Saturday, November 05, 2005

Geoff Collins Reveals the Healy and Costello Story!

The abrupt departure of Ted Healy's stooges in early 1934 left the great comedian in something of a quandary. Of course, he should have seen this coming; he'd had to pay them the absolute minimum wage for some time, in order to afford the basic necessities of life: booze and women. And why was Moe so unsympathetic and inconsiderate about this? Not that Ted needed stooges, but it was nice to have someone to slap around when his demons took hold - which was usually three or four times a night.

THREE stooges cost a lot of money though.... The thought crossed Ted's mind: why not a double act? So he sent a wire to Lou Costello.

They'd met, briefly, before, in '26 or '27 at the Hal Roach studio. Ted, already a star, was doing a guest bit in Wise Guys Prefer Brunettes; Lou was an extra, doing his best to get noticed (he's visible, mugging away expansively, in the front row of the boxing auditorium audience in The Battle of the Century) But whereas Ted subsequently found fame and fortune in Hollywood and the New York nightclubs, Lou had gone back to vaudeville and burlesque. But he was a funny little guy and he could take a slap.

The team clicked immediately and they soon built up an impressive range of routines, most notably "Who's the Daddy Bear ?" in which would-be nightclubber Ted impatiently tries to get "baby son" Lou to sleep by telling him the story of Goldilocks. However, the three bears are called Who, What, and I Don't Know, resulting in a very exasperated Ted and a much-slapped Lou.

Another celebrated routine, "What time Is It?" cast Ted as the merciless drill sergeant and Lou as the hapless buck private unable - and secretly unwilling - to follow the simplest instruction. This featured Ted's catchphrase "You belong in the INSANE asylum" and the revelation (an idea later recycled on the English radio Goon Show) that although Lou carries an armful of watches, he has the time written on a piece of paper.

Successful vaudeville tours were soon followed by guest appearances in Columbia features and a few surreal musical shorts for MGM which were in effect thinly disguised showcases for the dubious talents of Ted's girlfriends (Bonnie's in the Money) A contract with Universal in 1940 resulted in the team's first starring feature, Hey Teddy!. This was a remake of the horror classic The Old Dark House, with Ted and Lou as stranded travellers forced to spend the night in a spooky mansion populated by a family of homicidal maniacs. The head of the household, Saul Femm, was played with great relish by imported comic Cyril Fletcher, whom the boys had befriended on a British music hall tour the year before. Cyril was magnificently creepy in the role, and this led to a succession of similar butler-manservant parts in cheap horror-comedies for Monogram, and one co-starring role at PRC with Harry Langdon: The Odd Odor. But despite a splendid turn as Renfield in Healy and Costello Meet Dracula, he realised his movie career was going nowhere and he returned to English variety and television, where he terrified a whole new generation of children.

By this time, though, the H & C comedies, churned out at the rate of two or three a year, were becoming formulaic and Ted's drinking was beginning to affect his timing, although there were occasional high spots such as the reworking of the drill sequence in Lou's Your Buddy. Ted was also bitter that Lou had managed to reverse the original pay structure so that he now got 40% and Lou got 60%. This led to the inevitable acrimonious split, and Lou teamed up with vaudeville veteran Sidney Fields, who'd been struggling along in another double act with Bobby Barber. In order to placate Bobby, Lou kept him on as a sort of paid fall guy. Sid and Lou went on to become popular TV stars and eventually landed their own weekly series in which they played down-on-their luck vaudevillians trying to keep one step ahead of the landlord, who was played by another old pal, gravelly-voiced Bud Abbott. [I'll bet you thought he'd never arrive!]

In the meantime Ted, after his young wife virtually forced him into a lengthy drying-out session at the Keeley Institute, also went on to become one of the early stars of TV, taking over as MC on the Texaco Star Theater at very short notice. It has recently been suggested that the vicious brawl outside a New York nightclub, which resulted in the hospitalisation of host Milton Berle and the death of guest star Wallace Beery, was not the result of a random attack by students, but was planned and carried out by mobsters. Did Lou help his former partner back into the limelight? One of the retreating assassins was heard to yell "I'm a ba-aa-aad boy!"

Ted's career went from strength to strength; he appeared many times on Sid and Lou's show as Mike the Cop, never failing to give Lou a slap at every opportunity. Eventually he settled in as popular host of The Tonight Show.

Lou died in 1959, and a few years later Ted showed that all the old grievances were long forgotten when he presented an affectionate TV-movie tribute: Hey Fieldsie! Ted himself celebrated his golden wedding anniversary in May 1986 and died two months later at the age of 89.

But what became of Ted's original stooges? Apart from a few guest bits on children's TV shows such as Uncle Mousie's Nertsery Time, they were never heard of again.

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