When Abbott met Costello, they had both worked in different fields in their youth, with Costello being a promising amateur boxer and Abbott working as a cabin boy on a steamer. After they met (while both playing in a burlesque theatre), it was the start of a hugely successful career.
Who were Abbott and Costello?
Bud Abbott was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in October 1897 to Harry Abbott and Rae Fisher, who had worked for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. The family relocated to Brooklyn, where Bud dropped out of school and started work at Dreamland Park on Coney Island.
At the age of 15, he took a job as a cabin boy on a Norwegian steamer, but he lasted only 12 months, as he hated having to shovel coal, so he worked his way back to the United States. He took a job at the box office of the Casino Theatre in Brooklyn, getting to know the industry and producing his own vaudeville show, Broadway Flashes, in 1923, when he was only 26 years old.
Lou Costello was born in March 1906 in Paterson, New Jersey, to Italian immigrant Sebastiano Cristillo and Helen Rege. He was a talented athlete in his youth, becoming New Jersey state’s free-throw basketball champion.
His basketball skills came in useful on the big screen some years later, when he did all his own hoop shots in the 1945 comedy movie, Here Come the Co-Eds. He starred as a college caretaker Oliver Quackenbush, who played in a college basketball game disguised as a female student, Daisy Dimple.
Costello was also a successful boxer in his teens, who fought under the name Lou King. However, he did so without his family’s knowledge and his career was cut short after his father unexpectedly turned up to watch a fight. Once his mother found out her son was boxing, she put her foot down and told him he was never to fight again!
Costello admired Charlie Chaplin and in 1927, he hitchhiked to Hollywood to find work but ended up labouring at Warner Bros and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He found work as an extra, and his athletic prowess led to work as a stuntman, most notably in the MGM film, The Trail of ’98, in 1928.
How did they meet?
In 1929, when talking pictures were in their infancy, Costello returned to New York to get some acting experience on the stage, ending up in burlesque. He found work as a comic with the Mutual Burlesque wheel (a vaudeville-style circuit of small and medium-sized theatres) during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
However, the Mutual wheel collapsed, so he went to work for a rival burlesque circuit, the Minskys, where he met the actor and producer Bud Abbott in 1935. They started a double act, with Abbott playing the straight man and Costello the comic.
Their first stage show together was at New York City’s Eltinge Theatre on 42nd Street – the start of their long and successful career as a double act. They built up a vaudeville act by reworking many burlesque sketches.
They were invited to perform a radio broadcast on The Kate Smith Hour on 3rd February 1938, but Costello was required to change his voice to his trademark high-pitched tone after producers said he and Abbott sounded too similar.
There were fears listeners wouldn’t be able to tell their voices apart during the quick-fire radio banter, so he sounded totally different when they performed on their first show. They continued as regulars on The Kate Smith Hour for two years.
In 1939, they landed roles in the Broadway review, The Streets of Paris, followed by their own radio show, The Abbott and Costello Show, in 1940. It mixed comedy and music and featured star guests, including Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Lucille Ball and The Andrews Sisters. The show was aired until 1949 and attracted some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
At the same time, Abbott and Costello launched a highly successful film career, after being signed up by Universal Studios in 1940 for a musical, One Night in the Tropics.
Their film career continued for the next 15 years. Among their most popular movies were Buck Privates in 1941, when they co-starred with The Andrews Sisters. The film earned $4 million at the box office.
Their films were all comedies and musicals and Universal also loaned them to MGM to make films such as Rio Rita in 1942. They were voted the top box office stars in the United States in 1942 and they earned $789,026 that year. Taking inflation into account, this equates to $27 million in today’s money, so they were on the same level as today’s A-list superstar celebrities.
During the second world war, they were asked by the US government to help raise money for the war effort. They toured America performing live and reportedly even played a gig in a family’s back garden, after youngsters raised several hundred dollars.
In 1955, their final film with Universal Studios was the horror comedy, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, which was their 28th movie together.
Giving them the opportunity to rework some old routines, their TV career began in 1951 when they first hosted the NBC network’s Colgate Comedy Hour – a vaudeville show filmed in front of a live audience.
Their trademark routine was a sketch called Who’s On First, which was adapted from their radio days.
From 1952 to 1954, a series of pre-recorded 30-minute episodes in which they played unemployed wastrels were aired. The early sitcom also starred Joe Besser, who went on to become one of the Three Stooges.
Although the show ran for only two years, re-runs on TV from the 1960s until the 1990s received great viewing figures, turning it into a cult show.
Abbott and Costello’s popularity began to wane in the mid-1950s and they were dropped by Universal Studios in 1955, although they made one independent film, Dance with Me Henry, in 1956.
Although they had worked together for more than two decades, their relationship wasn’t always harmonious. It was reported that when they secured their Hollywood film contract, their earnings were split 50/50. However, Costello objected to this, as he was the comic and felt he deserved more. He threatened to break up the duo if Abbott didn’t agree to a 60/40 split.
Unfortunately, their relationship off-camera became increasingly strained later in their career. Although they always behaved in a professional manner on camera, it was reported that they didn’t speak to each other at all towards the end of their partnership and they split up in 1957.
Their discord had reportedly begun in 1945, over a petty disagreement about a maid who had worked for Costello, when she was hired by Abbott. They both suffered from personal problems: Abbott was said to be a heavy drinker who also had bouts of ill health due to epilepsy, while Costello suffered from frequent bouts of rheumatic fever.
As the forerunners of great comic duos such as Morecambe and Wise and Mike and Bernie Winters, (with the comic and straight man format), the comedy duo has left a legacy for comedy fans, and many clips from their TV and movie work can be found on YouTube.
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