Abbott and Costello meet the U.P.

Abbott & Costello behind bars at the prison, with Benson. Far right, Abbott & Costello with four local boys. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

by Larry Chabot

For a long stretch in the mid-20th Century, few entertainers were as celebrated as the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Their 36 motion pictures between 1940 and 1956 put them on the list of the top 10 box office draws year after year. They hit No. 1 in 1942—a year of their three high-profile stops in the Upper Peninsula. Four of their films were on the country’s screens that year, including Pardon My Sarong, showing at the Delft Theater while they were performing in Marquette.

By August 1942, the United States had been at war for eight months, with casualties mounting. Marquette County had already lost nine men, and the U.P. had at least 60 dead by then (the toll would eventually exceed 1,500). Just one day before the comedians’ arrival here, Marquette’s Alvar Liimatainen lost his life on a bomb run in the South Pacific.

On August 8, Abbott and Costello checked into room 202 in Marquette’s Northland Hotel (now the Landmark); the suite is now named for them. Their exhausting tour to promote war bonds was helping pay for the war. After a police escort to Marquette Branch Prison, Warden Ralph Benson met them at the entrance with jumbo “keys to the prison” made just for them by convicts.

The prisoners roared a rousing welcome for the world’s most famous comedy team, now standing right before their eyes. They aroused big laughs with the famous baseball skit “Who’s On First,” called the greatest two-man comedy routine ever. Then the comical Costello urged them to buy war bonds at the prison post office (which they were already doing).

Former Marquette Branch Prison Warden Ralph Benson presents inmate-made keys to the prison to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

“But don’t forget to come back,” he said, with his famous finger waggle. The duo pocketed gifts of prison-made wallets, then enjoyed a lake trout dinner in the warden’s residence with prison and campaign officials, and future warden Ray Buchkoe.

Ishpeming digs deep

Meanwhile, Ishpeming was throbbing with patriotic spirit as 20,000 people enjoyed a mile-long parade with the theme “Marquette County at War.” After the parade, over 5,000 streamed into the new high school stadium for a free-admission, two-hour show with three bands, soloists and choirs, patriotic speeches, a Fort Brady military unit and a comedy skit by Abbott and Costello (who arrived a little late from the prison). Three local civic groups sold refreshments and divvied up the proceeds.

Willingness to buy bonds resulted in sales of over $50,000.

“We’ve got to pay for the planes, tanks, guns, bullets and other munitions of war largely through sale of war bonds,” said state war bond chairman Frank Isbey. “It will cost [as much as] $1 million to kill a soldier in this war.”

When Abbott and Costello finally came onstage, Michigan state troopers had to shield them from the hundreds of fans who rushed the platform.

In a skit tailored to local interests, straight-man Abbott claimed New York was the “fastest city in the world.” He saw a crew excavating for a 50-story building, which was all finished when he returned a few hours later.

“That’s nothing,” Costello retorted. “This county is even faster.”

He claimed that a crew was excavating for a 100-story structure as he left the Northland. He went back for a paper, and when he came out the building was not only completed and occupied, but “they were throwing people out for not paying their rent.”

Abbott & Costello with four local boys. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

Last stop on the three-city tour was in Ironwood in the western U.P. In her national newspaper column, Hollywood gossip maven Hedda Hopper had announced that Abbott and Costello were stopping in Ironwood, fueling local interest to a fever pitch. Gogebic County had already suffered six war deaths, and would have 181 by war’s end, so they realized the importance of buying bonds.

The comedians were welcomed and cheered by a huge parade crowd lining a route through the business section and on to the county fairgrounds, where the parade circled the track so everyone could see the stars. There was no admittance or parking charge. Loudspeakers had been mounted so that all of the 25,000 people could hear everything. Abbott and Costello opened the show on opposite sides of the stage, trying to outdo each other in insults and bond sales, then wowed everyone with the “Who’s On First” skit. (In 2014, the Ironwood Historical Society showed a 1942 color film of the event.)

The local campaign covered Gogebic and Ontonagon counties in Michigan, and Iron, Ashland and Vilas counties in Wisconsin, as organizers aimed for $100,000 in bond sales to underwrite the cost of 25,000 tons of “victory iron ore” from local mines. The campaign raised $127,000 (equal to $2 million today) through the show, and sales by merchants, post offices, schools and radio stations.

Abbott & Costello with future warden Ray Buchkoe. (Photo courtesy of Tom Buchkoe)

In its post-show edition, the Ironwood Times saluted the campaign committee’s bringing in Abbott and Lou Costello as “one of the finest events ever staged here. Their greatest reward is the general satisfaction of a satisfied community.”

Stunning impact

Abbott and Costello toured under sponsorship of the U.S. Treasury Department, receiving no pay and using their own vacation time. Travel expenses were shared by the comedians, their movie studio, the U.S. Army (which flew them from place to place), and state and local police departments who provided escort and security services.

Abbott and Costello were no doubt the major fund-raisers among the many celebrities who promoted the cause. Their two tours in 1942 to 1943 raised $85 million in 163 cities and over 100 defense plants in only 72 days. When they finally returned home and detrained in Los Angeles, Costello refused to shake hands with his family and fans. He’d shaken so many thousands of hands that his paw was raw.

“It hurts,” he said.

The future was not rosy for Costello. His wife, who was six months pregnant during his U.P. stop, gave birth to Lou Jr. in November. One year later, on the day Costello returned to the pair’s radio show after the bond tours and his several near-fatal bouts with rheumatic fever, one-year old Lou Jr. drowned in the family swimming pool. Costello was never the same after that. Behind-the-scenes incidents strained the pair’s relationship, and they reportedly spoke to each other only while performing.

Their legacy was astounding. With America’s war financed mainly by the American people—whose bond buying provided over half the cost of the war—Abbott and Costello were responsible for almost half of those bond sales. The basic bond cost $18.75, and returned $25 eight years later.

For those who have never seen it, or want to see it again, “Who’s On First” is available on the internet. After all these years, it’s still very, very funny.

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