“Lou really means that,” said Bud Abbott from across the table (he’s the thin one on the team).
I knew it was Bud speaking, because he had his name written on the silver pin that held his dark blue tie in place. I knew the other one was Lou, because he had his name embroidered neatly in light blue on his white shirtsleeve.
“What Lou means,” said Bud, “is that, besides coming to Australia for the big show – which we’ve been wanting to do for four years – we’d like maybe to be remembered here for a couple of good deeds.”
Bud, who swilled the ice cubes in his glass as he spoke, was slow and deliberate – trying to impress that the comic figure of his partner was capable of serious thought. And Bud ought to know. The pair have been partners for 19 years now, and stars of 42 Hollywood films.
“Kids are cute,” said Lou. “I love ’em. I got three myself.”
“I promised I’d bring ’em home one of your cute say-whatya-call’em – koala bears…?”
“Make a cuddly pet, huh?”
I gently explained to Lou that Koalas were one Australian product marked “Not for export.”
His face fell and his voice rose.
“Whatya know!” he piped, close to high C. “I promised ’em, too; I even took a couple of orders from friends in Honolulu.”
This interview had all the makings of another crazy Abbott and Costello show as Lou broke off now and again to yell mock threats to the waiters setting the table and Bud wrestled with a programme schedule. When Jack Davey arrived with a monster bag of prawns, proceedings broke down completely.
But I confirmed the serious, sentimental side to the Abbott and Costello nature. The serious side is KIDS – and that brings us to where we came in.
Back in Los Angeles, there is the Lou Costello Junior Youth Foundation, which the pair built in 1947 with 400,000 dollars out of their own pockets. It is named after Lou’s infant son, who was drowned in 1943.
The unique foundation – famous throughout the United States – has 10,000 child members for whom it provides every recreation facility – baseball diamond, basketball courts, boxing rings, gyms, library and so on.
I asked Bud and Lou to tell me about the foundation, and they did so eagerly, because this is the idea they want Australian sportsmen to adopt for our own underprivileged “kids”.
“We started the foundation in the worst part of Los Angeles – and it took us nine months to find a bad enough site that would be good enough for our purpose,” said Lou.
Said Bud: “That was really a tough part. There were 21 different nationalities in the area, and juvenile delinquency was almighty high. They wouldn’t stop at slugging and stealing.”
“The young Mexicans were the roughest. They’d walk around puffing cigars, and they were no bigger ‘n that. (Lou put his hand close to the floor to show just how small those Mexicans were.)
“We wanted to give these kids an incentive to stay off the streets.”
Lou chimed in. “I got noos for you,” he said, his eyes growing big. “In the first six months that our foundation was going, it cut delinquency in the district by almost three-quarters. Ain’t that somethin’?”
Then Lou launched into the drama of unexpected battle Bud and he had to start their foundation.
“A week before we were due to open, we heard the Mexican toughs were gonna bust it wide open,” he said.”They were gonna break windows and smash down doors, and steal things and wreck the fittings and maybe set fire to the place. We called the lootenants of the gangs to a meeting and we gave it to ’em straight.”
“‘Say, you guys,’ we said, ‘we unnerstand you’re figuring maybe to wreck this joint a little. If you break one window or kick in one door, it’s gonna stay that way, see ‘cos Bud and I ain’t got any money to replace it. We’ve sunk our last cent in this joint, and we’re all washed up.
“But d’you know who you are hurtin’,’ we said. ‘Your own kid brothers and sisters and all the other kids that play on the street ‘cos they’ve nowhere to go.”
Bud took a deep breath, and his voice stepped up to a new high pitch as he unfolded the climax of his story:
“As those babies were walking out real mad, they saw a television screen we’d put up in the hall,” he said. “It was the biggest screen we could buy. And right then a Pacific baseball series was showing on it. Those poor kids had never seen TV before. They couldn’t believe their eyes.”
Lou gulped a deep breath. “I got noos for you,” he said. “Those same guys who were gonna wreck the joint were the ones who came back and got it all cleaned up ready for the opening night!
“And do you know what some other guy did? A week after we opened, he stole the TV set.
“Boy, was there quick justice. Those lootenants held a meeting, they made their own laws, and had their own police force, and a few nights later that TV set was back where it belonged.”