Times Past

Abbot and Costello — and other era celebrities — played big role in entertaining troops in SLO

Abbot and Costello and the Andrews Sisters in “Buck Privates.”
Abbot and Costello and the Andrews Sisters in “Buck Privates.”

“A-toot, a-toot, a-toot-diddleyada-toot.”

“He blows it eight-to-the-bar, in boogie rhythm.”

“He can’t blow a note unless the bass and guitar is playin’ with him...”

My first recollection of a motion picture was at the age of 3 or 4, sitting in a Long Beach theatre filled with sailors on shore leave. The Andrews Sisters were singing “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B!”

I’d probably heard their rendition many times before, but combined with Abbot and Costello, it was indelibly printed in my memory.

The film “Buck Privates” was made in 1941, so by 1943 it was a “second feature.” I have no remembrance of the feature film.

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Nor had I any knowledge of how “Buck Privates” came to San Luis Obispo both in films and in real life.

In 1940, the War Department leased Camp Merriam from the California National Guard. The camp had been created in 1928 with 5,800 acres. Local agents’ purchased or leased former dairy farms, enlarging the facility by 4,685 acres.

The original plan was to use the camp for training the 40th Infantry Division, which included elements from California, Arizona and Utah with sections designated for artillery and Signal Corps training.

From the perspective of strategic planning, the camp was ideally located along the main coastal highway and railroad line midway in the nearly empty 400 miles that divided California’s two urban cores.

Despite the most rain-filled winter on record from November 1940 to April 1941, the camp was ready for the arrival of troops in March 1941. Soon, the streets of San Luis Obispo were filled with thousands of lonely young soldiers whose drill sergeants granted them passes into town.

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San Luis Obispo had two motion picture houses in 1941: The elegant 1920s Hispano-baroque Obispo, located at Monterey and Osos streets near the Greyhound Bus Depot, and the ElMo, combining the “Elks” with “movies” in its name, located in the 1900s red brick Elk’s Club auditorium at Marsh and Morro. Both theaters were jammed to capacity when the soldiers were in town.

Fox West Coast Theaters had begun building the classic Art Deco Fremont, but the war footing scarcity of electrical and plumbing fixtures delayed its completion until May 1942.

America wasn’t at war, yet, but Hollywood was prepared for the inevitable. Universal Studies “drafted” two comedians from the vaudeville and burlesque circuits, Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, to make the film “Buck Privates” in mid-1940.

In the movie, the pair enlist in the army to escape an angry police officer. They find themselves in boot camp. They are shocked to discover that their sergeant is the cop who was about to jail them when they enlisted. The drill sergeant becomes a comic foil as Abbot and Costello wreak havoc on the Army. Delighted audiences quickly discovered one of America’s beloved comedic teams. The film made $4,000,000, a great deal more than another 1941 film, Citizen Kane.

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The movie also began a genre that include 1944’s “See Here, Private Hargrove” starring Robert Walker and 1958’s “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith in a Korean War-era training camp setting.

Abbot and Costello in “Buck Privates” marched to the tune of a different drummer, the Andrews Sisters sing “You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith,” “Apple Blossom Time” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company ‘B’.” “Buck Privates”was just what weary and homesick boys needed.

Camp San Luis Obispo quickly grew into America’s third largest training base, which — when combined with the largest, Camp Roberts near San Miguel and Camp Cooke near Lompoc — formed an audience of more than 70,000 trainees at a time.

Hollywood stars from the Andrews Sisters to Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Rita Hayworth, Laurel and Hardy and John Wayne came to entertain the troops. But the favorites on the eve of America’s entry into the war were Abbot and Costello.

Dan Krieger is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.