April 10, 2000 09:56am
Abbott and Costello Meet the FBI - Accused of Hoarding Porn!
by: Janon Fisher
(NEW YORK, NY) -- Perhaps no comedy duo was more popular, beloved or influential than Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. But the FBI saw the act as a threat and investigated them for hoarding pornography and befriending mobsters.
The pair was never charged with a crime, but the FBI maintained files on the two, just in case. Although the two files are small -- just 14 pages between them -- they are packed with scandalous, and dubious, allegations. The documents may say more about the various obsessions and paranoia of the FBI in the 1940s than they do about Abbott and Costello.
On the surface, the relationship between the comedians and the FBI was amiable. But all the while, the bureau's agents probed their contacts for dirt on the comedic duo.
An alleged library of obscene movies
In October 1944, in the days before every neighborhood had a video rental store with an adult section in the back room, the bureau investigated a "purported ring of obscene motion picture operators in Hollywood." In the course of this investigation they discovered that Costello and actors Red Skelton and George Raft were among the ring's regular customers. According to the file, "The informant remarked that Costello 'had it running out of his ears.'"
"'Large library of obscene films' -- now this one got me laughing," said Chris Costello, the comedian's youngest daughter. "We had one of the largest film collections known within the entertainment community."
But instead of pornography, she said, the library consisted of Abbott and Costello's Hollywood studio films and one of the largest collections of B movie westerns - a passion of her father's.
"First of all, an Italian-Catholic - hello? With family? Uh-uh," she said. "I would know if he was planting obscene films in [his library]. There is no way he would be allowing his children in there to rummage through, to select film, or this and that."
"I can tell you right now, when everything was removed from that house, there were no obscene films. I don't know where they got that, but that is bunk, bunk, bunk," she said.
No crime, but feds still suspicious
The FBI was reluctant to let go of the suspicion that at least one of the comedians was stockpiling stag films. In 1958, a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) informant passed on information that Abbott had been squirreling away skin flicks, 1,500 to be precise.
The bureau opened a new file under the suspicion that Abbott was involved in interstate transportation of obscene matter. They concluded that the alleged film collection was for private use but decided to keep the information around, anyway.
"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 Ad Vice, LAPD," the report states.
Nothing in the report indicates that the porn case developed any further.
A lewd performance by hookers?
But the FBI's interest in Abbott and Costello's sex life did not end there.
While investigating a violation of the White Slave Traffic Act, the bureau was informed that "two prostitutes put on a lewd performance for Lou Costello, the movie actor." According to the file, the women were paid $50 a piece by a man whose name the bureau redacted.
The 1958 memo also mentions that Abbott was suspected of similar lewdness, but there is never any confirmation in the file that it took place.
A jealous man with mob ties?
In another section of the file, the bureau portrays Costello as a comedian given to jealous rage who was not above using his mob ties to exact revenge on those who crossed him.
"On October 22, 1946, the Los Angeles Office advised that Lou Costello had requested assistance from one [redacted] of New Jersey to 'take care of' one [redacted] who was making a play for Mrs. Costello," the memo states.
According to the bureau, the accused offender "wasn't touched," but the alleged mobster said that he would still "hurt him" if Costello had any further complaints.
"This thing about someone making a play for Mrs. Costello - I'm laughing at this one," his daughter said.
"As far as all these ties to the underworld, I don't think that his ties were in any way with favors being owed. I think he was just friends," Chris Costello said.
She said her father grew up in Paterson, N.J., with mobster Frank Costello.
"They were very good friends," she said. "I know my sister used to tell stories of Frank Costello coming over and sitting and having lunch or dinner with the family because they knew each other from New Jersey from their boyhood days."
In fact, one of the comedian's best friends, she said, was Joe Bozzo, head of the New Jersey mob. "Joe Bozzo was my godfather," she said.
Tenuous link to communism
Like many others in Hollywood at that time, Costello could not escape the government's suspicion that he was linked to communism.
On April 17, 1947, Costello planned a banquet for Ferruccio Parri, "the non-Communist former Premier of Italy," for a Los Angeles Italian-American group. Parri was on a tour of the United States sponsored by the American Society for Cultural Relationships with Italy.
"It should be noted that the Society is under investigation at the present time as a Communist front," the file states. Although the connection seems tenuous, the bureau nonetheless saw fit to include the suspicion in its report.
Hoover writes a fan letter
Not everything in the file casts suspicion on the entertainers. Former FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover thought they were funny enough to write them a piece of fan mail.
"Last Thursday night I had the pleasure of listening to your radio program and got a terrific kick out of your play on words on the meaning of FBI," a copy of Hoover's typed note states.
Their FBI routine was not, of course, what made Abbott and Costello famous.
The comedy duo was known for its word play, such as the "Who's on First?" skit in which Bud maddeningly tries and fails to explain to Lou that a baseball player on first base is actually named Who.
The pair went from the stage to Hollywood, filming movies comparable to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope's "road movies," including a series of mock-horror films such as Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and Abbott and Costello Meet Jekyll and Hyde.
Abbott and Costello, who first teamed up in 1936, entertained Americans for the following 20 years. They split up in 1958 after a long-standing rivalry between the two became too much. Costello died a year later. Abbott worked in a few small roles, mostly out of necessity, after his partner's death. He died of a stroke in 1974.
FBI got it wrong
Even when the bureau was relaying positive information about the duo, it got facts wrong.
Costello's son Lou drowned in a swimming pool on his first birthday, which led the comedian to set up a foundation in his name. His daughter said that the idea was to give urban youth a place to go, a recreation center, something Costello never had growing up in Paterson.
According to the file, "The two comedians were working on the theory that adults had failed in the fight against delinquency and they believed kids could have a chance to express their own opinions."
The FBI got that notion backward, Chris Costello said.
"My father's first thought was the kids, not the parents, were bad," she said.
Scriptwriter discovers conspiracy
In 1943 a well-known radio scriptwriter, who was recovering from the death of her husband, stumbled onto an alleged plot by Abbott and Costello to relay coded messages in their radio act.
The scriptwriter, whose name has been blacked out, but appears to be a woman, sent the bureau a list of key words and their actual meaning.
The woman's claims made little sense, however. "Kick in the France," for example, was a cleverly disguised way of saying, "kick in the pants," she claimed.
The bureau looked into it and discovered that the woman, a distant relative of Eleanor Roosevelt, had become emotionally unbalanced after the loss of her husband to a long illness.