When you think of popular entertainers during World War Two, a bevy of singers and actors might come to mind, from Betty Grable to the Andrews Sisters. But the honors of highest-paid entertainers during wartime goes to the comic duo Abbott and Costello, who performed the baseball-team routine “Who’s on First?” that remains one of the most beloved comedy sketches of all time. But they contributed so much more.
Before meeting each other, both artists, although talented, weren’t extremely popular with the public. Bud Abbott was born into a family of entertainers and knew all about show business. Both his parents worked for the Barnum and Bailey Circus; his mother as a bareback rider and his father as an advance man.
When Bud dropped out of school, he started working with his father, who arranged a job for his son to work in the box office of Brooklyn’s Casino Burlesque Theater. There, Bud Abbott met the burlesque dancer and comedienne Betty Smith, whom he married in 1918, when he was 21. It was a marriage that lasted for 56 years, until Abbott’s death.
In his twenties, Abbott had a brief producing career arranging touring burlesque shows, but in 1924 he gave it up and tried his chances as a straight man in an act with his wife. The role of straight man suited Abbott so well that he was soon performing with many famous burlesque comics, ultimately becoming one of the tops in the business. In 1929, he became part of the Mutual Burlesque Wheel, and in 1932, he joined the popular Minsky’s Burlesque house.
Louis Francis Cristillo was born in 1906 in New Jersey. In his youth, Cristillo was a talented athlete. He liked basketball and became a free throw champion of the State of New Jersey. Later, he got interested in boxing and started fighting as an amateur under the alias “Lou King.” He proved his talents as an athlete once again and fought in 12 matches before his father forced him to give up that career path. So, in 1927, he moved to Hollywood hoping for a career in the movie industry. He was employed in a few movies, but as a stuntman, so after two years, he headed back to the East coast.
On his way back home, Cristillo stopped in the Midwest for some time and ended up performing in a Dutch comedy produced at a local burlesque theater. He spent almost a year in St. Joseph, Missouri, before returning to New York. There, he started working on the Mutual Burlesque Wheel and adopted the stage name “Costello,” after the actress Helene Costello. After the collapse of Mutual Wheel, Costello joined Minsky’s, where he met his future partner. In 1934, he married a burlesque dancer, Anne Battler, with whom he had four children.
Although Abbott and Costello crossed paths a few times, they finally starting working together in 1935 and teamed up in 1936, a partnership that lasted 20 years. Abbott was the straight man and Costello was his bumbling friend. The duo started performing on radio and on stage, showing up in burlesque and vaudeville shows. After their national radio debut in 1938, on The Kate Smith Hour, Costello adopted a slight falsetto which became his vocal trademark. He did it to distinguish his voice from his partner’s due to complaints by the audience that they couldn’t recognize who was talking.
Then they moved their act to Broadway, television, and the movies. In 1940, the duo was signed by Universal Pictures for the musical One Night in the Tropics as supporting roles. However, Abbott and Costello stole the show. America fell in love with them, and the studio signed them for a long-term contract. They appeared on TV with their short sketches. Their classic “Who’s on First?” is still one of America’s favorites. Between 1940 and 1956, Abbott and Costello showed up in more than 30 movies. During WWII, they were the highest paid entertainers in the world. The duo brought money to Universal Pictures like nobody else; in fact, t hey basically kept the studio alive during the war.
Their private lives definitely weren’t as carefree as those of their characters. Abbott was a diagnosed epileptic and always feared having a seizure on stage. This insecurity caused him serious anxiety, and he started drinking too much. That led to a lifelong battle with alcoholism. As for Costello, he suffered an attack of rheumatic fever, which landed him in bed for six months in 1943. As soon as he got back to work, a family tragedy occurred that changed him forever. His son fell off the loose cradle in the swimming pool and drowned, two days before his first birthday.
The two men were not the closest of friends. At one point, due to a quarrel over one of them hiring an employee the other fired, they wouldn’t speak to each other except for when performing. They argued over money as well.
Their fame declined during the 1950s. Some believe it was due to overexposure, but also other duos emerged, such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Nonetheless, Time magazine has named “Who’s on First?” the “greatest comedy sketch of the 20th century.”
They separated in 1957, with Abbott thinking of it as a real retirement and Costello as the beginning of a new solo career. Unfortunately, with his death of a heart attack in 1959, none of Costello’s ideas were realized. Two years after Costello’s death, Abbott probably got bored with retirement and paired with Candy Candido to get back his former glory. However, the new pair did not find great success. Abbott died of cancer in 1974, aged 76.