William "Bud" Abbott and Lou Costello were an American comedy duo whose work in vaudeville and on stage, radio, film and television made them the most popular comedy team during the 1940s and early 1950s. Their patter routine "Who's on First?" is considered one of the greatest comedy routines of all time and set the framework for many of their best-known comedy bits.
Bud Abbott (1895-1974) was a veteran burlesque entertainer from a show business family. He worked at Coney Island and ran his own burlesque touring companies. At first he worked as a straight man to his wife Betty, then with veteran burlesque comedians like Harry Steppe and Harry Evanson. When he met his future partner in comedy, Abbott was performing in Minsky's Burlesque shows. Bud had been working at least a decade prior to meeting Lou Costello.
Lou Costello (1906-1959) had been a burlesque comic since 1930 after failing to break into movie acting and working as a stunt double and film extra. He appears briefly in the 1927 Laurel and Hardy silent two-reeler, The Battle of the Century, seated at ringside during Stan's ill-fated boxing match. As a teenager, Costello had been an amateur boxer in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Lou Costello was introduced to burlesque through the Ann Corio Show. He was a "dancing juvenile," who came out before the top banana and warmed up the audience - only he would get the laughs.
The two men first worked together in 1935 at the Eltinge Burlesque Theater on 42nd Street--now the lobby of the AMC Empire movie complex in New York City. This first performance occurred due to Costello's regular partner being ill. When AMC moved the old theater 168 ft (51 m) west on 42nd Street to its current location, giant balloons of Abbott and Costello were rigged to appear to pull it.
Other performers in the show, including Abbott's wife Betty, advised a permanent pairing. The duo built an act by refining and reworking numerous burlesque sketches into the long-familiar presence of Abbott as the devious straight man and Costello as the stumbling, dimwitted laugh-getter.
Movies and fame:
The team's first known radio appearance was on The Kate Smith Hour in February 1938. Initially, the similarities between their voices made it difficult for listeners (as opposed to stage audiences) to tell them apart due to their rapid-fire repartee. The problem was solved by having Costello affect a high-pitched childish voice. "Who's on First?" was first performed for a national radio audience the following month. They stayed on the program as regulars for two years, while landing roles in a Broadway revue, The Streets of Paris, in 1939.
In 1940 Universal Studios signed them for the film One Night in the Tropics. Cast in supporting roles, they stole the show with several classic routines, including "Who's on First?" The same year they were a summer replacement on radio for Fred Allen. Two years later, they had their own NBC show.
Universal signed them to a long-term contract, and their second film, Buck Privates (1941), made them box-office stars and saved Universal from imminent bankruptcy. In most of their films, the plot was a framework for the two comics to reintroduce comedy routines they first performed on stage. Universal also added glitzy production numbers to capitalize on the musical-comedy film genre of the day which featured The Andrews Sisters, Ted Lewis and his Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, Martha Raye, The Merry Macs, and Dick Foran, singing "I'll Remember April" in Ride 'Em Cowboy. Several of their films featured some of the most popular hits of World War Two, including The Andrews Sisters' Oscar-nominated "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", as well as "I'll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time", both from Buck Privates. Bud & Lou's sequel, In The Navy, featured crooner Dick Powell along with The Andrews Sisters, and it initially out-grossed Buck Privates. Management at Loew's Criterion in Manhattan kept theater doors open until 5 a.m. to oblige over 49,000 attendees during the first premiere week of In the Navy. Hold That Ghost was completed before production of In the Navy began, but when shown to preview audiences, film-goers that completed feedback cards were disappointed not to see The Andrews Sisters, so the trio was hired and musical numbers were added as a prologue and epilogue. The singing sisters became good friends with Costello during this period, enjoying many barbecues and film showings with their parents at Lou's home throughout the early 1940s. In 1945, both acts traded guest appearances on each other's top-rated radio shows.
Bud and Lou made 36 films together between 1940 and 1956. Abbott and Costello were among the most popular and highest-paid entertainers in the world during World War II. Other film successes included Keep 'Em Flying, Who Done It?, Pardon My Sarong, The Time of Their Lives, Buck Privates Come Home, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, two films in which Bela Lugosi reprised his famous role as Dracula for the final time, and Lon Chaney Jr. played The Wolf Man for the fifth and final time in film. It ended with a voice cameo by Vincent Price as The Invisible Man.
On December 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Abbott and Costello had their prints set in concrete at what was then "Grauman's Chinese Theatre". In 1942, they were the top box office draw with four films earning a total of $10 million. They remained a top ten box office attraction until 1952.
After working as Allen's summer replacement, Abbott and Costello joined Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour in 1941, while two of their films (Buck Privates and Hold That Ghost) were adapted for Lux Radio Theater. They launched their own weekly show October 8, 1942, sponsored by Camel cigarettes.
The Abbott and Costello Show mixed comedy with musical interludes (by vocalists such as Connie Haines, Ashley Eustis, the Delta Rhythm Boys, Skinnay Ennis, Marilyn Maxwell, and the Les Baxter Singers). Regulars and semi-regulars on the show included Artie Auerbach ("Mr. Kitzel"), Elvia Allman, Iris Adrian, Mel Blanc, Wally Brown, Sharon Douglas, Verna Felton, Sidney Fields, Frank Nelson, Martha Wentworth, and Benay Venuta. Ken Niles was the show's longtime announcer, doubling as an exasperated foil to Abbott and Costello's mishaps (and often fuming in character as Costello routinely insulted his on-air wife). Niles was succeeded by Michael Roy, with announcing chores also handled over the years by Frank Bingman and Jim Doyle. The show went through several orchestras during its radio life, including those of Ennis, Charles Hoff, Matty Matlock, Matty Malneck, Jack Meakin, Will Osborne, Fred Rich, Leith Stevens, and Peter van Steeden. The show's writers included Howard Harris, Hal Fimberg, Parke Levy, Don Prindle, Eddie Cherkose (later known as Eddie Maxwell), Leonard B. Stern, Martin Ragaway, Paul Conlan, and Eddie Forman, as well as producer Martin Gosch. Sound effects were handled primarily by Floyd Caton. Guest stars were plentiful, including Frank Sinatra, The Andrews Sisters, and Lucille Ball.
In 1947 Abbott and Costello moved the show to ABC (the former NBC Blue Network). During their time on ABC, the duo also hosted a 30-minute children's radio program (The Abbott and Costello Children's Show), which aired Saturday mornings, featuring child vocalist Anna Mae Slaughter and child announcer Johnny McGovern.
In 1951, they moved to television as rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour. (Eddie Cantor and Martin and Lewis were among the others.) Each show was a live hour of vaudeville in front of an audience, revitalizing the comedians' performances and giving their old routines a new sparkle.
Beginning late in 1952, a filmed half-hour series, The Abbott and Costello Show, appeared in syndication on local stations across the United States. Loosely based on their radio series, the show cast the duo as unemployed wastrels. One of the show's running gags involved Abbott perpetually nagging Costello to get a job to pay their rent, while Abbott barely lifted a finger in that direction. The show featured Sidney Fields as their landlord, and Hillary Brooke as a friendly neighbor who sometimes got involved in the pair's schemes. Other semi-regulars were future Stooge Joe Besser as Stinky, a whiny child in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit played by the clearly adult Besser, and Gordon Jones as Mike the cop, who always lost patience with Lou.
The simple plot lines were often merely an excuse to recreate old comedy routines including "Who's on First?" and other familiar set pieces from their films and burlesque days. Since Lou owned the series, this allowed them to own these versions of their classic routines as well. The Abbott and Costello Show ran two seasons, but found a larger viewership in reruns from the late 1960s to the 1990s. The shows have been released in three different DVD sets over the years.
Both Abbott and Costello met and married women they knew in burlesque. Abbott married Betty Smith in 1918, and Costello married Anne Battler in 1934. The Costellos had four children; the Abbotts adopted two.
Abbott and Costello faced personal demons at times. Both were inveterate gamblers and had serious health problems. Abbott suffered from epilepsy and turned to alcohol for pain management. Costello had occasional, near-fatal bouts with rheumatic fever. On November 4, 1943, the same day that Costello returned to radio after a one-year layoff due to his illness with rheumatic fever, his infant son, Lou Jr. (nicknamed "Butch" and born November 6, 1942), died in an accidental drowning in the family's swimming pool. Maxene Andrews remembers visiting Costello with sisters Patty and LaVerne during his illness, and she also remembered how Costello's demeanor changed after the tragic loss of his son, saying, "He didn't seem as fun-loving and as warm...He seemed to anger easily...there was a difference in his attitude."
During 1945, a rift developed when Abbott hired a domestic servant who had been fired by Costello. Angered by Abbott's decision, Costello refused to speak to his partner except when performing. The following year, they made two films in which they appeared as separate characters rather than as a team (Little Giant and The Time of Their Lives). This may have been a result of the tensions between them, plus the fact that their most recent films had not done well at the box office and Lou wanted to change the formula. Abbott allegedly resolved the rift when he volunteered to help with Costello's pet charity, a foundation for underprivileged children, and suggested naming it the Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation. The facility opened in 1947 and still serves the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles.
In the 1950s Abbott and Costello's popularity waned as their place as filmdom's hottest comedy team was taken by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Another reason for the decline was overexposure. Abbott and Costello's routines, already familiar, were now glutting the movie and television markets. Each year they made two new films, while Realart Pictures re-released most of their older hits; their filmed television series was widely syndicated, and the same routines appeared frequently on the Colgate program. (Writer Parke Levy told Jordan R. Young, in The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV's Golden Age, that he was stunned to learn that Bud and Lou were afraid to perform new material.) They were forced to withdraw from Fireman Save My Child in 1954 due to Costello's health and were replaced by Hugh O'Brian and Buddy Hackett. Universal dropped the comedy team in 1955 after they could not agree on contract terms. In the early 1950s the Internal Revenue Service charged them for back taxes, forcing them to sell their homes and most of their assets, including the rights to most of their films.
In 1956 they made one independent film, Dance with Me, Henry and Lou was the subject of the television program This Is Your Life, then formally dissolved their partnership in 1957.
Lou Costello made about ten solo appearances on The Steve Allen Show and headlined in Las Vegas. He also appeared in episodes of GE Theater and Wagon Train. On March 3, 1959, not long after completing his lone solo film, The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock, he died of a heart attack, just days short of his 53rd birthday.
Bud Abbott attempted a comeback in 1960, teaming with Candy Candido. Although the new act received good reviews, Bud quit, saying, "No one could ever live up to Lou." Abbott made a solo, dramatic appearance on an episode of General Electric Theater in 1961. In 1966, Abbott voiced his character in a series of 156 five-minute Abbott and Costello cartoons made by Hanna-Barbera. Lou's character was voiced by Stan Irwin. Bud Abbott died of cancer on April 24, 1974.
The cartoon series was not the first time Abbott and Costello were in animation. During the height of their popularity in the 1940s, Warner Bros.'s Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies animation unit produced 3 cartoons featuring the pair as cats or mice named "Babbit and Catstello". One of the cartoons, Bob Clampett's A Tale of Two Kitties (1941), introduced Tweety. The other cartoons are A Tale of Two Mice and Mouse-Merized Cat. In all three cartoons, Tedd Pierce (normally a storyman/writer for the cartoons) and Mel Blanc, respectively, provide voice impressions of the comedy duo.
The revival of their former television series in syndicated reruns in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped spark renewed interest in the duo, as did the televising of many of their old film hits. In 1994, comedian Jerry Seinfeld--who says Abbott and Costello were strong influences on his work--hosted a television special Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld (the title refers to the duo's popular film series in which they met some of Universal's famed horror picture characters), on NBC; the special was said to have been seen in 20 million homes.
"Who's on First?":
"Who's on First?" is Abbott and Costello's signature routine. (They, however, usually referred to it as "Baseball.") The sketch was based on other burlesque routines with similar wordplay. Depending upon the version, Abbott has organized a new baseball team and the players have nicknames, or he points out the proliferation of nicknames in baseball (citing St. Louis Cardinals sibling pitchers Dizzy and Daffy Dean) before launching the routine. The infielders' nicknames are Who (first base), What (second base) and I Don't Know (third base). The key to the routine is Costello's persistent confusion over pronouns, and Abbott's unwavering nonchalance. Audio recordings are readily available on the internet.
Abbott and Costello began honing the routine shortly after teaming up in 1936 and performed it in vaudeville in 1937 and 1938. It was first heard by a national radio audience in March 1938, when the team were regulars on the Kate Smith radio show. By then, John Grant had been writing or adapting other sketches for the team, and he may have helped expand "Who's On First?" prior to its radio debut. Grant stayed on as a writer for Abbott and Costello into the 1950s. One notable appearance of the sketch is from a 1951 broadcast.
"Who's on First?" is believed to be available in as many as 20 versions, ranging from one minute to about 10 minutes. The team could time the routine at will, adding or deleting portions as needed for films, radio, or television. If they needed to fill four minutes, for example, Abbott and Costello would do four minutes' worth of the baseball bit. The longest version is seen in "The Actors' Home," an episode of their filmed TV series, in which "Who's on First?" constitutes the second half of the program. A live performance commemorating the opening day of the Lou Costello, Jr. Youth Foundation, in 1947 was recorded, and has appeared on numerous comedy albums. The team's final performance of "Who's on First?" was seen on Steve Allen's TV variety show, in 1957.
In the full-length version of "Who's on First?", all of the positions are mentioned except right field.
Abbott and Costello performed a special "Who's on First?" for a USO Command Performance. This is the only known recording that Costello says "I don't give a damn" at the end.
For a radio performance on June 20, 1945, Abbott was ill and was unable to perform on the Walgreens 44th anniversary special. Sidney Fields, in his role as Professor Mellonhead, was the "fill-in" manager in the absence of Abbott and performed the straight man role with Costello.
In popular culture:
The comedy group The Credibility Gap performed a rock and roll update of "Who's on First?" using the names of rock groups The Who, The Guess Who, and Yes, recorded and released on their first album, The Bronze Age of Radio. In the 1988 movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman's autistic character Raymond Babbitt recites an affectless "Who's on First?" as a defense mechanism. NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006), a drama about life backstage at a television comedy series, used "Who's on First?" as a plot device. On the January 13, 2001 episode of Saturday Night Live host Charlie Sheen and SNL cast-member Rachel Dratch performed a modified version of "Who's On First?" in a sketch.
Jerry Seinfeld is an avid fan and "The Old Man (Seinfeld)" (Season 4, Episode 18, aired 18 February 1993) featured a cantankerous old man named "Sid Fields," played by veteran actor Bill Erwin, as a tribute to Sidney Fields, the landlord from the Abbott & Costello TV show. The influence of Abbott & Costello on Seinfeld was discussed in a 1994 NBC program Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld. In Episode 30, Kramer hears the famous Abbott & Costello line "His father was a mudder. His mother was a mudder."
In 2003 Montclair State University dedicated a student residential complex aptly named The Abbott and Costello Center on Clove Road in the Little Falls portion of the university's campus.
In Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a 1993 spoof comedy directed by Mel Brooks, Dick Van Patten played the part of the Abbot. At one point, a man who looked and sounded like Lou Costello (played by Chuck McCann) yelled "Hey, Abbott!", in exactly the same way Lou did in the Abbott and Costello movies, repeating a joke from Brooks' Robin Hood sitcom When Things Were Rotten in which Van Patten shouted the line.
In the 1999 episode of The Simpsons, "Marge Simpson in: 'Screaming Yellow Honkers'", Superintendent Chalmers and Principal Skinner try their hand at being Abbott and Costello.
Abbott and Costello were inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2009.
A TV movie called Bud and Lou, based on a book by Hollywood correspondent Bob Thomas, was broadcast in 1978. Starring Harvey Korman as Bud Abbott and Buddy Hackett as Lou Costello, the film told the duo's life story, focusing on Costello and portraying him as volatile and petty.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license