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Lou Costello's straight man
William Alexander Abbott was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on October 2, 1895. His father, Harry Abbott, was a publicity advance man for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and his mother, Rae (Fisher) Abbott, was a bareback rider for the Ringling Bothers Circus. Being thus born into the circus world, it is not surprising that Bud, as well as his twin sister Olive Victoria, worked in carnivals as a child.
In 1909, Bud dropped out of school to work with his father at Coney Island. His time at Coney Island was short-lived, however, as he was drugged and shanghaied onto a ship bound for Norway the following year. Eventually making his way back to the United States, he moved to Detroit, where he got a job as the treasurer of the National Theater, a famous burlesque house. It was there that he met and fell in love with Jenny Mae Pratt, a burlesque dancer and comedienne who went by the stage name Betty Smith. The two were married on September 17, 1918, and soon began touring together as a comedy team. About 1924, Bud began working as a straight man to other comics on the burlesque circuit, including Harry Steepe and Harry Evanson. In 1931, Bud and Betty settled in New York City, where Bud worked as a cashier at the Casino Theater in Brooklyn, while continuing as a straight man in burlesque shows at small theaters.
In 1936, Abbott was cashiering at the Casino Theater when the straight man to comic Lou Costello was stricken by illness. Having met and heard Abbott on the burlesque circuit, Costello asked him to take his partner's place for the night, expecting the pairing to be a one-time arrangement. The two men seemed to mesh almost immediately, however, the act was a smash with the audience, and the team of Abbott & Costello was born. After two years working burlesque, vaudeville, minstrel shows, and movie houses, Abbott & Costello got their first national exposure in 1938, when they appeared on Kate Smith's radio show, "The Kate Smith Hour." They signed with Universal Pictures the next year, and made their film debut in One Night in the Tropics in 1940. Despite having only minor supporting roles, Abbott & Costello stole the film with their classic routines, including an abbreviated version of "Who's On First?" Their first starring film, Buck Privates (1941), with The Andrews Sisters, grossed what was then a Universal Pictures record $10 million, on a $180,000 budget. By the time Abbott & Costello split up, they had appeared in 36 films, almost all of which did well at the box office.
In addition to being a hit on the silver screen, Abbott & Costello were also hit on the radio, starring in their own show on ABC from 1941 to 1946 and on NBC from 1946 to 1949. In the 1950's, they took their act to television, beginning with The Colgate Comedy Hour and then with their own half-hour series, The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-1954). By this time, however, the Abbott & Costello star was beginning to wane, and the team split up in 1957.
After the break-up, Lou Costello appeared in a few television shows and one movie before passing away in March of 1959. Abbott started a new comedy act with Candy Candido, but it was never successful. Aside from voicing his character in a short-lived cartoon version of The Abbott and Costello Show in 1966, Costello's poor health (he had suffered from epilepsy most of his life) kept him from working most of the rest of his life. He suffered a series of strokes in the 1960's, broke his hip in 1972, and died of prostate cancer at his home in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, on April 24, 1974; as per his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
Both Abbott and Costello had major tax problems with the Internal Revenue Service and wound up virtually broke.
Bud and Betty never had their own children, but did adopt one son, Bud Jr., and one daughter, Vickie. They also raised Bud's niece and nephew, Betty and Norman.
Abbott & Costello's infamous "Who's on First?" routine earned the duo a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, where the routine has been playing on a continuous loop since 1956.
Bud Abbott has been honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Radio (6333 Hollywood Boulevard), Motion Pictures (1611 Vine Street), and Television (6740 Hollywood Boulevard). In 2008, he and Lou Costello were jointly elected into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in recognition of their services to arts and entertainment.
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This page was last updated on 04/18/2017.