The 1940s had some big movie stars. The pin up girls: Lana Turner, Dorothy Lamour, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth. The handsome and dashing leading men: Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, John Wayne.
But no star was bigger at the box office than the two comics — Bud Abbott and Lou Costello — pictured above. By 1942, Abbott and Costello (on the right) at Universal studios were Hollywood’s No. 1 attraction.
Abbott and Costello (on the left this time) had been in burlesque together, in vaudeville AND had been big stars on radio long before they entered the movies. They had had years to perfect their routines and timing.
In fact, being on radio even provided them with one of their signature trademarks, Costello’s squeaky, high pitched voice. (Their voices were otherwise too similar over the airwaves so he decided to elevate his.)
Their hilarious Who’s On First? routine, introduced in vaudeville in the late Thirties, lives on and is still celebrated at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Who’s On First? is well worth a look on the internet. Laughs guaranteed.
Costello was the comedian of the duo, a stocky son of an Italian immigrant from Paterson, New Jersey. Abbott was the accomplished straight man who smoothly kept the duo’s onstage proceedings from flying into chaos.
Both started their professional careers early. Abbott was not Costello’s first straight man in the days of vaudeville (a forgotten chap, Joe Lyons, was.) But once the two teamed up, their professional careers were all but assured.
They worked in a number of network radio formats before Universal signed them on in 1940. Such titles as Mexican Hayride, The Naughty Nineties, Lost in a Harem, Rio Rita, Hold That Ghost and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein made the two the box office smashes.
Their popularity endured via tv into the early Fifties with appearances on NBC’s The Colgate Comedy Hour and their own syndicated program, The Abbott and Costello Show. The two split up in 1957, and found themselves confronted by various financial problems.
Costello died early, at age 52, just two years later. Abbott stayed on until 1974 at age 78. Their comedy antics and Costello’s signature opening — “Heyyyyy Abboott” — is continual reminder that the pair was a bona fide movie box office phenomenon of the Forties.
They remain American comedy immortals.