By Fred Muenz
As a tribute to their “Who’s on First” routine, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are the only non-sportsmen honored by The Baseball Hall of Fame. While Abbott was nearly 10 years older than Costello, and they were never close friends, both of the New Jersey natives dropped out of school to pursue similar dreams of a career in show business.
William Alexander “Bud” Abbott was born Asbury Park, New Jersey, in October, 1897. His parents, Rae and Harry Abbott, both worked for the Barnum and Baily Circus, she as a bareback rider and he a concessionaire and forage agent. When Bud was a child, the family relocated, first to Harlem and finally to Brooklyn, where his father became an advance man for the Columbia Burlesque Wheel (A “wheel” in this case was a series of burlesque shows which followed one another into a theater at specific intervals). More interested in working than school, Abbott dropped out of grammar school to begin working at Coney Island. In his teens, he signed on as a cabin boy on a steamer but was soon forced to shovel coal. It took him a year to work his way back to the U.S. Once back home, he began working in the box office of a local burlesque theater, working his way up to treasurer after a few years, and soon began putting together his own touring burlesque shows. In 1918, he met and married Jenny Mae Pratt, a burlesque dancer and comedienne, and they began producing their own cut-rate vaudeville show. When they were unable to pay for a straight man in the act, Bud took his place on stage. In 1926, he was diagnosed with epilepsy.
Louis Francis Cristillo, aka Lou Costello, was born in March, 1906, in Paterson, New Jersey. In school, he was a gifted athlete, particularly in basketball, and was two-time city and state free-throw champion. (In the 1945 film, HERE COME THE CO-EDS, his basketball prowess can be seen as he performed all of the trick shots without a double, or special effects.) Dropping out of high school, he tried his hand at prize fighting, under the name, Lou King. A great fan of Charlie Chaplin, he decided to hitchhike to California with the idea of becoming a movie actor. Once in Hollywood, however, the only work he could find was as a laborer, extra or occasional stuntman. In 1928, with the coming of talking pictures his prospects of becoming an actor diminished even further, and he decided to give up his dream and hitchhike back home. Broke and stranded in St. Joseph, Missouri, his life changed when he persuaded a burlesque producer to hire him as a Dutch-accented comic at a local theater. By the end of the year, he was back in New York and working the burlesque circuit, where he crossed paths with a talented producer and straight man named Bud Abbott. They first worked together in 1935 when Costello’s straight man fell ill, and formally teamed up in 1936.
In 1938, two years after officially teaming up, Abbott and Costello received national exposure by performing on The Kate Smith Hour radio show, where they premiered their signature “Who’s on First” routine. This was followed by their first appearance in a Broadway musical and, in 1940, to signing with Universal Pictures for supporting roles in the film, ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS (1940). Between 1940 and 1956, the pair appeared in 36 additional films as well as staring in their own radio show. In the 1950’s, Abbott and Costello moved to television, first hosting The Colgate Comedy Hour and finally their own show.
Strained relations finally resulted in their breakup in 1957. During their early years together, Abbott receive 60% of their earnings, because it was thought that the straight man was more important to the act than the comic. Although this was changed after a few years, Costello always deeply resented it. Tax troubles with the IRS cost Abbott and Costello most of their savings, as well as their homes, and the rights to some of their movies. Rheumatic Fever, which had damaged Costello’s heart, and Abbott’s heavy drinking to combat the effects of epilepsy, further strained their relationship.
Lou Costello died of heart disease in March, 1959, three days before his 53rd birthday. Bud Abbott died of prostate cancer in April, 1974, at age 79.
ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.