Abbott and Costello never received the critical respect they deserved in the comedy world; they were considered too low-brow. Yet, for me back when I was in Junior High School, The Abbott and Costello Show, a mainstay on New York City’s WPIX-TV channel 11, along with The Honeymooners, was must-see TV. It’s lost in my own little file cabinet of mental history how many times I watched those episodes. I do know my mother never understood the repeated viewings as she would ask over and over again, “haven’t you seen this already?” Yes, was my answer, they’re funny. She would walk away shaking her head.
The show was at its best when the boys performed their classic routines which they did so many times they had it down to an artistic science. These funny sketches, going back to their days in vaudeville and burlesques, most likely would have been lost in time, but thanks to A&C have been preserved for future generations to enjoy. The routines were not original material for the duo, they were common material for many now forgotten comic teams of the day. Today, they are considered Abbott and Costello at their best. Sketches like Niagara Falls, Floogle Street, The Loafers Union, 7 X 13=28 and of course the brilliant Who’s On First? enshrined in the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame, are etched into our pop culture file cabinet. Floogle Street, Who’s on First? and others are classic bits of miscommunication which could have originated from the pen of Samuel Beckett. As for this writer, I think the world would be a sadder place without Who’s on First?
The show was blessed to have an excellent supporting cast that included Sidney Fields as the landlord, Gordon Jones as Mike the Cop, Hillary Brooke as their beautiful neighbor who always set Lou’s heart aflutter, Joe Kirk as Mr. Bacciagalupe, Joe Besser as Stinky (I’ll harm you!) and Bingo the Chimp as Bingo the Chimp. The cast also included, in eight episodes, Joan Shawlee, best known for her role as Sweet Sue in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot.
During these same years, WOR-TV, channel 9 was showing Abbott and Costello movies on Saturday mornings. The teams’ first feature film was One Night in the Tropics. The comedy duo, in supporting roles, quickly overshadowed the two stars, Allan Jones and Nancy Kelly stealing the film. Universal signed them up for a two-picture deal. The first film under the contact was Buck Privates which quickly became a massive hit and securely launched their screen careers. The film was so popular Universal pumped out three more Abbott and Costello films (In the Navy, Hold that Ghost, and Keep ‘Em Flying) the same year (1941). All the films were huge hits propelling Abbott and Costello to number three that year on the list of biggest box office attractions. According to authors Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo (Abbott and Costello in Hollywood), the crowds were so huge the opening week of In the Navy, the Loew’s Criterion Theater on Broadway remained open until 5 A.M. to accommodate the crowds. Throughout World War II, movie audiences, looking for a few laughs to take their minds off the war, flocked to Abbott and Costello new releases consistently keeping them in the top ten in box office attractions except for 1945.
To this day, Buck Privates remains my favorite of their films. It also made me appreciate the talent of the Andrew Sisters whose musical numbers (Boogie, Woogie Bugle Boy, Apple Blossom Time and Bounce Me Brother With A Solid Four) contributed nicely to the film (1), followed by Hold That Ghost, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and Buck Privates Come Home. As the years went by, the quality of their films spiraled downward except for when they recreated those classic burlesque bits
(1) The Andrew Sisters also appeared in Abbott and Costello’s nest two films, In the Navy and Hold That Ghost.