Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A Calabash Explanation

It is impossible to dislike Jimmy Durante.

Durante’s act was, at times, corny and old-fashioned, but it was easy to ignore that. He was having such a good time entertaining that you’d just get caught up in his enthusiasm. And even though he made fun of his nose and vocabulary, he never appeared self-centered.

Dick Kleiner of the National Enterprise Association profiled him in one of his five “funnymen” features in 1950. This column appeared in papers on February 25th. Incidentally, this is one of the few columns I’ve seen where Durante isn’t coy when talking about the identity of Mrs. Calabash.

Carryin's On
Jimmy Durante Loves 'em And so Does His Public

By RICHARD KLEINER
New York—(NEA)—Jimmy Durante is no babe in arms any more. He has to wear glasses when he reads and his hair is so sparse that when he combs it in the morning he has to decide whether the two of them want to be combed east or west. But time has dulled neither his wit nor his vocabulary nor his nose. All three are just as sharp as ever, particularly the schnoz. The great feature of Durante's humor, it dominates his life as it does his face.
Jimmy was posing for a publicity picture in his hotel room here. Always obliging, he had agreed to aid a charity campaign. The idea was to have a close-up of the charity's seal, affixed jauntily to the Durante schnoz.
But the photographer put the seal on the wrong way.
"Wait a minute, Jimmy," said the photographer, "well have to turn it upside down."
"What," said Durante, mortified, "turn de nose upside down? Den people will smell me!"
NOT A WEEK goes by but what the Durante radio show contains at least one reference to the nose. Something like this:
Durante calls the hotel room service and orders a dozen roses, pink lace curtains and the room sprayed with perfume. Asked for an explanation, Durante says:
"The hotel made my nose and I register as man and wife so I thought I'd make it look like a honeymoon suite."
Besides his radio appearances, Jimmy is in constant demand as a night club performer. He thoroughly enjoys himself in his act, because he likes to perform to a live audience.
"Ya know he says, "dere's all de difference in de woild between de oily shows and de free o'clock "show. De free o'clock show is like a party at somebody's house. Everybody's happy — not drunk, but just happy.
"But de dinner-time shows is tough. Dat crowd ya gotta go get—you just gotta go out and get 'em. Ya gotta make friends wit 'em.
"And sometimes dey don't laugh, dey just don't laugh. Den de trapdoor opens and you fall t'rough de floor."
* * *
THAT the trapdoor hasn't opened very often for James Durante is proven by his long, successful career in show business. Now 56, (or possibly a few years older), he was born in New York and grew up helping his father run his barber shop.
But, at 17, he was pounding a piano in a Coney Island night spot and a year later he was accompanying a singing waiter named Eddie Cantor.
In 1923, he teamed up with singer Eddie Jackson and dancer Lou Clayton, and Clayton, Jackson and Durante became one of Broadway's brightest teams. Durante turned down solo offers until the depression flattened show business, then went to Hollywood.
Clayton and Jackson are still with him, the former acting as his business manager and the latter helping with his routines.
The rest is history.
By now, Jimmy is one of the most popular guys in the business, with fellow performers as well as with the laughing public. On his annual visits to New York, his hotel suite is a madhouse. Jimmy holds court in the living room, eating his breakfast about three in the afternoon.
Drinking prune juice (out of a glass especially constructed to accommodate the proboscis) and eating two raw eggs, he explains:
"I been eatin' rore eggs for breakfast for years but I don't know why."
* * *
FOUR WRITERS work on the Durante radio show, with Durante usually in on story conferences "to help kick t'ings around." They usually manage to include a fine assortment of multi-syllable words for Durante to mangle. In one script, here were some of the ones he had to read:
Mispreaprehension, punkrutude, plutonic, sprouse, catastroscope, statnatory.
Those, of course, were designed to be Durante-ized, but there were many others that just sort of fell into the trap, unpremedicatated.
As every Durante fan knows, he closes each show with a reference to "Mrs. Calabash," usually saying, "Good-night, Mrs.' Calabash, wherever you are."
"It was about ten years ago," says Jimmy. "I was in Chicago, between trains. I runs into Mrs. Calabash who was a school friend of mine back here in New York. Mrs. Calabash was her married name. We had a fine time talking about de old days.
"About four years ago, I just fought she'd get a kick out of it if I mentioned her name on de air. So I said 'Good-night, Mrs. Calabash.'
"But I never heard from her, although I got letters from all the wrong Mrs. Calabashes. So I added dat 'wherever you are' because I don't know wherever she is."
Wherever she is, she probably does get a big kick out of Durante. She and millions of others.

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