Thursday, July 16, 2015

A/C

I never considered Abbott and Costello to be in the same class as the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy, but in their heyday, they were as big as any comedy act.  So when I saw a book about them in the library--Bob Thomas's Bud & Lou--I checked it out.  It was written decades ago, and is only about 200 pages long, but may still be the best book about the team (not exactly a crowded field).

Bud Abbot was born in 1895.  His father worked in show business and little Bud was fascinated by that world. (He was also shanghaied as a teenager--someone slipped him a mickey and he awoke on a ship at sea.  It took him months to get back home.) As a young man he worked as an accountant for a burlesque theatre, but after he counted the receipts he'd rush backstage to watch the show from the wings.  There he learned the many routines common to all burlesque comics, and one day when the straight man couldn't make it, Bud filled in.  He soon become a top straight man.  While most notice the comic, the straight man is just as important, keeping the rhythm going--not just setting things up for the funny guy, but making sure the whole sketch stays on track.

Lou Costello was born in 1906.  Raised in New Jersey, he was quite athletic, especially good at basketball (though quite short).  As a young man he went out to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune, but could only get a job building sets. He volunteered as a stunt man and had some success before quitting when it became too dangerous.  Hitching his way back home, he found a job as a comedian in burlesque comedy--he didn't know all the routines yet, but he had a natural talent and was soon in demand.

Abbot and Costello knew of each other and decided to team up in 1936.  They were doing the routines that all the others in burlesque did, but were better at their craft and soon rose to the top.  They also decided to work clean, which would pay off.  They got a manager, Eddie Sherman, who thought they could do better, and also believed (correctly) burlesque was dying.  He convinced the team to try other venues, even if they didn't pay as well at first.

Soon Abbot and Costello were playing at classier houses, and then on Broadway as well as radio, where they became nationally famous.  They were still doing the same old routines they'd done in burlesque, including their most famous, "Who's On First?" (No one apparently owned these routines--or maybe everyone did--because they never got sued).  Next they went to Hollywood where Universal signed them up.  No one could have guessed how big they'd become.  If they could have, a bigger studio would have signed them--and in fact, Louis B. Mayer was unhappy the team slipped through his fingers, and to mollify him Universal lent them out for the occasional MGM feature.

Starting with a supporting role in One Night In The Tropics (1940) and then starring in Buck Privates (1941) they were an immediate sensation--still doing the same burlesque bits they'd been doing all along, simply dropped into the plot, almost haphazardly.  Their films were cheaply and quickly made--through the war years they made three or four a year--but it didn't matter, the pictures made money.

They were good comics, but not much more.  Clowns like Chaplin or Keaton or Stan Laurel or the Marx Brothers learned their trade in Vaudeville or music halls, but kept improving their acts, experimenting once they got into film.  Abbot and Costello felt the old routines were good enough and never tried to develop much beyond that.

They also could be hard to work with.  Especially Lou, who'd come in at 10 and leave around 3.  He'd tell the director he'd do it only once--if it wasn't good enough, too bad.  He was a star and he threw his weight around, hiring his family and pals, and stealing furniture from sets to furnish his own home.

He also demanded he get more money than Abbot, and Bud acquiesced. (On the other hand, the studio would not allow the team to change their name to Costello & Abbott.)  Of course, both were among the richest movie stars of the time.  In addition to the silver screen, they made live appearances and had their own radio show, and later did TV work.  But the money slipped through their fingers.  They bought huge houses which they kept adding on to.  They gave lavish gifts to friends and family.   And they dropped hundreds of thousands on the ponies and whatever else they could bet on. (On set, after a take, they'd rush back to their dressing rooms to play high-stakes poker.) They also had problems with the IRS, which would cause them financial anguish in later years.

In addition to money problems, they both had serious ailments.  Bud suffered from epileptic seizures--whenever he was about to get one on stage, Lou would punch him in the solar plexus to snap him out of it.  For years, Abbott would drink himself to sleep rather than face the fear of a seizure in the night.  Meanwhile, Lou had rheumatic fever and had to take off months at a time during serious attacks.

Lou also suffered a personal tragedy when his only son, Lou Jr., drowned in 1943, two days short of his first birthday.  Costello was informed just before he and Abbott were about to do a radio show, and he decided to go on and do the best show possible.

The team never got along that well, and with Lou's giant ego things only got worse.  In fact, they broke up for a while in 1945, but eventually came to their senses.  The team wasn't quite so hot after the war years, but they kept churning out films, many of which still turned a profit.  Universal, being the studio of monster movies, figured they'd mix the two, and thus in 1948 came Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein--where they meet not just Frankenstein's monster, but Dracula (played by Bela Lugosi) and the Wolf Man.  Neither Bud nor Lou thought much of the idea, but it was a success (and one of their better films) so for the rest of their career they would "Meet" such names as the Invisible Man, Captain Kidd, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Keystone Kops and the Mummy.

The movies were making less money and the team was getting a bit tired of the whole racket. They did a live show in Vegas in 1957, and for the first time, Bud drank before they went on. Lou was so angry at his partner's performance that they broke up for good. Costello went on to do a few dramatic roles on TV, some live shows, and made one movie, The 30 Foot Bride Of Candy Rock.  If this was any indication of his future, it didn't look like he'd continue to be a movie star.  But Costello fell ill and died of a heart attack in 1959.

Bud spent his declining years dealing with the IRS. He had to sell just about everything he owned--often at bargain basement prices--to pay off his debts.  For a while he performed with a new partner, Candy Candido, and did a few other appearances, but in the mid-60s he retied.  He suffered some debilitating strokes in the 1970s and died  in 1974.

But the movies are still there, showing a team that knew how to do the old routines.  Maybe not groundbreaking, but still funny, and a valuable glimpse into a world of comedy that otherwise would be all but lost to us today.

8 Comments:

Blogger New England Guy said...

My Abbott and Costello fun facts:
-Everybody assumes Lou is Italian (or did when I was a kid) but Costello is an Irish name.
- Every comedy routine I've ever seen involving monks includes a "Hey Ahhhbott!" line (except maybe that Xerox commercial)
-The radio shows I used to listen to at night in the 70s (Dr. Demento?) used to play an updated "Who's on First" routine involving The Who, The Guess Who and Yes

6:10 AM, July 16, 2015  
Blogger LAGuy said...

For the record, Costello was of Italian descent. His family name was actually Cristillo.

8:51 AM, July 16, 2015  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

That is possibly the funniest thing you've ever written, LAGuy.

Well, probably not. But even so.

On a different note, I just want to say that 50 foot woman image is possibly the worst special effect I have ever seen.

2:25 PM, July 16, 2015  
Blogger LAGuy said...

If you read the text you'll note she's only 30 feet tall, not 50. Perhaps that's why the effect looked so bad to you.

2:47 PM, July 16, 2015  
Blogger New England Guy said...

You made me look it up. H was Italian but Lou's mom was partially Irish and he took the name Costello from a silent film actress Helen Costello whose father was Irish-American.

We are all mutts

5:27 PM, July 16, 2015  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

That's what makes you a social conservative, NEG, and me a libertarian. You blame it on biology, I blame it on corruption, Hollywood, Washington, no difference.

4:00 AM, July 17, 2015  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

You know, it's true. At 30 feet, I think she can carry it off.

4:03 AM, July 17, 2015  
Blogger New England Guy said...

what??

4:11 AM, July 17, 2015  

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