A Look Back at Sports: Lou’s on First

by Andy Mele

Sebastian Cristillo followed a path not unlike thousands upon thousands of other Italian immigrants who found their way to the shores of America. He came from Caserta, a town north of Rome, where he was born in 1880 and where he studied for the priesthood, a vocation his parents wanted badly to see him fulfill. But Sebastian, who was known as “Chris,” had doubts. After his parents had both died, he left the seminary and not long after, he left Italy. His brother Philip had already come to the United States and settled  in Paterson, New Jersey, so that was where Chris headed and where he found work as a weaver.

It was here, living in the house next door, that Chris met his “beautiful Irish rose,” Helen Rege in 1898, when Rose was just fourteen years old. Four years later in 1902, they were married in St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Paterson. Their three children were born while the couple lived at 14 Madison Street. The first born, Anthony, came to be known as “Pat;” the second, Louis Francis, was born on March 6, 1906, and then came a daughter, Marie Katherine. The family soon after moved to a larger house on Market Street. The middle child, Louis Cristillo, is the subject of our story.

Young Louis was a fine athlete, playing baseball and basketball at Central High School in Paterson. Though never more than five feet, five inches tall, he had great speed and agility and was nothing short of an expert in foul shooting on the basketball court. He was the star of The Armory Five and won the Foul Shot championship of Paterson while playing with the local five in the Sandy Hook section of the city.  Louis was the shortstop on the Paterson High baseball team and in 1921, helped his teammates to defeat all the leading high schools in North Jersey.  A team leader or “sparkplug,” Louis had hopes of getting to the major leagues one day in spite of his diminutive size.

A young Lou Costello boxing under the name "Lou King"

A young Lou Costello boxing under the name “Lou King”

As a teenager, Louis took an interest in another sport. He became acquainted with a local prizefighter named Jimmy Lane who was good enough to go on to fight professionally. Impressed with Jimmy, Louis took the name Lou King and entered the square ring for a time, without the knowledge of either of his parents. He fought eleven amateur bouts without a loss until his dad came to one of his fights. Chris’ brother-in-law Mike coaxed the elder Cristillo, who was not a sports enthusiast, to join him at a Ringwood, New Jersey arena. The next morning at breakfast, Louis was sporting an unexplainable black eye. “Good morning, Lou King,” said his dad. It was the first his mom heard of it and Louis’ boxing career ended that morning.

Although his athletic career never reached the professional level, there was another side to him that would materialize in another area of endeavor. As a kid he was called both athlete and ham. He loved the movies and acting and he idolized Charlie Chaplin. Louis claimed to have seen Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms two dozen times. Brother Pat had taken up the saxophone and was playing with a band in this, the Jazz Age. He would start his own band, Pat Cristillo and His Gondoliers and go on the road, despite his parents misgivings. Louis wanted to be an actor and so with the help of Pat, he persuaded mom and dad to let him head off to Hollywood. His initial movie experience was limited to some minor roles as a stunt man, but his forte’ was comedy. After a year he headed back East to try to get work on the burlesque stage.

Bud Abbott And Lou Costello performing their famous 'Who's on First" routine

Bud Abbott And Lou Costello performing their famous ‘Who’s on First” routine

He appeared close to home at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey and in New York City, but after taking on a partner, a straight man he’d gotten to know on the burlesque circuit, things started to happen for real. The duo drew raves with their performances at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, which led to a steady gig on the Kate Smith Hour on CBS Radio. It was here that the boys unveiled an old burlesque routine rewritten by Louis’ friend John Grant. The skit, Who’s on First? propelled Abbott and Costello into household names – virtually overnight.

Lou always loved to clown around, even as a boy, and he had a bit of a reputation as a bad boy. In fact, it began somewhere around the fifth grade when he originated his famous expression, “I’m a baaaad boy.” It became his most famous show business line.

The team was a hit in a Broadway revue that opened in June 1939 and from there, Lou finally got to Hollywood. Abbott and Costello made thirty-six motion pictures as a team and were stars of their own radio and television series. Now mixing with the rich and famous, Lou and his wife Anne became good friends with Joe and Dorothy DiMaggio. Lou never lost his love for sports, in particular baseball, and in later years was responsible for a gym set up to allow young boys to train as boxers. A kind man, generous to a fault, much of his benevolence was directed to his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey.

It was difficult for fans to think of Lou as an athlete since he had that roly-poly physique, but in his youth he had a trim, athletic body, ideal for competitive sports just as the later stubby later image made for the perfect physical comedian. Following the team’s second film and first starring role, Buck Privates, critics called Lou Costello the funniest man since Charlie Chaplin and fans undoubtedly saw Buck Privates over and over again, just as young Louis had seen Chaplin’s films.

Sadly and tragically, this great star and even greater human being, died far too soon of a heart attack. It was on March 3, 1959 and Lou was just 52 years old. His final film was made after Bud had retired and it was released shortly after his death.  The New York Times said “Lou Costello’s last legacy to his fans is something to leave them laughing….he signs off in high spirits as a man on the threshold of a blissful ever after.”

Louis Cristillo, the athlete, never got to the major leagues or to Madison Square Garden, but Lou Costello became one of the greatest and most beloved comedians ever. Popular the world over, in Italy the duo was known as Gianni & Pinotto. By the way, Lou did get to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He and Bud Abbott are the only non-baseball people in the museum! In October 1956, they presented a gold record of their incredibly funny routine, Who’s on First? to the Cooperstown shrine on the Steve Allen Show over NBC-TV. A fitting tribute to this New Jersey native, athlete turned comic and exceptional human being.

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