Many fans are aware of the personal tragedy of Lou Costello and the drowning of his infant son, Butch.
In writing the biography (Richard A. Lertzman and William J. Birnes) The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney now available everywhere from Simon & Schuster, I got to know Mickey Rooney. Mickey had a deep appreciation of the great comedy teams. He watched many of the great comics while growing up backstage in burlesque. His father was comic Joe Yule. He later hung out with Oliver Hardy at the racetrack. Mickey was appearing as “Mickey McGuire”- on stage in Cleveland at the Palace Theater- when Curly Howard appeared for the first time with Ted Healy and His Stooges.And Mickey was a friend of Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello.
Both Mickey and Lou came from burlesque and had much in common. Despite their age difference (Lou was fourteen years older), they enjoyed each other’s company.
In 1943, all work had stopped for Lou Costello as he became bedridden with a rheumatic heart. Lou remained in bed while the films were delayed, the personal appearances were stopped and his radio program used friends to substitute for him.
Mickey Rooney was one of those friends who filled in for Lou. Mickey had even subbed once when Bud and Lou were weekly regulars on the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy “Chase & Sanborn” show, and later when Lou contracted rheumatic fever and couldn’t do the regular “Abbott & Costello Show” radio series for about a year. The first few weeks that Lou was off of their starring series, Bud worked with “guest partners” including Mickey Rooney, Bert Lahr, Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, Red Skelton and a few others. After a few weeks of doing that, Bud went to the network and sponsor and said that it just wasn’t right that he work with other comedians during Lou’s absence (which everyone knew would be a long one). Bud stepped back and said, “When our little buddy comes back, I’ll come back too”. Bud and Lou did return to the show once Lou recovered, and during their absence the sponsor (Camel cigarettes) brought in Jimmy Durante and Garry Moore to take over the Camel series until Abbott & Costello returned. When A&C did return to the Camel show, Durante and Moore began a new series sponsored by Rexall Drugs.”
Finally, November 4th, 1943 was the heralded return of Lou Costello to his Abbott & Costello radio show. Everyone eagerly awaited Lou being reunited with Bud. The November 4th show was heralded as Lou Costello’s triumphant return to the air.
In 1943, Costello and his family were living at Longridge Ave. in Sherman Oaks. On the afternoon of Nov. 4, 1943, while Costello was at NBC rehearsing for his first radio show in a year, his wife, Anne, had put their son, Lou “Butch” Costello Jr., in a playpen in the backyard. Anne Costello said she looked out and saw Butch in his playpen about 2:30 p.m. and when she looked out again a few moments later, he was gone. “Racing into the yard, she ran to the swimming pool and found the child floating face-down in water a foot and one-half deep,” The Times said. “She pulled him from the water and screamed for help. Two neighbors, Mrs. Bert Gutterman and Mrs. William Holmes, rushed to her aid and Mrs. Gutterman began giving artificial respiration. Mrs. Holmes called for an inhalator and Firemen Alvin M. Hull and Paul S. Johnson worked over the boy for more than an hour before Dr. Vincent Kovner pronounced him dead.”
Costello rushed home, arriving just as the firefighters were leaving. “Grief-stricken, he wandered to the swimming pool and stood looking at the pale blue waters for an hour until Dr. Kovner persuaded him to enter the home and rest,” The Times said. Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, and Red Skelton volunteered to take his place. Mickey Rooney was finally scheduled to take Costello’s place that night, when surprisingly, , Costello insisted that the show must go on. He returned to the studio and did the radio show with Abbott and Lana Turner. At the end of the program, Costello rushed from the stage, his face streaked with tears. Then Abbott announced Butch Costello’s death.
Costello and Mickey Rooney remained friends until Lou’s early death on March 3, 1959. Abbott & Costello had disbanded. Lou had done some shows in Las Vegas as was Mickey Rooney at the time. They even kicked around the idea of doing a show together. Mickey was devastated by the death of Lou Costello.
We do include the story in our book, The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney. And as Paul Harvey liked to say, now you know the rest of the story.