Hanging from a rack in my office is a collection of neckties, each one emblazoned with a picture of comedy greats: Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and my favorites, Abbott and Costello. In recent months, that tie has acquired a new significance.
Peter Spellos was my student in the early ’70s when I taught high school English. He didn’t share my disdain for dangling participles or misplaced modifiers, but we did share a love of comedy. You name it, we laughed at it and analyzed it.
One evening, Peter and I watched the Mel Brooks classic, “The Producers.” We talked about the brilliant performances by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Peter’s persona reminded me of Mostel. Both were bigger than life, in more ways than one.
Peter enjoyed a career doing roles in films and voiceovers in several well-known anime movies. He had a booth at Gen Con in Indy where fans of his work lined up for autographs. Peter ultimately moved to Indy and began teaching acting, comedy and improv to eager students who came to love him and learn from him.
So, what does this all have to do with Abbott and Costello? The legendary team is best known for what is considered the greatest comedy sketch of all time, “Who’s on First?” Peter and I had tried to learn the routine in the past, but it wasn’t easy. It’s all about mastering the timing.
One night at a Greek restaurant downtown, we had a few too many Corfu Lagers, and while our cheese was flaming, we stood up in the middle of a packed room and performed “Who’s on First?” The patrons gave us a standing ovation, as well as another round of Greek beer.
Before Peter moved here in 2015, I did a one-man show at Fringe, a festival of multi-talented people who perform during a three-week period along Mass Ave in Indy. My topic was Jewish humor, a subject I knew well, but the hour-long act was way out of my comfort zone. The first evening of the show I peeked around the curtain to see if anyone had bought a ticket. There, in the front row, was Peter. He was working in New York and made the trip here for that one night only.
Peter passed away quietly in hospice Nov. 19 surrounded by his students who revered him. He taught them all how to enjoy the sound of laughter, to think creatively, and to make the world a brighter place.On a recent Sunday, I wore my Abbott and Costello tie to our Unitarian church, where I lit a candle for Peter. I don a comedy tie to most occasions, but sometimes it’s difficult to decide which comedian to wear. For the near future, it’s pretty obvious who’s on first.