunite, it was not to be. Lou Costello died from heart failure in 1959 at the tragically young age of fifty-one, and Bud Abbott passed away from cancer in 1974. But hot sex, porn, Mob links, and international espionage would become all-too-familiar themes to the FBI as it delved into the lives of Hollywood's glitterati.
Copyright © 2007 by Nick Redfern