10 Back-And-Forth Facts about Abbott and Costello

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It was a match made in comedy heaven. At their peak, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were quite possibly the two most quoted men in America. Nearly 60 years after they broke up, fans of all ages are still reciting their classic routines—including an ageless masterpiece called “Who’s On First?”

1. Lou Costello Was Once an Amateur Boxer.

As a young competitor, Louis Cristillo fought in 12 matches under the alias “Lou King.” With 11 victories and one draw, Cristillo’s boxing career was off to an impressive start—until his father abruptly forced him into an early retirement. A multi-sport athlete, Cristillo could also light up a basketball court, despite his below-average height of 5’ 5”. In fact, he was once reportedly crowned Paterson, New Jersey’s foul shot champion.

Athleticism would help Cristillo earn his first few Hollywood gigs. While struggling to become an actor during the late 1920s, he appeared as a stunt double in a handful of films, most notably The Trail of ’98 (1928). Unfortunately, Cristillo was seriously injured during that shoot and decided to move back east, where he planned on taking voice lessons. Since “talkies” were rising in popularity, this seemed like a smart move but Cristillo’s modest personal fortune only got him as far as St. Joseph, Missouri. It was there that he got his first taste of live theater and developed the bumbling persona he retained throughout his career. During this time, Cristillo chose yet another stage name: Lou Costello (a nod to silent film actress Helene Costello).

2. Bud Abbott Wasn’t Costello’s First Straight Man.

NBC Radio,Wikimedia Commons

William Alexander “Bud” Abbott’s long road to fame and fortune began when he dropped out of school in the fourth grade to work at Coney Island. At age 16, Abbott was hired to work the box office at the famed Casino Theater, where he’d brush shoulders with such legends as Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields.

One fateful day in 1936, Lou Costello’s usual straight man—a performer by the name of Joe Lyons—had to bail on an appearance that they’d booked together at The Eltinge theater, so,Abbott was brought in as a last-minute replacement. The rest, of course, is history. While Lyons let Costello’s rants get wildly off-topic, Abbott’s stage presence was commanding enough to keep the comic focused. Sensing that they had something special, Abbott and Costello officially launched their enduring partnership a year later.   

3. Abbott Battled Epilepsy.

Insomnia Cured Here, Flickr

Though his characters always radiated self-assurance, Abbott was often fraught with worry behind the scenes. A diagnosed epileptic, he constantly fretted about having an episode on-stage. This constant anxiety haunted his dreams. “Sometimes,” he once told a friend, “I wake up in the middle of the night screaming.” In an attempt to calm his nerves, Abbott started drinking and thus began a lifelong struggle with alcoholism.

4. Costello Tweaked His Voice to Help Set it Apart From Abbott’s.

Insomnia Cured Here, Flickr

In 1938, Abbott and Costello made their national radio debut on "The Kate Smith Hour." For a year and a half, the pair were among the program’s most popular recurring guest stars. Though they were a hit with listeners, many complained that the two men sounded indistinguishably alike. Costello fixed this by adopting the slight falsetto that became his vocal trademark.

5. In 1942, They Raised $85 Million For America’s War Effort.

Film screenshot,Wikimedia Commons

On their own dime, Abbott and Costello toured 78 cities in 34 days, with the proceeds funding Uncle Sam’s war bonds and stamps. En route, they were treated like national heroes—the good people of Lincoln even made them both honorary admirals in the fictitious Nebraska Navy.

6. Costello Hated the Script for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

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Between 1940 and 1956, Abbott and Costello made nearly 40 movies together. By 1948, sheer overexposure weakened their popularity with filmgoers, who began to tire of their antics. Then along came this blockbuster horror-comedy, which rejuvenated the duo’s cinematic career and launched several genre-mixing follow-ups, including Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott snf Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

However, Costello almost derailed Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein during pre-production. At one point, he barged into producer Robert Arthur’s office and claimed “My [five-year-old] daughter could write a better script than this. You’re not serious about making it, are you?” Arthur eventually calmed Costello by promising to hire the star’s favorite director, Charles Barton.

7. Costello Never Missed a Chance to Promote His Hometown.

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This New Jersey native never forgot his roots. During almost every single episode of The Abbott and Costello Show (which ran from 1952 to 1954), he would mention Paterson by name, with his usual sign-off being “Good night to everybody, and good night Paterson, New Jersey.” Such homages also found their way into Costello’s films. In The Naughty Nineties (1945), Abbott and Costello reenacted their beloved “Who’s On First?” sketch. During that now-iconic scene, a fence in the painted backdrop reads “Paterson Silk Sox.” The city returned the favor and honored its native son in 1992 with a Costello statue that now proudly stands downtown—right in the middle of “Lou Costello Memorial Park.”

8. The Pair Recited “Who’s On First?” an Estimated 15,000 Times.

The year 1938 was a great one for Major League Baseball. Babe Ruth joined the Dodgers’ coaching staff, Lou Gehrig hit his final grand slam, and the Yankees became the first club to ever win three consecutive World Series titles. Meanwhile, Abbott and Costello stepped up to the plate with a skit that lovingly lampooned America’s favorite pastime.

“Who’s On First?” first debuted on "The Kate Smith Radio Hour." An instant classic, it propelled both men into super-stardom. Previously, Smith’s producer—who believed that the bit was too complicated for radio listeners—had blocked it from going on-air. Fully realizing its potential, Costello forced him to change his tune by claiming to have run out of material one week, leading the producer to reluctantly green-light the sketch.

Before long, fans from all over the country were begging the pair to reenact this routine in theaters across America. According to Costello, he and Abbott went through it on at least 15,000 occasions over the next eight years. TIME magazine has since named it “the greatest comedy sketch of the 20th century.”

Abbott and Costello enthusiast Jerry Seinfeld attributes the skit’s success to brilliant timing, saying its breakneck pace “creates a compression that makes your mind work faster, which makes you laugh.”

9. They Briefly Split Up Over a Maid.

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In 1945, Abbott hired a housemaid who’d recently been fired by the Costello family. This infuriated Lou, who threatened to permanently dissolve the partnership unless Bud fired her. Luckily, their agent Eddie Sherman pointed out that a permanent breakup might result in both parties getting slapped with a hefty lawsuit, as Universal had signed Abbott and Costello to an enormous multi-movie deal. Costello relented, but the damage had been done and the performers didn’t speak to each other for quite some time.

Abbott and Costello finally did go their separate ways in 1957. After a lifetime in show business, Abbott felt like taking a break from the limelight while Costello wished to pursue more serious roles. Costello’s untimely death via heart attack in 1959 ended all hope of a reunion. Two years later, Abbott tried to recapture his former glory with a new partner: comedian Candy Candido. But, as the straight man himself put it, their working relationship didn’t last long because “No one could ever live up to Lou.” Abbott died on April 24th, 1974.

10. There’s a Permanent “Who’s On First?” Display at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The museum added a golden record of the routine to its collection in 1956—an honor that Costello called “better than getting an Oscar.” Today, visitors can watch The Naughty Nineties version of it playing on a continuous loop.