Abbott (left) and Costello (right) circa 1940s
Abbott and Costello were an American comedy duo composed of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, whose work on radio and in film and television made them the most popular comedy team of the 1940s and early 1950s. Their patter routine “Who’s on First?” is one of the best-known comedy routines of all time, and set the framework for many of their best-known comedy bits.
Bud Abbott (1897–1974) was a veteran burlesque entertainer from a show business family. He started in burlesque box offices as a treasurer around 1918, and eventually managed and produced touring burlesque companies before becoming a performer. He worked as a straight man with his wife Betty, then with veteran burlesque comedians such as Harry Steppe and Harry Evanson.
Lou Costello (1906–1959) became a burlesque comic in 1928 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 Laurel’s ill-fated boxing match. (As a teenager, Costello had been an amateur boxer in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey.) Costello’s first appearance in burlesque was in St. Joseph, Missouri. He joined the Mutual Burlesque wheel in 1929, and Minsky’s in 1932.
While they crossed paths a few times, the two comedians 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 performance came about when Costello’s regular partner became ill. When AMC moved the old theater 168 ft (51 m) further 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, encouraged a permanent pairing. The duo built an act by refining and reworking numerous burlesque sketches with Abbott as the devious straight man and Costello as the dimwitted comic.
The team’s first known radio appearance was on The Kate Smith Hour on February 3, 1938. At first, the similarities between their voices made it difficult for radio listeners (as opposed to stage audiences) to tell them apart during their rapid-fire repartee. As a result, Costello affected a high-pitched, childish voice. “Who’s on First?” was first performed for a national radio audience the following month. They performed on the program as regulars for two years, while also landing roles in a Broadway revue, The Streets of Paris, in 1939.
Movies and Fame
In 1940, Universal Studios signed them for a musical, One Night in the Tropics. Cast in supporting roles, they stole the show with several classic routines, including the “Who’s on First?” routine. Universal signed them to a two-picture contract. Their second film, Buck Privates (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin and co-starring The Andrews Sisters, was a massive hit, earning $4 million at the box office and launching Abbott and Costello as stars.
Their next film was a haunted house comedy, Oh, Charlie!. However Buck Privates was so successful that the studio decided to delay its release so the team could hastily make and release In The Navy (1941), co-starring crooner Dick Powell and the Andrews Sisters. This film initially out-grossed Buck Privates.Loew’s Criterion in Manhattan was open until 5 a.m. to oblige over 49,000 customers during the film’s first week.
Oh, Charlie was put back into production to add music featuring the Andrews Sisters and Ted Lewis. The film was eventually released as Hold That Ghost (1941). The duo next made Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1941), with Dick Foran, but its release was delayed so they could appear in a third service comedy, Keep ‘Em Flying (1941). This was their last film with Arthur Lubin.
All of these films were big hits, and Abbott and Costello were voted the third biggest box office attraction in the country in 1941.
Universal loaned them to MGM for a musical comedy, Rio Rita (1942). During filming, on December 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Abbott and Costello had their hand and foot prints set in concrete at what was then “Grauman’s Chinese Theatre”. Back at Universal they made Pardon My Sarong (1942), a spoof of South Sea Island movies; and Who Done It? (1942), a comedy-mystery.
In 1942 exhibiters voted them the top box office stars in the country, and their earnings for the fiscal year were $789,026.) The team did a 35-day tour during the summer of 1942 to promote and sell War Bonds. The Treasury Department credited them with $85 million in sales.
After the tour the team made It Ain’t Hay (1943), from a story by Damon Runyon; and Hit the Ice (1943).
Costello was stricken with rheumatic fever upon his return from a winter tour of army bases in March 1943 and was bedridden for approximately six months. On November 4, 1943, the same day that Costello returned to radio after a one-year layoff due to his illness, 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 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.
They returned to filming with Lost in a Harem (1944), made at MGM. It was back to Universal for In Society (1944), Here Come the Co-Eds (1945) and The Naughty Nineties (1945). Their third and final film for MGM was Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945).
In 1945 a rift developed when Abbott hired a domestic servant who had been fired by Costello. Costello refused to speak to his partner except when performing. The following year they made two films, (Little Giant and The Time of Their Lives), in which they appeared as separate characters rather than as a team. This may have been a result of the tensions between them, plus the fact that their most recent films had not performed as well at the box office. Abbott resolved the rift when he suggested naming Costello’s pet charity, a foundation for underprivileged children, the “Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation.” The facility opened in 1947 and still serves the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles.
Abbott and Costello reunited as a team in Buck Privates Come Home (1947), a sequel to their big hit. In The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947) they were supported by Marjorie Main.
They signed a new contract with Universal which allowed them to make films outside of their studio contract. The Noose Hangs High (1948) was released through Eagle-Lion.
The duo’s next film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), co-starring Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr, was a massive hit and revitalized the duo’s careers. It was followed by Mexican Hayride (1948), an adaptation of a Cole Porter musical without the songs. They then made Africa Screams (1949) for Nassour Studios, independent company which released through United Artists. Back at Universal they returned to horror comedy with Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949).
The team was sidelined again for several months when Costello suffered a relapse of rheumatic fever. They returned to the screen in 1950 with Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950). The following year they made Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951); then Comin’ Round the Mountain (1952), a hillbilly comedy.
They made their first color film independent of Universal, Jack and the Beanstalk (1952). After Lost in Alaska (1952) for Universal, they made second independent color movie, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1953).
At Universal they did Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1954). 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. Their last films for Universal were Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).
Abbott and Costello on Radio (notice Bud without his toupee that he always wore in films)
After working as Fred Allen’s summer replacement in 1940, Abbott and Costello joined Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour in 1941. Two of their films (Buck Privates and Hold That Ghost) were adapted for Lux Radio Theater that year. 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 Costello, who routinely insulted his on-air wife played by Elvia Allman). 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, 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 included Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, The Andrews Sisters, and Lucille Ball.
In 1947 the show moved 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)on Saturday mornings. The program featuring child vocalist Anna Mae Slaughter and child announcer Johnny McGovern.
Abbott and Costello on NBC’s This Is Your Life November 21, 1956
In January 1951 Abbott and Costello joined the rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC. (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.
From the fall of 1952 to the spring of 1954, 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 hounding Costello to get a job, while Abbott barely lifted a finger in that direction. The show featured Sidney Fields as their landlord and Hillary Brooke as a neighbor and sometime love interest for Costello. Other regulars were future Stooge Joe Besser as Stinky, a whiny child in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit; Gordon Jones as Mike the cop, who always lost patience with Lou, Joe Kirk (Costello’s brother-in-law) as Mr. Bacciagalupe, an Italian immigrant caricature whose role varied with the requirements of the script; and Bobby Barber, who played many “extra” parts.
The simple plot lines were often an excuse to recreate comedy routines from their films and burlesque days, including “Who’s on First?” Since Lou owned the series (with Abbott working on salary), this allowed them to own these versions of the classic routines as well. Although The Abbott and Costello Show originally ran for only two seasons, it found a larger viewership in reruns from the late 1960s to the 1990s. The shows have also been released in three different DVD sets over the years.
Box office ranking
For a number of years Abbott and Costello were ranked among the most popular stars in the US according to the Quigley Publishers Poll of Exhibitors:
1941 – 3rd
1942 – 1st
1943 – 3rd
1944 – 8th
1947 – 16th
1948 – 3rd
1949 – 3rd
1950 – 6th (US), 2nd (UK)
1951 – 4th (US), 4th (UK)
1952 – 11th
1953 – 20th
1941 In the Navy
1941 Hold That Ghost
1941 Keep ‘Em Flying
1942 Ride ‘Em Cowboy
1942 Rio Rita
1942 Pardon My Sarong
1942 Who Done It?
1943 It Ain’t Hay
1943 Hit the Ice
1944 In Society
1944 Lost in a Harem
1945 Here Come the Co-Eds
1946 Little Giant
1946 The Time of Their Lives
1947 Buck Privates Come Home
1947 The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap
1948 Mexican Hayride
1950 Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion
1951 Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
1951 Comin’ Round the Mountain
1952 Jack and the Beanstalk
1953 Abbott and Costello Go to Mars
1953 Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
1955 Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy
1956 Dance with Me, Henry
1959 The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock
1965 The World of Abbott and CostelloShare