Born to parents who worked in the circus, Bud Abbott started out in burlesque shows and went on the gain national fame as the "straight man" of the comedy duo Abbott and Costello.
Actor and comedian Bob Abbott was born on October 2, 1895, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Bud Abbott was born to parents who worked in the circus. His father was an advance man for traveling acts, and his mother performed as a bareback horse rider for the Ringling Bros. Circus. With show business in his blood, Abbott dropped out of school in 1909 to work with his father at Coney Island. However, his career was interrupted one year later when, at the age of 15, Abbott was drugged and shanghaied onto a ship bound for Norway.
Eventually working his way back to the United States, and in 1918 he moved to Detroit. There he worked as the treasurer of the National Theater, a famous burlesque house. This was where he met and fell in love with Jenny Mae Pratt, a burlesque dancer and comedienne who went by the stage name Betty Smith. They married later that year and remained together until Abbott's death 55 years later.
Bud Abbott served as the treasurer and later manager of National Theater throughout the 1920s, and in 1924 he also began taking the stage to play the "straight man" opposite Betty as well as in other burlesque acts. He quickly earned a reputation as one of the region's better "straight man" performers, and was invited to take the stage with such vaudeville comedians as Harry Steepe and Harry Evanston. In 1931, Abbott decided to move back to New York, where he continued to work on burlesque shows at small theaters.
Abbott was working as a cashier at the Casino Theater in Brooklyn one night in 1936 when the comedic duo of Lyons and Costello were scheduled to perform. But Lyons, the straight man of the pair, had stayed home sick. Panicking backstage while a packed crowd waited for the show to begin, Costello heard that the man working the cashier had some experience performing as a straight man, and he asked him to substitute for his partner onstage.
The impromptu show was a smashing success, earning thunderous laughs from the raucous crowd, and one of the greatest comedy duos was born. Lou Costello was a talented young comedian with a childlike onstage energy; he was short, chubby, boisterous and 11 years Abbott's junior. Abbott -- tall, slender, fast-talking and serious -- was his perfect complement, the deadpan butt of Costello's jokes and pranks.
Abbott and Costello Team Up
Abbott and Costello worked the burlesque and vaudeville circuits, initially headlining a show featuring striptease artist Ann Curio. They gained national exposure in 1938 when they appeared regularly on the popular radio show The Kate Smith Hour. One of their early radio performances was "Who's on First?" -- a routine they wrote in collaboration with comedy writer John Grant.
One of the most famous comedy routines ever, "Who's on First?" turned a simple mix-up over a baseball lineup into a sidesplitting gag. The routine was eventually memorialized at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York; to this date, Abbott and Costello remain the only figures in the Hall who are from outside the game.
In 1939, the pair performed on Broadway in The Streets of Paris, and the next year they signed a film contract with Universal Studios, making their feature film debut in One Night in the Tropics. Their second film, Buck Privates (1941), was an enormous hit, grossing more than $10 million -- the highest-grossing Universal film ever at that time.
Abbott and Costello went on to become popular film stars during World War II, making dozens of light comedies to provide comic relief to a nation steeped in war. Their most famous World War II-era films include In the Navy (1941), Pardon My Sarong (1942), Who Done It? (1942) and Lost in a Harem (1944). Their 1945 film The Naughty Nineties introduced the "Who's on First?" sketch to a wider national audience.
Abbott and Costello's popularity waned somewhat after the war as they recycled similar material in movie after movie. Universal also placed them in increasingly low-budget efforts such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953). The pair made their last film together, Dance With Me, Henry, in 1956. Lou Costello died three years later, on March 3, 1959.
Bud Abbott attempted a half-hearted comeback in 1961 with comedian Candy Candido as his partner, but the two failed to generate much excitement. Abbott withdrew from show business and lived quietly in retirement until his death on April 24, 1974, at the age of 77.
Abbot and Costello are widely considered to stand alongside the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy as the greatest comedic teams in history. And while Lou Costello is perhaps the better-remembered comedian of the pair, Costello himself believed that Abbott was the true lynchpin of their success, always insisting on splitting their earnings 60-40 in Abbott's favor. "Comics are a dime a dozen," he explained. "Good straight men are hard to find."
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