Before I give you the details of that infamous trip, you’ll enjoy this story about the time I ran into Minta Durfee, Fatty Arbuckle’s first wife. We had just finished supper at “21” when I saw her sitting alone at the bar having a drink, so I introduced myself and told her that the first picture I ever saw was “Fatty’s Magic Pants.” I thought it would make her feel good, perhaps remind her of the days before talkies, when she was still a star. “Beat it, Bub,” she said. Can you believe it? She called me Bub! Minta Durfee!
Anyway, that Friday, we picked up Joseph Cotten and took the train down to Washington to see Joe Louis fight Buddy Baer. On the way, Bud and Lou started arguing about the best way to bring “Who’s On First” to the silver screen.
“We’ll have to make some changes, of course,” Bud said.
“What are you talking about?” Lou sighed. “It’s perfect the way it is.”
“The whole ‘third base’ bit. It doesn’t work.”
Lou’s pupils rolled so far under his eyebrows he could watch himself think. “Oh, for crying out loud. I thought you stopped grinding that ax after we did the Kate Smith Radio Hour.”
“Radio audiences are less discriminating,” Bud said. “A paying crowd won’t put up with that sloppy, off-Vaudeville stuff.”
“Tell me again. What’s wrong with it?”
“Okay. Who’s on first. That’s fine. I can see a guy named Who, or somebody with Who as a nickname—”
“Maybe he looks like an owl,” Joe offered.
“Exactly. What’s on second. I’ll buy that, too. His last name is ‘Watts.’ So far so good. But I Don’t Know is on third? Who could believe this fellow is named I Don’t Know?”
“Yes,” Lou said.
Bud stared coldly into Lou’s eyes. “Shut the fuck up.”
“Listen to me,” Lou said. “The whole point is that the players have ridiculous names. We set it up in the very first line.” He began the routine with a credible, if mocking, impersonation of Bud: “You know it seems to me they give these ballplayers now-a-days very peculiar names…”
“But, it only works if you keep it believable,” Bud interrupted. “For instance, the pitcher and catcher are Today and Tomorrow. Those could be nicknames. But I Don’t Know? You’d never call a real person I Don’t Know.” Bud pointed to a bystander in the bar car, a black-derbied dandy trying to pose like Clark Gable, although he looked to me more like Mae Clarke in Sailors On Leave. “Hey, over there!” Bud shouted. “Isn’t that the great third baseman Frank ‘I Don’t Know’ Baker!” The fop looked puzzled and quickly reached for his drink. Bud shook his head. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Lou began to sputter. “Look, Abbott, the funniest part of the act is when we say ‘I don’t know… THIRD BASE!’”
“That always gets the biggest laugh,” I agreed.
Bud turned his wrist, creating a dismissive funnel of scotch in his glass. “They’ll be laughing at us all right. I’m telling you, we oughta change it back to Pete Smee.”
Lou threw up his arms. “Here we go with the Pete Smee again. Here we go!”
“‘Pete Smee. Third base.’ That’s every bit as funny as I Don’t Know. Funnier even, because it’s logical.” This time Bud launched into the routine, caustically reading Lou’s lines in the voice of Shemp Howard. “What’s the name of the guy playing first base / What’s on second / I’m not asking ya who’s on second / Who’s on first / Beats me / THIRD BASE!”
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
Lou turned to me and then to Joe and then back to Bud. “You don’t understand this routine at all, do you, Abbott?”
“I understand it better than you.”
It was like that all the way down and all the way back. Our only respite came during the three-minute intervals in which the Champ mechanically pummeled that milksop Baer. Nevertheless, every time you’d ask Bud a question, he’d shrug and say “Pete Smee!” and then Lou would make whimpering noises and I’d have to pretend to hold him back. Sometimes I think they paid me 20 dollars a week to write jokes, and the other 20 dollars was for pretending to keep Lou from throttling Bud in public.
The act amused everyone at ringside, though. Mary Astor was laughing so hard she spit a peanut that hit Tommy Dorsey in the ear. He just sort of waved at it, but didn’t turn around, so Mary spit another one and nailed him square in the melon. She spit peanuts at him all night and he kept scratching his head but he never turned around. It was a stitch.
After we dropped Joe off, Bud and Lou really gave me the business about my Frankenstein script. “What’s the Wolfman doing in here? And Dracula?” Lou waved the pages in my face. “You see, kid, in two weeks we start shooting Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. If the horror schtick is still pulling ‘em in, then next month we can make Abbott and Costello Meet Dracula. The month after that, we’ll do the Wolfman, and then the Mummy, and Jekyll and Hyde and so forth. You got six different pictures in here, pally. Pace yourself.” I think Bud was still steamed because I took Lou’s side on the Pete Smee issue. I don’t know what crawled up Lou’s ass.
The next day we went back to California. I’ve always hated air travel, but it was even worse with the boys. Between New York and LA, they’d do every single bit from “Keep ’Em Flying.” It impressed the gals, of course, and Bud and Lou were always generous enough to toss an extra stewardess my way, but when they’d make me put on a WAC uniform and read Martha Raye’s lines, I wished there had been someone on the payroll to hold me back.