‘Straight man’ Abbott’s vow renewal film a Springfield treasure

When comedian Bud Abbott and wife Jennie renewed their vows during a 1950 wedding reception in Springfield’s Hotel Shawnee, straight man meant something slightly different than it does today.

As Merriam Webster still defines it, the term identifies “a member of a comedy team who feeds lines to a partner, who in turn replies with usually humorous quips.”

At the risk of getting off track, I’ll note that partner also means a wider range of things than it did when Abbott and partner Lou Costello produced the iconic “Who’s on First” routine for broadcast on a March 1938 show hosted by “The First Lady of Radio,” singer Kate Smith.

Just as the meanings of straight man and partner have broadened over time, the significance that color video exists of the 1950 reception at which the Abbotts renewed their vows also means something.

Any film footage, much less in color, was a rarity in those days.

Springfielders and anyone else interested can now view that footage thanks to the efforts of Springfield’s Imperial Debubba, Dick Hatfield, and the permission of another Champion City resident, Carol Rittoff.

An inveterate Facebook poster of things nostalgically Springfield, Hatfield discovered the footage’s existence when his brother, Mike, introduced him to Rittoff at Springfield’s Buckeye Sports Lodge.

“I grew up hearing about this wedding,” said Rittoff, whose father, Phil Weiland, was the resident manager of the Hotel Shawnee at the time it took place.

After his service in World War II, during which Abbott and Costello made a series of light movies to sustain the nation’s mood, Weiland used the G.I. Bill to go to hotel school.

While working at the opulent Netherland Plaza Hilton in hometown Cincinnati, Weiland was invited to migrate to Springfield to be the Hotel Shawnee’s resident manager. And to a hotelier with the pedigree, the soiree held Sunday, March 12, 1950, was an event to remember — one he did, in fact, repeatedly remember by paging through his photo album of the event.

When Weiland’s daughter, Carol, ended up marrying Michael Rittoff, the brother of that same wedding’s bride, “he was just shocked,” Mrs. Rittoff said.

And after her father had had several strokes and her husband found that a cousin had film footage of that wedding, the film turned out to be one of the best Christmas presents the late Phil Weiland ever received.

As my friend and former Springfield News-Sun columnist Andrew McGinn wrote in a 2001 story in this paper, Abbott was invited to the wedding by the bride’s father, Harry Rittoff. McGinn’s story said the two had met “probably in a casino,” according to Steven Kahn, a son of bride and groom Joan Rittoff and Daytonian Sam Kahn.

It’s likely the two were introduced by Harry Rittoff’s brother Stanley, who lived in Los Angeles, in close proximity to the movie-making mecca that is Hollywood.

The bride clearly had the markings of a glamorous young woman with an upbringing that was strictly upper crust.

Just as the Springfield Daily News wedding story reported, “Mrs. Kahn was graduated from the Helen Lane School for Girls, Miami, Fla., and attended the University of Miami, Fla. She was formerly associated with the Coronet Modeling Agency in Miami.”

Such social trappings seem consistent with her wedding dress, described as “a gown of shell pink satin and nylon net and a veil of French illusion, which was held in place by a band of small pearls.”

She is still remembered by some Springfielders for her elegant, stylish dress and persona, consistent with Hatfield’s assessment of her as “an ultra-classic lady” with a taste for sophisticated jazz.

The wedding took place “under a canopy of roses and ivy” at the home of the bride’s mother, Lucille Rittoff, 901 Mitchell Blvd. Springfielders may recognize that as what became known as the Petticrew House, which sits on the south side of Mitchell just east of the bike path.

Mrs. Rittoff’s high-living former husband, Harry, by then lived at 810 Ardmore Road.

Despite the somewhat shadowy background and the bright light that causes the guests to squint at us from 1950, the film gives a glimpse into both the elegance of the Shawnee and the lives of the reception’s well-to-do guests, which numbered at 350.

If a straight man on the professional circuit, Abbott is clearly the comic center-of-attention in the film, which was silent but which Hatfield has provided smooth-as-silk music of the sort one might expected at the event.

The digitized version Hatfield created shows Abbott being followed around by hotel staffer John Moore, the brother of boxing legend Davey Moore. The day of the wedding, the News-Sun carried a report that the then Golden Glove Bantamweight champion and future World Champion had just become “the first champion of the District AAU Boxing tournament.”

As the separate story of the Abbott wedding put it, Abbott had “delegated” the boxer’s brother “to carry a smoker-ash tray for him” and referred to John Moore his “Rochester, Jr.,” a reference to comedian Jack Benny’s constant African-American sidekick and virtual straight man.

Just as those antics may be viewed with some discomfort by young people in what some call post-racial America, Abbott’s sudden decision that night to renew his wedding vows in the Jewish faith connect with darker shadows of religious tensions in our history.

Retired Dayton Rabbi Samuel Harris told the Springfield Daily News the Abbotts “were so impressed with the ceremony of the Jewish faith” witnessed earlier at Mrs. Rittoff’s house “that they came to me afterwards … and expressed their desire to become married in the Jewish faith.”

Added Harris, “They came voluntarily.”

Married 32 years earlier in a Christian ceremony, “Abbott said both of them had been thinking for several years to re-marry in the Jewish faith in deference to Bud’s mother, Mrs. Rachel Fischer Abbott,” the newspaper said. “She is Jewish and Bud’s father is Gentile.”

If the meanings of the terms straight man and partner have broadened as society has change, the word “gentile” (meaning not Jewish) has nearly disappeared as the distance between Christians and Jews has largely diminished.

Before the renewal of the vows, Rabbi Harris performed a conversion ceremony for the bride and groom, part of a chain of events that, according to the story, triggered powerful emotions.

“By the end of the rites, Abbott was crying … And Bud’s wife was as much emotionally touched … Standing arm-in-arm later, they accepted best wishes in tears. The ebullient Abbott for once had nothing to say. All he could do was nod.”

Those familiar with Springfield history may remember that late March of 1950 brought perhaps the biggest parade in Springfield’s history on U.S. 40 past the Hotel Shawnee, a parade celebrating the Springfield Wildcats’ state basketball championship.

Abbott’s presence at the wedding was in part due to a major change in the parade of technology.

“Abbott came to Springfield about two weeks ago, ostensibly to attend the marriage of the young people,” the story said. “About a week later, though, he announced that a string of television stores were to be opened under the joint ownership of Harry Rittoff and Abbott.”

Hatfield, who remembers attending the opening of Abbott’s store at 71 W. Main St. during a time when television was new, last week discovered a photo of some of the store’s trucks and staff in the possession of Carolyn Belcher, whose late husband, Leo Shartran, worked there.

As it turned out, Springfielders who bought those Muntz brand TVs had the chance to watch Abbott and Costello on them. The duo that started in vaudeville made the transition to radio and the movies, debuting on “The Colgate Comedy Hour” in 1951, and had their own show from 1951-52.

A decade later, Abbott’s last foray in television involved doing his own voice for an Abbott and Costello series of Hanna-Barbera cartoons — done in part so he could help pay off a massive debt to the IRS, racked up during the comedy team’s partnership.

As certain as death and taxes is the constant parade of history, which, by its ever changing nature, sometimes manages to play the role of straight man for all of us.

Decades after they were spoken, the words Costello used to praise Abbott might come from the mouth of a woman with marriage on her mind and a current beau she considers funny but perhaps unsuitable as a date.

“Comics are a dime a dozen,” she might say, as Costello did. “Good straight men are hard to find.”

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