Home Current Issue TV Schedule F.A.Q.
Biography Fan Club E mail Latest News Who's On First?
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are one of the most famous and beloved comedy teams in history. Their unique chemistry and superb comedic timing have never been surpassed. In a partnership that lasted 20 years, they conquered every facet of show business, including burlesque, radio, Broadway, motion pictures and television. Their classic "Who's on First?" routine is considered to be the greatest comedy sketch of all time.|
William Alexander (Bud) Abbott was born into a show business family on October 2, 1897 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. His parents worked for the Barnum and Bailey Circus; his mother was a bareback rider and his father was an advance man. Bud dropped out of school at a young age and began working the concessions at Coney Island. When Bud was 16, his father got him a job in the box office of the Casino burlesque theater in Brooklyn. In 1918 Bud married Betty Smith, a burlesque dancer and comedienne. Eventually, Bud began putting together touring burlesque shows as a producer. Around 1924 Bud started performing as a straight man in an act with Betty. As his stature grew, Abbott began working with veteran burlesque comics and became one of the top straight men in the business.
Louis Francis Cristillo was born March 6, 1906 in Paterson, New Jersey. A gifted athlete, he excelled in basketball and reportedly was once the New Jersey State Foul Shot champion. In 1927 he went to Hollywood to break into movies, but could only find work as a laborer or extra at MGM and Warner Brothers. His athletic skill led to occasional stunt work, notably in "The Trail of '98" (1927). He can also be spotted sitting ringside in the Laurel and Hardy film "The Battle of the Century" (1927). On his trip back home a year later, Lou was stranded in the Midwest and, out of necessity, became a burlesque comedian. In 1934 he married Anne Battler, a burlesque dancer.
Abbott and Costello crossed paths several times in burlesque. They first worked together in 1935 at the Eltinge Theater on 42nd Street in New York. In 1998, when the old theater was painstakingly moved 168 feet to make room for a new entertainment complex, the site's developer commissioned two giant balloons of Bud and Lou and rigged them to appear as if they were pulling their alma mater down 42nd Street.
Abbott and Costello made their partnership formal early in 1936, building an act by improving upon and adapting numerous old burlesque sketches into their own style. This included their signature routine, "Who's on First?" Abbott and Costello undoubtedly are the greatest comedy team to emerge from burlesque. It was a unique and demanding training ground for other comic legends, including W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, and Phil Silvers.
In 1938 Abbott and Costello received their first national exposure on radio's "Kate Smith Hour." Their popularity grew and they stayed on as regulars for two years. This led to roles in a 1939 Broadway musical, "The Streets of Paris," for which they received rave reviews and attention from Hollywood.
In 1940, Universal Pictures signed the boys for the musical "One Night in the Tropics." Cast in supporting roles, Abbott and Costello nonetheless stole the show with several classic routines, including "Who's on First?" Universal quickly signed them to a long-term contract and their second film, "Buck Privates" (1941), secured their place as movie stars. On Dec. 8, 1941, Abbott and Costello's hand and footprints were enshrined at Graumann's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. They are still there today.
Bud and Lou were among the most popular and highest-paid entertainers in the world during World War II. Between 1941 and 1951 they were voted among the nation's Top 10 Box Office Stars eight times, and ranked No. 1 in 1942. The duo made over 30 films between 1940 and 1956. Among their most popular films are "Hold That Ghost," "Who Done It?", "Pardon My Sarong," "The Time of Their Lives," "Buck Privates Come Home," "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," and "Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man." It is widely acknowledged that the team's films kept Universal Studios solvent during World War II and the early 1950s. All 28 of the team's Universal films have been released on DVD. In 1999, Universal named one of the buildings on the lot after them.
The team also appeared on radio throughout the 1940s. They began by hosting a summer replacement series for Fred Allen on NBC in 1940, then joined Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the Chase and Sanborn program in 1941. On October 8, 1942 the team launched its own weekly show on NBC. Sponsored by Camel cigarettes, the half-hour program always ranked in the Top 10, and reached No. 6 in 1944. The team moved to ABC in 1947 and also hosted a children's radio program on Saturday mornings. In 2005, Abbott and Costello were inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago.
At the peak of the team's popularity, Abbott and Costello made two cross-country tours selling War Bonds. They raised an astonishing $85 million for the U.S. Government. At the end of the tour, Costello had an attack of rheumatic fever and was bedridden for much of 1943. Then, on the day Lou was scheduled to return to the team's radio show, his infant son, Lou Jr. (nicknamed Butch), accidentally drowned in the family pool. The baby's first birthday was only days away. Lou had asked his wife to keep Butch up that night so the baby could hear his father on the radio. Lou went on with the show, saying, "Wherever he is tonight, I want him to hear me." The audience was unaware of the tragedy until the end of the show when Bud Abbott explained the events of the day and how Lou epitomized the phrase "The show must go on." People who knew Lou said that he was never the same after the loss of his son.
While Lou was recovering from rheumatic fever, he and Bud planned to fund and build a rheumatic fever hospital and research center. After Butch's death, they decided instead to fund and build the Lou Costello Jr. Youth Center in East Los Angeles. Dedicated in 1947, it continues to serve that impoverished community today.
In 1951 the team made its television debut hosting the "Colgate Comedy Hour," a live variety show that featured rotating hosts such as Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, and Martin and Lewis. The boys appeared on the program 20 times between 1951 and 1955. In 1952, they launched their own half-hour sitcom, "The Abbott and Costello Show." The classic half-hour series included Sid Fields as their landlord and Hillary Brooke as a beautiful neighbor. Another memorable semi-regular was Joe Besser, who played Stinky, a grown man dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. "The Abbott and Costello Show" ran from 1952 to 1954, then found long life in syndication over the next five decades. The episodes were released on VHS in the early 1990s, and later on DVD. In 1998 "Entertainment Weekly" praised the series as one of the "100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time." In 2007, "Time" magazine selected it as one of the "100 Best TV Shows of All Time." Jerry Seinfeld has stated that "The Abbott and Costello Show" was an inspiration for his own sitcom.
In 1956 a gold record of "Who's On First?" was placed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown, New York. A video taken from the team's feature film "The Naughty Nineties" (1945) plays continuously on screens at the Hall. It was said that Abbott and Costello performed "Who's On First?" a thousand times in their careers, including several times at the request of President Roosevelt. The routine was an integral part of the Oscar-winning film "Rain Man" (1988), starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.
In the 1950s, however, Abbott and Costello's popularity waned. There were several reasons for this. Each year they released two new films, while Universal re-released some of the team's older hits. Add to that a weekly TV series and regular live appearances on the Colgate program, and the team was not only overexposed, but also competing with itself. Then, with the ascendancy of Martin and Lewis, Bud and Lou were looked upon as the old guard.
With fewer opportunities as a team, Abbott and Costello split up in 1957 after 20 years, 35 films and hundreds of radio and TV appearances. Lou became a semi-regular on "The Steve Allen Show," and appeared in an episode of "GE Theater" titled "The Blaze of Glory." In 1958 he received good reviews for his TV dramatic debut in an episode of "Wagon Train" called "The Tobias Jones Story."
Not long after completing his only solo film, "The Thirty-Foot Bride of Candy Rock," Lou died of a heart attack on March 3, 1959. (It was three days short of his 53rd birthday.) He and his wife, Anne, had been married 25 years. She passed away nine months later. Daughters Patricia, Carole, and Chris, and several grandchildren survived them. Carole died in 1987.
Bud attempted a comeback in 1960 by teaming up with a comedian named Candy Candido. Although the new act received good reviews, Bud quit, remarking, "No one could ever live up to Lou." The following year Abbott made his solo debut on an episode of GE Theater titled "The Joke's On Me."
In 1966 and 1967, Hanna-Barbera produced 156 five-minute Abbott and Costello cartoons. Bud supplied his own voice, while Stan Irwin imitated Lou. The cartoon series wasn't the first time Abbott and Costello were immortalized in animation. During the height of the team's popularity, the Warner Brothers animation unit produced a several cartoons that featured the pair as cats or mice. One of the cartoons, "A Tale of Two Kitties" (1942), introduced the character Tweety Pie.
Bud Abbott died of cancer at the age of 76 (reported as 78) on April 24, 1974 in Woodland Hills, California. He and Betty were married for 55 years. The couple adopted two children: Bud, Jr. in 1942, and Vickie in 1949. Bud Jr. died in 1997.
Although they are both gone, Abbott and Costello continue to inspire recognition by their industry and their fans.
They are among only a handful of entertainers to be honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Bud and Lou each have individual stars for their work in radio, motion pictures and television.
Six books have been written about the team since 1973: "Who's On First?," "The Abbott and Costello Book," "Bud & Lou," "Lou's on First?" (by daughter Chris), "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein: The Classic Film Script," and "Abbott and Costello in Hollywood."
In 1978 a TV movie was made starring Harvey Korman and Buddy Hackett as Abbott and Costello.
The Official Abbott and Costello Fan Club was formed in 1986 and continues to welcome new members today.
An Abbott and Costello commemorative postage stamp, designed by famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, was issued in 1991.
In 1992, the city of Paterson, in conjunction with the Lou Costello Memorial Association, erected a statue of Lou in the newly named Lou Costello Memorial Park in the city's historic downtown section.
In 1994 comedian Jerry Seinfeld hosted the television special, "Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld" (the title referenced the team's popular series of horror spoofs). The show was NBC's top-rated special that year. Seinfeld has always stated that "The Abbott and Costello Show" was the inspiration for his own popular series.
Bud and Lou were profiled on the long-running A&E series "Biography" in 1996. The episode was appropriately titled "Abbott and Costello Meet Biography."
In 1998, "Entertainment Weekly" selected "The Abbott and Costello Show" as one of the "100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time."
In 1999, TIME magazine named "Who's On First?" as the Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th century. An early radio recording of the routine was placed in the Library of Congress' National Recording Archives in 2003. In 2005, the line "Who's On First?" was included among the American Film Institute's list of 100 memorable movie quotes.
In 1999, two asteroids located in the main belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter were named "Abbott" and "Costello." Each takes nearly four years to orbit the Sun.
In 2000, the team's most popular film, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), ranked 56th on the American Film Institute's survey of the 100 Funniest Comedy Films of all time. The Library of Congress selected the film to the National Film Registry in 2001.
The cable channel American Movie Classics (AMC) ran a 30-hour marathon of Abbott and Costello films beginning New Year's Eve, 2001. It was called "Who's on the First?"
Lou Costello's signature derby from the team's classic TV series was donated to the Smithsonian in 2005.
In 2005, the City of Paterson renamed Madison Street, where Costello was born, "Lou Costello Place."
The centennial of Costello's birth was celebrated in Paterson on the first weekend in March, 2006. In June, the Fort Lee (New Jersey) Film Commission held a centennial film retrospective at the Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills.
In March 2006, Bud Abbott received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park.
In May 2006, Abbott and Costello were among 30 artists enshrined in the New Jersey Walk of Fame outside the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
In September 2007, TIME magazine selected "The Abbott and Costello Show" as one of the "100 Best TV Shows of All Time."
In April 2008, Lou Costello received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park.
In May 2009, Abbott and Costello were enshrined in the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
©2012 Abbott and Costello Quarterly