Jimmy Durante experienced heartache enough in his otherwise charmed life. So much so that one of the great legends of his unusual career involved one of those heartaches.
The Old Schnozzola in 1943 was a man at extremely loose ends. It was bad enough that his career was in the proverbial tank—he’d taken over NBC’s Ed Wynn, the Fire Chief, now renamed Jumbo Fire Chief, in October 1935, but the extravagantly produced new version continued the Wynn ratings slide. Jumbo Fire Chief was cancelled in February 1936, and Durante went from there to make a series of films that drove him to rock bottom, in just about every sense of the term, by 1943.
But none of that compared even remotely to the death of his wife, Jeanne, on Valentine’s Day in 1943, after a long illness. However, work proved to be Durante’s salvation, specifically by two subsequent and somewhat unexpected gigs. First was a guest shot on NBC’s Camel Caravan program, then came a booking at the Copacabana in New York.
The radio booking might have been intended as a one-shot guest shot, but it shot Durante right back into the national comedy spotlight . . . and provoked the partnership that completed his radio resurrection, not long before Durante’s Copa stand proved an unexpected smash.
Co-billed on Camel Caravan that night was a young, brush-cut comedian named Garry Moore. The show’s producer, Phil Cohan, got an idea when he saw the striking contrast between the breathless young buck and the old man from vaudeville and burlesque. Even as Moore was scheduled to become Abbott & Costello’s summer replacement, Cohan asked both Moore and Durante if they’d be interested in trying out as a team the following autumn.
Then Lou Costello himself inadvertently shook that plan inside out. Costello’s bout with rheumatic fever forced him off the air midway through the season, leaving NBC in need of a replacement post haste.
Already the planned summer replacement, Moore was a natural choice. But the agency handling Abbott & Costello for Camel cigarettes quaked over Moore’s lack of name recognition. That’s when Cohan suggested teaming Durante and Moore. He knew Durante was back in the spotlight already and that the Copa stand had proven Durante’s unlikely staying power. And he suspected the contrasts between the youthful, self-composed Moore and the gregarious Old Schnozzola could work.
So The Durante-Moore Show hit the air running for Rexall and became a solid hit if not an overwhelming smash. Cohan’s instinct proved right—the show made Moore a star and finished reviving a Durante who’d been blasted to his knees just months earlier.
It was during the first Durante-Moore season, moreover, that Durante unsheathed his signature sign-off, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” He kept it for the rest of his life, whether after going on his own following Garry Moore’s departure in 1947 through his presence on television in the 1950s and 1960s.
The rumours had it that the sign-off was Durante’s way of acknowledging his late wife, even after he remarried happily in 1960, to a Copa hatcheck girl he first met in 1946. Jimmy and Jeanne Durante lived in Calabasas, California, during the final years of her life, and “Calabash” certainly sounded like the kind of language manguage for which Durante was already famous.
Other rumours included that Durante developed the line after promising a Calabash, North Carolina restaurant owner he would make her famous in a fashion after he and his troupe enjoyed their meals there while on tour.
The truth turned out to be a kind of mangling combination of the two, as Durante himself revealed at last when invited to address the National Press Club in 1966. Durante’s comments were preserved and broadcast a decade later, on the last day of the long-running NBC weekend radio magazine Monitor:
Folks, I see a lot of cards here, “Who is Mrs. Calabash?” Now, I’m just balancing the question in my mind. That’s the correct word, ‘balancing.’ And, uh, I really don’t know if I should. Now we have a lot of great minds in the audience tonight, maybe this is the spot. Whaddya think? [applause] I appreciate that, I really do.
Years ago, the Mrs. and I, the first Mrs. Durante, used to drive across country, and we came across a beautiful little town, Calabash, and we stopped there overnights and she loved it, mercy on her soul, really loved it. I was playing piano then and as soon as I get rich I’ll buy that town. So, gentlemen, Mrs. Calabash, refer to it all the time . . . was Mrs. Jimmy Durante. Because every time we got home I used to call her Mrs. Calabash.
Let there be no further doubt. Jimmy Durante was, indeed, saluting his first wife. [The second Mrs. Durante never seemed to mind, though she did once say she thought in all sincerity that her husband came up with the catch phrase as just another good, classic show business prop.)
So, good night, Mr. and Mrs. Calabash . . . wherever you are.
TUNE IN TONIGHT:
Garry Moore left The Durante-Moore Show in order to keep his own comic persona distinct, and Jimmy Durante, then as always, was too comfortable in his own self to stand in his partner’s way. But could Durante survive on his own?
The Old Schnozzola is no stranger to predictions of his professional demise. He was dead in the water when his accidental teaming with Moore proved a hit. Now, without Moore, The Jimmy Durante Show will finish this season in a dead heat for the number seven show on Wednesday nights, tied with Philco Radio Time (with Bing Crosby) and Dr. Christian.
The show will go on to stay in the nightly Top Ten through 1950; his 13.9 Hooper for his time period this season will actually come in three points higher than in his final season teamed with Moore. In other words, Durante will win on his own by a nose.
Tonight: Durante and Eddie Cantor swap jokes and stories about their respective early careers, including an arch, slightly exaggerated reflection of their first encounter with Flo Zigfeld, after Durante wrestles over the new house accommodations butler Arthur (Treacher) arranges for him.
You may get the impression Cantor is funnier here than he really was on his own programs of a decade earlier, when he was one of radio’s unquestioned kings. It is not necessarily a false impression.
Additional cast: Candy Candido, Victor Moore, Florence Halop. Announcer: Howard Petrie. Music: Ray Bargy Orchestra, Peggy Lee. Director: Phil Cohan. Writers: Unidentified, but probably Syd Resnick, Jackie Barrett.
Broadcast note: This recording includes the actual follow-up broadcast, a sports report from the Los Angeles Rams’s Tom Harmon.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Gives Up Cigars (Comedy; NBC, 1940)
Information, Please: Jan Struther, Louis Bromfield (Quiz; NBC, 1940)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Bull Moran and the Skunk Incident (Comedy; NBC, 1946)
The Whistler: Death Laughs Last (Crime drama; CBS, 1945)
Our Miss Brooks: Radio Bombay (Comedy; CBS, 1950)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Teaching the Parakeet to Talk (Comedy; NBC, 1953)