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The Feud of Abbott and Costello

Lou Costello and Bud Abbott in Newsweek 1940

(originally published in TV Forecast and Guide, March 7, 1953)

Loafing - Bud Abbott confuses Lou Costello about loafing around vs. making loaves of bread -- loafing -- at a bakery

 One of the worst kept secrets in show business a few years back was the backstage feuding of the top comedy team of Abbott and Costello. It seemed hard to believe that the finely balanced pair could be anything but the best of friends. Yet the evidence was there.

It burst out in the open in 1945. Rotund  Lou Costello, the buffoon of the team, suddenly charges in the public prints that  Bud Abbott  was a drunk.

Worse that this, he claimed that Abbott was jeopardizing the act’s existence by carelessly signing poor contracts while in his cups. Abbott returned the compliment by threatening to thrash Costello in public. This was red meat for the gossip columnists who lovingly disclosed every latest Abbott statement against Costello and vice versa. The feud went to such outrageous lengths that both men hired press-agents.

Yet the act didn’t break up. Sound businessmen, they both realized that either one on his own wouldn’t come close to their success as a team.

It’s not too difficult to figure what all the bickering was about. The boys were suffering from too much success. They had reached the stage in their career where money didn’t mean a thing any more. They were the screen’s biggest box-office draw and had a tremendously popular radio show.

Each decided that he personally was responsible for the act’s success. Each was right. The act would be nothing without their perfect teamwork. That’s how the act was born.

It all started back in 1936. Bud has been one of the great straight men in show business. Lou was getting his laughs by taking a savage beating from a success of partners. The two formed a mutual admiration society. At the Oriental Theater in Chicago Lou approached Bud with a new routine and Bud was impressed. The routine was written by Lou and has since become one of their all time favorites, “Who’s on First.”

The Abbott and Costello act usually has Bud as a con man who is no better than he should be and Lou as a pushover for fleecing. Thee are endless show biz variations on this theme and Abbott & Costello learned all of them. The formula worked perfectly. After a few years together on the vaudeville wheel they clicked on the Kate Smith radio show and were on their way.

Publicity photo from Buck Privates, with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello peeling potatoes under Shemp Howard's supervision

A movie called “Buck Privates” really made the team. It came out early in the war when national hysteria was high. It showed Bud and Lou causing more mayhem with the U.S. Army than Japan and Germany combined. Abbott spent the entire film bilking Costello out of both his money and girl and in the process exposing Costello as the worst specimen of a soldier in the history of the U.S. Army.

The film was a sleeper and made millions. Then began an almost unbelievable series of smash hits, “Abbott and Costello in the Navy,” etc. The nation went on a Abbott & Costello binge and the boys became national idols.

Lou was born Louis Cristillo in Paterson, New Jersey in 1908. Abbott in a Barnum and Bailey circus tent in 1898. Lou got into the entertainment fields by way of sports. He was a great basketball player (he once outplayed the famed Nat Holman in a pro game) and went to Hollywood to become a stunt man because of his uncanny ability to take a pratfall.

Finally Lou decided that there was more money to be made as a comic than as a stunt man and headed back east. He went to work on the Minsky burlesque circuit for $16 a week.

In the meantime, Bud Abbott, after thirteen years as a box-office man, filled in for an ailing comic one night. Following tradition, the smell of greasepaint was too much and he went into burlesque as a straight man, winning a reputation as one of the best in the business. Thus the stage was set for the eventual meeting at the Oriental Theater.

At the advice of their friends, both Bud & Lou stopped sounding off about one another after their outbursts in 1945. Then in 1947, the team became not just an act but warm friends too.

Behind the dignified entrance to the Costello Youth Foundation, hundreds of kids learn how to have all kinds of fun -- often, as in the checker game, under the expert tutelage of President Lou Costello and Secretary Bud Abbott.

Lou Costello started the Lou Costello Jr. Youth Foundation in Lou Angeles, founded in memory of his one-year-old son who drowned in the family swimming pool in 1943. Here was something that Bud could agree with wholeheartedly. The two set aside their petty bickerings. They now work selflessly on the project, aimed at helping the youth in Los Angeles. They contribute about $100,000 a year to it and plenty of their valuable time. Show business, famed for its sentiment, could shed plenty of tears over the happy ending that has been written into what looked like the tragic Abbott and Costello story.

Abbott and Costello are seen periodically on the Comedy Hour, Sundays at 7 p.m. on channel 5, WOC-TV.

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