In keeping with my present state of affairs as “bartender out of work”… I’m a customer now not a pourer… I thought I’d pull up a stool and share a story with you. It seems there are many things in my crazy past (my both great and inglorious past) that might just carry this blog til I’m back behind the stick. But know this. While sitting here at the bar with you I promise to honor the Barland code by not ever being a gas bag, by not being argumentative, by being truthful at every turn without adding extra ketchup (well, maybe just a little!) and I’ll try to entertain as best I can. And if ever you find that I’ve failed “the code” by breaching any of its precepts, just ask the bartender to move your drink down the end.
So here goes, this is me as “guy on the stool” with a story.
A long time ago, when the world was young and so was I, I worked on a television game show called It Takes Two. Vin Scully was the host of the show and three celebrity couples made up the panel. I won’t go into just how the show worked, it would take up too much time (that’s me not being a “gas bag”), just know that I wrote up one of four acts produced in each day’s show, each one leading to a numerical trivia question. In other words, this wasn’t a typical Q&A thing like Jeopardy.
So one day my boss, a guy named Les Roberts who is now a successful mystery writer living in Cleveland, Ohio, where all of his stories take place, told me to write up an act about Bud Abbott. It happened that Bud was to do a guest spot and I had to write up some business to introduce him. Now for those of you not familiar with the name, Bud was half of a comedy team called “Abbott and Costello” (they were huge in the 40′s and 50′s) and Bud was the straight man to his rolly polly partner, Lou Costello. And as far as what I could draw on when I sat down to write the script, I had their classic baseball routine called “Who’s on First?” (you can find and view it on You Tube), the perfect way to launch right into the act.
So after Les had read my script and gave it his stamp of approval, he asked of me a rather unusual request. He said since Bud had recently had a stroke and was now confined to a wheelchair, would I mind picking him up on the day of the taping?
Would I mind picking him up? I thought. Why I’d push his wheel chair from his house all the way to the studio!!! See as a kid I couldn’t have been a bigger fan of Abbott and Costello movies, now here I was not just writing for him (well not for him but about him) but getting to drive him to and from the studio. Clearly a fan’s dream!
So I drove up to Bud’s house, a modest but nice, ranch-style home on Redwing Drive in Woodland Hills, and there to greet me at the door was his wife Betty. Betty was a former burlesque dancer who actually performed with Bud before his Costello connection, who remained the love of his life for fifty five years. Betty led me through the door, she introduced me to Bud who was sitting in his wheelchair… frail of body but sharp of mind… and Bud and I shook hands and the gig was afoot. I then bid Betty good-bye, told her not to worry that I’d take good care, then I wheeled Bud out to my beat up 66′ Mustang. I helped him into the passenger’s seat, buckled him into place, then we hit the freeway and headed for NBC. And all I remember looking back on that drive was me trying to act very cool, acting as though this was normal hanging out with legends. But I was terribly young and naive at the time and this was my way of trying to appear grown up. Pretty silly, huh?
When we got to NBC, a wonderful thing immediately happened when I wheeled Bud through the halls, as many of the old time stage hands who had worked with Bud in the old days (they were poker buddies when the cameras went dark), recognized Bud and ran up and shook his hand. This really meant a lot to Bud because he felt he was pretty much forgotten, and was only doing our show because he thought it might be fun just getting out there again. (And sadly because he’d get a Kelvinator refrigerator.)
So when it came time for his entrance after a short audio piece of “Who’s on First?” we’d acquired, Vin brought him on with my obvious line, “I can’t make heads or tails of this but here’s a guy who might just know how to explain it.” Then the curtain slowly rose, there was Bud sitting in his wheelchair in front of a bunch of blow-ups taken from his movies, and the audience rose to its feet with a standing ovation. I mean a long standing ovation which brought down the house. No, Bud Abbott had not been forgotten which this audience had clearly illustrated, but the celebs on the panel (whose names escape me) ran to him in commercial and emphasized the point. More than mission accomplished, Bud was a hit!
As I was driving Bud back home, feeling like the two of us had just won an Emmy, I noticed a tear running slowly down the side of his cheek. And he was staring straight ahead as if in a trance. One can only imagine the thoughts that he was holding but I had no right to ask and of course I didn’t. Then fortunately Bud broke the silence and came back to earth.
“You know something,” he said, “it was pretty goddam nice of those people to stand up like that.”
“You mean the audience when the curtain came up?”
“Hell yeah, that’s what I mean. I guess they probably thought I’d already died or something.”
Well now it was time for me to drop the “cool” thing.
“Mr. Abbott,” I began, “I’ve got to be honest with you. I’ve been trying to act blase all day trying to appear professional, but this is the biggest thrill I’ve ever had. And I really mean that. As a kid back in Pittsburgh when we went to the Saturday matinees, and they showed an Abbott and Costello movie in the previews, we stood on our seats, jumped up and down and cheered. That’s how big a fans we were. And so I’m sure those people in the audience today were just like me… long time Abbott and Costello fans.” He smiled at that but the tear remained on his cheek.
When we got back to his house, a bittersweet moment then grabbed my psyche upon entering. It was when Betty yelled from the kitchen, “How’d it go at the studio today, hon?” Like it was still the old days when he actually came home from THE STUDIO! (Not appearing on a game show for a refrigerator!)
“It went fine, dear,” he said, winking at me as he said it, “I actually got a standing ovation today.” I then chimed in and assured Betty this was true. Betty then asked if I’d like a drink, I accepted a glass of Coke, and Bud motioned me to the couch to have a chat. Now here’s where the story, to me, gets absolutely amazing.
I said, “Bud, I know you did it a thousand times but how did you ever keep track when you did “Who’s on First?”
“Are you kidding?” he said. “Lou was the one with the hard part, all I had to do was just correct him. Once I memorized the bases my part was easy. Here I’ll show you.” Then believe it or not, dear reader, after he walked me through “who was on what” he gave me his part to play, then he took Lou’s and we actually did the routine. Or at least a small part of it. And it was not unlike, given who I was and who was sitting across from me, doing a scene from Hamlet with Sir Freaking Larry!
And as if that wasn’t enough, after we’d finished he dropped this cherry on top. “Betty,” he called, “go on into the den and get me one of those records.” (One of those records!) Betty then emerged from the den holding a 78 LP of “Who’s on First?”. Bud took it from Betty, signed the label with a salutation, then told me there were only three of them in circulation. One he said was in Cooperstown in the Baseball hall of Fame, I forget where he said the second was (maybe in the Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame) and the third one was now clutched in my right hand. Can you believe it?
I thanked Bud profusely, told him again what a thrill it was to have spend the day with him, and just as I headed for the door he stopped me with this…
“Hey, kid, if you ever want to shoot the breeze or you want to stop by the house just give us a ring. You have our number now.” I got the feeling the day we had spent had awakened something in Bud, and he somehow wanted to keep that feeling alive. And the look on Betty’s face seemed to verify that. She gave me a smile and out the door I went.
And now the bad news. I waited too long to take Bud up on his offer of getting together, he died before we ever could meet again. And the record he so generously gave me? It got lost somehow in my travels over the years. Absolutely shameful! But I’ll always have that day which I’ll never ever lose.
Oh, Bartender, I’ve talked for a pretty long time here, how about letting me buy these guys their next round!!!