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From the current Spring 2017 Issue

The story of a memorable night in Nebraska

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE WAR BOND KID

By Jeffrey S. Miller

 

In the summer of 1942, American soldiers were fighting overseas, more women were going to work and rationing meant families had to make-do with limited quantities of gasoline, sugar and meat. But for all of the sacrifices, there was a strong sense of patriotism in the land as popular songs and movies trumpeted the cause and predicted an Allied victory.

Celebrities and movie stars did their part for the war effort by performing at military bases and camps, volunteering at the newly opened Hollywood Canteen and touring overseas with the United Services Organization (USO). Other entertainers took to the road to promote the sale of government war bonds, which were created to help finance America’s part in the war.

Bonds were sold in denominations of $25 (up to $10,000) at 75% of their face value; they would mature to full value in ten years. For those who didn’t have enough money to buy a full bond, saving stamps could be purchased for ten cents apiece. The stamps were kept in special books; when enough stamps had been accumulated, the books could be turned in for a bond.

The entertainment industries went all in, producing short films, cartoons and even comic books to promote the sales of war bonds and saving stamps, targeting citizens of all ages. Popular entertainers and stars went on tours across the country, appearing at rallies in major cities where they urged Americans to contribute to the war effort.

Perhaps the biggest push came from the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. After rising through the ranks in burlesque and vaudeville, the duo had enjoyed success on radio (as regular fixtures of The Kate Smith Show and The Charlie McCarthy Show) before going into movies. By the end of 1941, the duo had become a top box-office attraction, thanks to their films Buck Privates, In the Navy and Hold That Ghost.

In the summer of 1942, the boys appeared in a Universal newsreel pitching defense bonds, and embarked on a 34-day tour that took them to 78 cities and 100 war production plants. The tour brought in a record $85 million in bond and stamp purchases.

It was a frenetic chapter of a frenetic year for the team; in April, they made their MGM movie debut with Rio Rita and Universal released their eighth film, Pardon My Sarong, in August. Before starting the tour, Abbott and Costello had wrapped up their ninth film, the mystery spoof Who Done It? Set at a radio station, the boys play soda jerks who masquerade as detectives when the head of the studio is murdered, hoping to solve the case and land a job writing for the Murder at Midnight radio program.

Fast-paced and filled with great gags (including the “Watts Volts” routine), Who Done It? also included some in-jokes as well. At one point, Lou wins a radio; when he turns it on, he hears himself and Abbott performing their “Who’s on First?” routine. Bud shakes his head and Costello quickly turns off the radio in disgust.

Like many films of the day, Who Done It? contained wartime references — part of the plot involves an enemy spy who is sending coded messages over the airwaves. It was an appropriate start for the activities that followed once filming was completed: In a three-day period, they actually managed to sell $3 million worth of bonds, an impressive and unmatched figure. They were often honored with special citations or the keys to the city.

Such was the case when the boys arrived in Omaha on July 31: They performed on the steps of the state capitol building and Gov. Dwight Griswold presented them with an ear of corn as a memento of their trip. Their time in Omaha also resulted in the most unusual appearance of the tour, thanks to a 12-year-old boy named Jerry Young.

Returning to their suite at the Fontenelle Hotel, Abbott and Costello discovered that Jerry had sneaked into their room. The hotel employees wanted to oust the boy but Lou decided to hear why the youth had gone to so much trouble to meet the team. Young explained that he was staging a charity benefit show in his backyard to sell war bonds and stamps. He hoped that Abbott and Costello might headline the program — and went so far as to offer them 70 cents to appear. Admiring the boy’s nerve and patriotism, Bud and Lou agreed.

One can just imagine this kid going back home to tell his parents and neighbors that Abbott and Costello were going to show up that evening — and the incredulous responses he must have received in return. Even so, a huge crowd of Nebraskans made their way to the Youngs’ house that night; the yard was filled to overflowing and local police had to rope off the streets. As the show began, everyone eagerly waited for the comedians to stick to their word and show up.

They did. Abbott and Costello made their scheduled appearance in Lincoln, then drove back 55 miles by special motorcade to Young’s home. They performed some of their routines for the astonished crowd and urged everyone to buy bonds and stamps.

According to Abbott and Costello biographers Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo, Bud even put Lou’s shirt up for auction as a souvenir for a lucky fan. The bidding closed at ten dollars, but Lou himself bid twelve so that he could keep the shirt and remain dressed!

Lou Costello’s daughter Chris also wrote about this incident in her book Lou’s On First, although in her version of the story, there was another boy with Jerry when he snuck into the hotel. This makes sense; most likely, Young needed an accomplice to distract the hotel employees so that he could sneak upstairs. In her version, Young offered to contribute $1.16 (which was all the money he had in his pocket) to the war effort if Bud and Lou would do the show in his backyard; he also told the comics that he felt certain his friends would pitch in even more. Either way, Jerry Young — with the considerable help of Abbott and Costello — managed to raise several hundred dollars toward the purchase of War bonds and stamps.

The story of Bud and Lou and little Jerry Young from Nebraska is, in part, the story of how the country came together for an important cause. It’s a story about the generosity and kindness of the two great comics — and the gumption and courage of the country’s youth. It’s a terrific — and even inspiring — anecdote from a fascinating era of our nation’s history.



Tune in to Those Were the Days on July 15 and September 30 to hear Abbott and Costello on radio.

 

 

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