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Abbott and Costello

Abbott and Costello

One of the most popular comedy teams in movie history, Bud Abbott (1895-1974) and Lou Costello (1906-1959) began in burlesque and ended on television. Along the way, they sold millions of tickets (and war bonds), almost single-handedly saved Universal Pictures from bankruptcy, and made a legendary catch-phrase out of three little words: "Who's on first?" Straight man Abbott was the tall, slim, sometimes acerbic con artist; Costello was the short, pudgy, childlike patsy. Their unpretentious brand of knockabout comedy was the perfect tonic for a war-weary home front in the early 1940s. Though carefully crafted and perfected on the stage, their precision-timed patter routines allowed room for inspired bits of improvisation. Thanks to Abbott and Costello's films and TV shows, a wealth of classic burlesque sketches and slapstick tomfoolery has been preserved, delighting audiences of all ages and influencing new generations of comedians.

As it happens, both men hailed from New Jersey. William "Bud" Abbott was born October 2, 1895, in Asbury Park, but he grew up in Coney Island. Bored by school, and perhaps inspired by the hurly burly atmosphere of his home town, fourteen-year-old Abbott left home to seek a life in show business. The young man's adventures included working carnivals and being shanghaied onto a Norwegian freighter. Eventually landing a job in the box office of a Washington, D.C. theater, Abbott met and married dancer Betty Smith in 1918. He persisted for years in the lower rungs of show business, acting as straight man to many comics whose skills were not up to Abbott's high level. Louis Francis Cristillo was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on March 6, 1906. As a child, he idolized Charlie Chaplin, and grew into a skillful basketball shooter. In 1927, he tried his luck in Hollywood, working his way at MGM from carpenter to stunt man, a job at which he excelled, until an injury forced him to quit the profession and leave California. Heading back east, he got as far as Missouri, where he talked his way into burlesque as a comedian. While the rest of the country suffered through the Depression, Lou Costello flourished in burlesque. In New York in 1934, he also married a dancer, Ann Battler.

When Abbott finally met Costello in the thirties, it was quickly apparent in their vaudeville act that each man had found in the other that ineffable quality every showbiz team needs: chemistry. Budding agent Eddie Sherman caught their act at Minsky's, then booked them into the Steel Pier at Atlantic City. (Sherman would remain their agent as long as they were a team.) The next big move for Abbott and Costello was an appearance on Kate Smith's radio program, for which they decided to perform a tried-and-true patter routine about Costello's frustration trying to understand Abbott's explanation of the nicknames used by the players on a baseball team.

Abbott: You know, they give ball-players funny names nowadays. On this team, Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third.
Costello: That's what I want to find out. Who's on first?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: I mean the fellow's name on first base.
Abbott: Who.

The boys and their baseball routine were such a sensation that they were hired to be on the show every week—and repeat "Who's on First?" once a month. When Bud and Lou realized that they would eventually run out of material, they hired writer John Grant to come up with fresh routines. Grant's feel for the special Abbott and Costello formula was so on target that, like Eddie Sherman, he also remained in their employ throughout their career. And what a career it was starting to become. After stealing the show from comedy legend Bobby Clark in The Streets of Paris on Broadway, Abbott and Costello graduated to their own radio program. There, they continued to contribute to the language they had already enriched with "Who's on first" by adding the catch phrases, "Hey-y-y-y-y, Ab-bott!" and "Oh—I'm a ba-a-a-d boy!" (For radio, Costello had adopted a childlike falsetto to distinguish his voice from Abbott's.)

Inevitably, Hollywood called, Abbott and Costello answered, and the result was 1940's One Night in the Tropics—"An indiscretion better overlooked," as Costello later called it. The comedy team was mere window dressing in this Jerome Kern operetta, but their next film put the boys center stage. 1941's Buck Privates had a bit of a boy-meets-girl plot, and a few songs from the Andrews Sisters, but this time the emphasis was clearly on Bud and Lou—and it was the surprise hit of the year. The boys naturally sparkled in their patented verbal routines, such as the "Clubhouse" dice game, while an army drill-training routine demonstrated Lou's gifts for slapstick and improvisation. Lou was overjoyed when his idol, Chaplin, praised him as the best clown since the silents. As for Universal, all they cared about was the box-office, and they were overjoyed, too. The studio rushed their new sensational comedy team into film after film (sometimes as many as four a year), and the public flocked to all of them: In the Navy, Hold That Ghost, Ride'Em, Cowboy, etc., etc….

Compared to Laurel and Hardy, there was something rough and tumble about Abbott and Costello. It was like the difference between a symphony orchestra and a brass band. But clearly, Bud and Lou were playing the music the public wanted to hear. Once the war broke out, the government took advantage of the team's popularity to mount a successful war bond drive which toured the country and took in millions for defense.

As fast as Bud and Lou could earn their own money, they couldn't wait to spend it on lavish homes and dressing-room poker games. Amid the gags, high spirits, and big spending, there were also difficult times for the duo. They had a genuine affection for each other, despite the occasional arguments, which were quick to flare up, quick to be forgotten. But Lou inflicted a wound which Bud had a hard time healing when the comic insisted, at the height of their success, that their 50-50 split of the paycheck be switched to 60 percent for Costello and 40 percent for Abbott. Bud already had private difficulties of which the public was unaware; he was epileptic, and he had a drinking problem. As for Lou, he had a near-fatal bout of rheumatic fever which kept him out of action for many months. His greatest heartache, however, came on the day in 1943 when his infant son, Lou "Butch," Jr., drowned in the family swimming pool. When the tragedy struck, Lou insisted on going on with the team's radio show that night. He performed the entire show, then went offstage and collapsed. Costello subsequently started a charity in his son's name, but a certain sadness never left him.

On screen, Abbott and Costello were still riding high. No other actor, with the possible exception of Deanna Durbin, did as much to keep Universal Pictures solvent as Abbott and Costello. Eventually, however, the team suffered from overexposure, and when the war was over and the country's mood was shifting, the Abbott and Costello box office began to slip. Experimental films such as The Time of Their Lives, which presented Bud and Lou more as comic actors than as a comedy team per se, failed to halt the decline. But in the late forties, they burst back into the top money-making ranks with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a film pairing the boys with such Universal horror stalwarts as Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Lon Chaney, Jr.'s Wolf Man. The idea proved inspired, the execution delightful; to this day, Meet Frankenstein is regarded as perhaps the best horror-spoof ever, with all due respect to Ghostbusters and Young Frankenstein. Abbott and Costello went on to Meet the Mummy and Meet the Invisible Man, and, when the team started running out of gas again, they pitched their tent in front of the television cameras on The Colgate Comedy Hour. These successful appearances led to two seasons of The Abbott and Costello Show, a pull-out-the-stops sitcom which positively bordered on the surrealistic in its madcap careening from one old burlesque or vaudeville routine to another. On the show, Bud and Lou had a different job every week, and they were so unsuccessful at all of them that they were constantly trying to avoid their landlord, played by veteran trouper Sid Fields (who contributed to writing the show, in addition to playing assorted other characters). Thanks to the program, a new generation of children was exposed to such old chestnuts as the "Slowly I Turned… " sketch and the "hide the lemon" routine. One of those baby-boomers was Jerry Seinfeld, who grew up to credit The Abbott and Costello Show as the inspiration for his own NBC series, one of the phenomena of 1990s show business.

By the mid 1950s, however, the team finally broke up. It would be nice to be able to report that their last years were happy ones, but such was not the case. Both men were hounded by the IRS for back taxes, which devastated their finances. Lou starred in a lackluster solo comedy film, made some variety show guest appearances, and did a sensitive acting turn on an episode of TV's Wagon Train series, but in 1959 he suddenly died of a heart attack. Abbott lived for fifteen more years, trying out a new comedy act with Candy Candido, contributing his voice to an Abbott and Costello TV animation series, doing his own "straight acting" bit on an episode of G.E. Theater. Before he died of cancer in 1974, Abbott had the satisfaction of receiving many letters from fans thanking him for the joy he and his partner had brought to their lives.

In the 1940s, long before the animated TV show based on Bud and Lou, the Warner Bros. Looney Toons people had caricatured the boys as two cats out to devour Tweetie Bird. Already they had become familiar signposts in the popular culture. The number of comedians and other performers who have over the years paid homage to Abbott and Costello's most famous routine is impossible to calculate. In the fifties, a recording of Abbott and Costello performing "Who's on First" was placed in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This was a singular achievement, over and above the immortality guaranteed by the films in which they starred. How many other performers can claim to have made history in three fields—not only show business, but also sports and linguistics?

—Preston Neal Jones

Further Reading:

Costello, Chris. Lou's on First. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Cox, Stephen, and John Lofflin. The Official Abbott and Costello Scrapbook. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1990.

Furmanek, Bob, and Ron Palumbo. Abbott and Costello in Hollywood. New York, Perigree Books, 1991.

Mulholland, Jim. The Abbott and Costello Book. New York, Popular Library, 1975.

Thomas, Bob. Bud and Lou. Philadelphia and New York, Lippincott, 1977.

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