Wednesday 15 May 2019

The Calabash Chronicle

Many people tried to solve the mystery surrounding Jimmy Durante’s Mrs. Calabash. Only one person—Durante—knew the answer, and he wasn’t telling.

But is that true?

No, according to the man who resurrected Durante’s career by teaming him on the radio with Garry Moore.

Here’s a two-page feature story from The American Weekly, one of those newspaper magazine supplements, dated July 30, 1961. It goes into the Calabash conundrum with a possible explanation. I always love how any newspaper story quoting Durante spells the words in Durante’s dialect. You can hear his voice when you read them.

By the way, you can read another possible explanation in this post.

Durante's secret "good night" gal is either a childhood sweetheart (says Jimmy) or a horse (it says here)

Somebody asked Jimmy Durante if his upcoming special on NBC television, in which he'll be assisted by a couple of much younger and less experienced performers named Bob Hope and Garry Moore, would end with the familiar and customary Jimmy Durante ending—a fond good night to a mysterious lady named Mrs. Calabash "wherever you are."
The explosive Mr. Durante, who still behaves offstage at the age of 68 with the same wild and jaunty abandon that he displays in his night-club and TV comedy act, turned on his questioner with an indignant stare and shouted hoarsely, "If they don't let me mention Mrs. Calabash in there, they're outa their minds!"
Jimmy, in other words, knows when he has a good thing going for him. Tell somebody you know Jimmy Durante and the first question you are asked about him is, "Who is Mrs. Calabash?" When he commutes in Hollywood between his two houses—one near the Sunset Strip occupied by his wife, Margie, whom he married last December, and his old bachelor residence in Beverly Hills, which he holds onto because he likes its shower bath—the passing truck drivers yell at him, "Hey, Jimmy, how's Mrs. Calabash?" Mrs. Calabash is almost as famous as Jimmy Durante and all sorts of legends and stories are told about her.
But not a word is said about her by Jimmy himself. Back in 1950, when the late Gene Fowler was working on the official Durante biography, Schnozzola, Jimmy talked freely to Fowler about everything else in his life story but he refused to talk about Mrs. Calabash. "That's my secret," Fowler quoted him as saying. "I want it to rest where it is."
Fowler reported in Schnozzola that two of Jimmy's closest friends leaned toward a belief that Mrs. Calabash was a widowed mother of a small boy who listened to the Durante radio show in the 1940s and exchanged letters with Jimmy. Fowler himself was inclined to feel, as many other people do, that Mrs. Calabash was Jimmy's first wife, Jeanne, who died in 1943.
I heard two other explanations of Mrs. Calabash in 1949 when I was writing an article about Durante for Cosmopolitan magazine. One, which I am inclined to believe, was given to me by Phil Cohan, who was the producer of the Durante radio show 15 years ago when Mrs. Calabash was first mentioned by Jimmy on the air.
Cohan said he and Durante, with the writers of the radio show, originally created Mrs. Calabash as a fictional joke. Each week, over a period of several weeks, Jimmy was to say good night to her solemnly at the end of the show.
Then, after building up curiosity in the listening audience about who Mrs. Calabash was, Jimmy was to reveal her as a race horse on which he had lost several thousand dollars at various tracks over the years.
"We got the name from a pipe I was smoking when we first talked over the idea," Cohan said. "My pipe reminded me of the big pipe with the curved stem that Sherlock Holmes smoked, which was called a calabash because its bowl was made from a calabash gourd."
According to Cohan, the Mrs. Calabash joke proceeded as it was planned until one day, shortly before the scheduled revelation of her identity, when Jimmy was visiting friends at a Catholic monastery. A group of monks at the monastery asked him about Mrs. Calabash. He explained to them that the whole thing was only a gag and the monks were horrified. They pointed out that most people who listened to the show had come to believe that Mrs. Calabash was a real person. Exposing her as a comic hoax would only destroy the warm and touching image of her that Jimmy had created.
"Jimmy decided that the monks were right, as, of course, they were," Cohan said. "The race horse joke was dropped and Jimmy kept on mentioning Mrs. Calabash without telling who she was. As time went on, I think Jimmy began to associate the Mrs. Calabash he was saying good night to on the radio show with somebody he had known in his own past life. Now he actually believes that she is a real person. Ask him about her and see what he says."
A few days later, when I was alone with Durante at his Beverly Hills home, I did ask him who Mrs. Calabash was. He leaned back reflectively on the couch where he was resting and a faraway look came into his eyes.
"A kid I grew up with in New York," he said. "We was stuck on each other for a while but nuttin' ever came of it. Well, she married this other guy and they moved to Chicago and once in a while later on when I was playing in Chicago at the Chez Paree she useta drop in and say hello. But nuttin' out of the way. Just a nice kid."
That was 12 years ago. Nowadays Jimmy dismisses questions about Mrs. Calabash lightly without giving out any information.
"Jimmy," I asked him a few weeks ago, "who is Mrs. Calabash?" He gave me a roguish wink.
"Some day I'll tell ya," he said, "butcha won't be able to write it." Scheduled for next August 9th, the Jimmy Durante television special was designed by Goodman Ace, the George Bernard Shaw of TV comedy writing, but it is safe to assume that Jimmy on that Wednesday night will be the same old Schnozzola. He never seems to change or to slow down. Watching him clown and sing and stop the music to fly into a rage for an hour and a quarter during his slam-bang nightclub show, it is hard to believe that this is his 51st year in show business. He began in 1910 at the age of 17 as a piano player in a Coney Island saloon where Eddie Cantor worked as a singing waiter. "They kept me at that piano like I was chained to it," Jimmy says. "One night I got up for a coupla minutes to go to the washroom and the manager comes over to me and says, 'What are you tryin' to do—take advantage?'"
The inimitable Durante buffoonery has never changed since the early '20s when he teamed up with the late Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson to become New York's favorite speakeasy and night-club entertainers. He is one of the few remaining headliners from the Prohibition period who is still going strong.
Jimmy has never had to worry about other comedians stealing his humor. Nobody else can get a big laugh as he does merely by stopping in the middle of a song and announcing to the audience, "If they hadn'ta cut off my curves when I was a kid, I'd be another Anna Marie Alberspaghetti!" He can also cause convulsions of mirth simply by declaring, out of a clear sky, "Up in Seattle, I have 1,283 acres of wooded land!"
Durante's songs are also burglar-proof because nobody but Durante can sing them effectively. He is the proprietor of the Jimmy Durante Music Publishing Company, which seldom does any business because nobody but Durante wants the Durante songs—So I Ups to Him . . . The Strut away . . . I Can Do Without Broadway, But Can Broadway Do Without Met . . . Who Will Be With You When I'm Far Away, Far Away In Far Rockaway? and, of course, the classic that Jimmy refers to as "our national emblem"—Inka Dinka Doo. If Jimmy forgets to sing Inka Dinka Doo his audience always demands it.
As he starts his second 50 years in show business, Jimmy keeps busier than ever. Except for an occasional TV engagement, such as August 9th's special, he concentrates on a steady diet of night-club work that would exhaust most younger men. He feels more comfortable in a night club than he does on television because "in a club, you scramble along getting laughs, doing anything that comes into your head without sticking to a script and worrying about what time it is," he explains. "That's the way I like it."
In May, after a long tour of appearances in such places as the Copacabana in New York, The Desert Inn in Las Vegas and the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, Jimmy and his vivacious wife hurried to Italy where he played in Vittorio Di Sica's movie, The Last Judgment. On the way home he stopped in Paris where he wore out his traveling companions by visiting every night club in the French capital in one night.
Then, before rehearsing and taping his forthcoming television show in Hollywood, he rushed to Harrah's Club in Lake Tahoe for another nightery date, accompanied by Margie and an entourage of 13 friends, co-partners and advisers. "I woulda brought more people with me only I'm still on my honeymoon," he explained.
His physical stamina is amazing. One of his recent night-club shows lasted much longer than usual because he became fond of the audience and hated to leave the stage. His partner, the young and muscular Sonny King, had to endure an extra load of abuse from Durante. Three times, when King tried to join in on a song that Durante was singing, he was strangled and hurled to the floor—"You gotta be 20 years with Durante before you can come that close to the mike!"
Then, holding his hat aloft and shaking his head. Durante stomped across the stage in a strutaway with Eddie Jackson, turning to admire a beautiful show girl—"If I mailed that home, I wouldn't know where to put the stamp! Is it cold outside, honey?"
"No," the girl said.
Jimmy went berserk.
"Who give this girl the permission to speak that line of dialogue?" he shouted. "Call the manager! Stop the music! Everybody wantsa get inna the act!"
The performance ran 20 minutes overtime. When it ended, I made my way backstage to see Durante. Sonny King was stretched out on a cot in his dressing room, exhausted, and Jackson was slumped wearily in a chair, trying to get his breath. Jimmy was contentedly eating two lamb chops and drinking a cup of tea and looking at an old movie on television.
"I could go back out there right now and do that whole thing all over again," he said.
Jimmy discussed his new television show with Bob Hope and Garry Moore and recalled that he had worked with both of these stars when they were starting their careers. Moore broke into big-time radio as Durante's partner on the same comedy show where Mrs. Calabash originated. Hope's first big role on Broadway was with Durante and Ethel Merman in Red, Hot and Blue in 1936. This recollection moved Jimmy to reminisce about his musical New Yorkers, the Cole Porter show of 1930, in which Clayton, Jackson and Durante appeared in one scene rowing a boat in the middle of the ocean. Durante shouted, "Land!"
"That's not land," Clayton said. "That's the horizon."
"Well, it's better than nuttin'!" Jimmy would snort. "We'll head for it anyway!"
Jimmy's marriage last December to the former Margie Little, his fiancée for the previous 16 years, has gone smoothly except for the complication it has caused in Jimmy's real estate holdings. Margie refuses to give up the house in the Hollywood Hills that Jimmy bought for her a few years ago. Jimmy is reluctant to leave the gray-shingled ranch-type residence in Beverly Hills where he has lived since 1945.
"I'm the only husband in California who is keeping His and Her houses," he complains. "One of us has got to move but Margie says it won't be her."
I asked him if there might be a question about the propriety of continuing to say good night on the air to the mysterious Mrs. Calabash now that he is a married man. Jimmy snickered.
"Margie managed to put up with Mrs. Calabash all during them years while we was engaged," he said. "So I guess she can share me with Mrs. Calabash for a few more years."

1 comment:

  1. Growing up, the only story concerning Mrs. Calabash I had ever heard was about his late wife Jeannie. That always added a sad, bittersweet feeling to " Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are ". After reading this...who knows..a mystery for Holmes and his calabash.