Hollywood Radio Legends: Abbott and Costello

The flat sarcasm of Bud Abbott and shrieks from Lou Costello originated on radio – the perfect medium for verbal standup.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello performing in a radio booth
Abbott and Costello in the NBC radio studio (NBC Radio, Wikimedia Commons)

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When Universal Studios informed comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello that their next venture would involve a team-up with Dracula, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, Costello was against the proposal. “No way I’ll do it,” Costello told the head of the motion-picture studio, according to TVTropes.org. “My little girl could write something better than this.” It took a $50,000 advance in salary and the signing of Costello’s good friend Charles Barton directing the picture to convince the comedian to go along with the idea. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein became the highest grossing movie of their career. Sequels involving The Mummy and The Invisible Man followed soon after.

Today, fans of Abbott and Costello appreciate the numerous motion pictures available commercially on DVD, including the boys’ first film, One Night in the Tropics (1940). Their second film, Buck Privates (1941), grossed an estimated $10 million – not bad when you consider the budget was $180,000.

But before Abbott and Costello found fame on the big screen, they were stars of their own radio show. Many of their funniest bits originated on the wireless.

The duo started in Vaudeville, and by the fall of 1942, the boys had their own weekly radio program and topped the popularity polls of Radio Daily and Radio Guide. Their popular “Who’s On First?” routine made them a national sensation. In March of 1943, Costello was struck down with rheumatic fever. Abbott refused to perform without his partner, so the duo was temporarily replaced by Jimmy Durante and Garry Moore. Then, on the afternoon of November 4, 1943, during rehearsals for the evening’s broadcast, Costello received a call from home — his son, Lou Jr., had accidentally drowned in the family swimming pool.

Mel Blanc, cast member on the show, recalls that word spread through Hollywood, and numerous radio comedians volunteered to fill in for Costello that evening, including Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, and Red Skelton. To the surprise of everyone in the studio, Costello returned moments before airtime and went before the microphone to deliver his lines as scripted and rehearsed earlier in the day. Guest Lana Turner found it difficult to deliver her lines on the air while Costello pushed back the tears. Toward the end of the broadcast, Costello broke down and Abbott explained the horrible news to the stunned radio audience.

The Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Show ran for seven years until the summer of 1949. By then filming was completed for Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, and Costello was bedridden for several months due to a relapse of rheumatic fever. His illness prevented ABC from renewing the contract for an additional season of the radio show.

Soon after Abbott and Costello went to Mars and faced off against Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the movie theater, the boys ventured into the television business. Produced by Costello’s wife, Patricia, the television series lasted two seasons and gave the boys an opportunity to reprise the best comedic sketches and scenarios from their radio scripts. The next time you watch one of their television programs or big screen movies, remember that flat sarcasm of Bud Abbott and shrieks from Lou Costello originated on radio – the perfect medium for verbal standup that is often imitated today at fan gatherings… sans the Frankenstein monster.

Free Classic Radio Episode

The Saturday Evening Post and Carl Amari are offering a FREE digital download of the classic radio comedy series The Abbott & Costello Show starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Log on to: www.hollywoodradiolegends.com for your free 30-minute classic radio episode.

Carl Amari is the host of the nationally-syndicated nostalgia radio series Hollywood 360. Amari is also the curator of The Classic Radio Club.

Featured image: Abbott and Costello in the NBC radio studio (NBC Radio, Wikimedia Commons)

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Comments

  1. Thank you, Carl Amari, for the reminder of a comedic treasure! I’ve used, or shown, the “Who’s On First” routine in communication classes to teach how easily words can be misunderstood, as well as how people can work together in getting messages across.

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