The Jimmy Durante Show: Durante and Victor Moore Take Flying Lessons (NBC, 1948)
It has taken radio to resurrect Jimmy Durante in two ways—professionally and personally.
Durante had had a respectable life as a stage (vaudeville and burlesque alike) and radio entertainer fabled for his warped routines of half-sung songs interrupted by one-liner interludes, his battered hat and piano, and his own mockery of his too-prominent proboscis. He’d looked and sounded like a comer when he landed two takeover radio gigs, for Eddie Cantor and, subsequently, for Ed Wynn. But the gravel-voiced comedian/musician was taking over properties on the decline with or without him, for all their reported extravagance. Marry that to a coming string of films charitably described as barely bearable, and Durante entering 1943 was a falling star at best.
Then, while on tour, Durante was hit with the worst tragedy of his life. His wife, Jeanne, died on Valentine’s Day 1943, leaving him at emotional loose ends to hold hands with his precarious finanical situation. But the stricken entertainer was about to land two of the biggest breaks of his life: a guest shot on NBC’s Camel Caravan and a booking at New York’s Copacabana. The Caravan appearance restored Durante to the spotlight and the Copacabana engagement was a big hit. But the most important element of either was a young comedian who shared the Caravan bill with Durante, who impressed its producer Phil Cohan with possibilities based on the contrast between his youthful, breathless style and Durante’s position as one of vaudeville’s grand old men. A young comedian named Garry Moore.
When Lou Costello was forced into a six-month sabbatical by rheumatic fever, NBC scrambled for a fill-in show. When its sponsor expressed concern for Moore’s youth, not to mention that he wasn’t exactly a household name just yet, Cohan remembered the possibilities for Moore’s contrast with Durante as a comic proposition, and he convinced the sponsor and the network to give it a shot. It didn’t hurt that Durante himself was one of the most generous performers in the business, when it came to sharing both the laughs and invaluable teaching with younger proteges.
The Durante-Moore Show overcame its early ramshackle delivery to secure a solid foothold. (Dat’s my boy what said that, Durante would crow after a Moore punch line; it became one of his and the nation’s favourite catchphrases.) It made Garry Moore a star (he wrote much of his own material) and resurrected Jimmy Durante (who ad-libbed his way through most of it so adroitly he could almost be argued as a contender for the ad-lib championship on which his admirer Fred Allen had the grip for years) for keeps, Durante often having to wing it when the show’s writers forgot to write in his famous word assassinations.
But in 1947 Moore left the show. Durante biographers would note Moore’s departure wasn’t even close to acrimonious—he needed to secure his own comic identity, a need Durante himself encouraged, and it would prove the right one as Moore graduated in due course to a respectable broadcasting career in his own right.
So Durante soldiered on, the show now reflecting his name alone, and he’d barely be able to get through “Inka Dinka Doo,” his signature song, without a) an interloper barging in, or b) Durante himself hollering “Stop da music!” and naming a typically mangled problem. (Though, in time, it would be interrupted by the opening announcements before returning to Durante.) Now, his partners in comic crime includes Arthur Treacher (all but reprising his Jack Carson Show role as the wry, dismissive butler), character actor (and fellow vaudeville alumnus) Victor Moore, Florence Halop (usually portraying Hot Lips Houlihan, a femme fatale with Mae West-style innuendo and vocalisms), Candy (“I’m feeling miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiighty low!”) Candido, and sultry jazz-pop singer Peggy Lee.
And, as ever since he returned to radio in 1943, to forge a singular presence that lasts out the decade, Durante closes with the signature (“ . . . and good night, Mrs. Calabash—wherever you are”) he will admit, decades later (though contradictory stories will abound, including from his second wife), is his own private tribute to his deceased wife, fashioned because she had so loved a particular town through which they often traveled, Calabasas. A tribute he would keep inna the act (he would probably be murdered if he even thinks about dropping it) for the rest of his life, even though he will eventually re-marry, again happily, after almost two decades as a widower.
Tonight: The Old Schnozzola laments the impact of the previous week’s earthquake and ponders a new voting system; and, Durante and Moore decide to learn to fly, which could prove to be somewhat less than an uplifting experience. Isolated, some of the jokes may seem to have become dated within moments of their delivery. Taken whole, this is still an endearing if not necessarily groundbreaking package.
Announcer: Howard Petrie. Music: Roy Bargy Orchestra, the Crew Chiefs. Director: Phil Cohan. Writers: Unknown, but possibly including Syd Resnick, Jackie Barnett.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
The Fred Allen Show: Les Miserables, Reprise (NBC, 1946)—Fred (Allen) and Orson Welles reprise a charming zap—at both the show in question and Welles’s reputed monumental ego, by way of exhuming Welles from a rest home—first exercised when Allen’s show appeared on CBS under the Texaco Star Theater rubric four years earlier; meanwhile, Fred waxes a bit with Portland (Hoffa) on his new intellectual standing with Funk & Wagnall’s, and the Alley demimonde ponders the chicken surplus. Allen’s still at the top of his game. Claghorn/announcer: Kenny Delmar. Titus: Parker Fennelly. Mrs. Nussbaum: Minerva Pious. Falstaff: Alan Reed. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Five DeMarco Sisters. Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Al Lewis, possibly Robert Schiller, possibly Robert Weiskopf.
My Favourite Husband: Women’s Rights (CBS, 1950)—The male halves (Richard Denning, Gale Gordon) of the Coopers and Atterburys only think they can keep their wives (Lucille Ball, Bea Benaderet) from beating the drums for the looming 22nd Amendment, which may or may not show how much they know—all four of them, and especially when it puts an interesting taste into the two couples’ dinner date. This proves to be a test drive for one of the most memorable episodes of I Love Lucy, of course, but this isn’t exactly half bad in its own right. Katie: Ruth Perrott. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Director: Jess Oppenheimer. Writers: Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll, Jr., Madelyn Pugh.
Boston Blackie: The Cobb Trucking Company (Syndicated, 1948)—Trucking executive Irwin Cobb’s otherwise personal quirk with ten dollar bills comes back to haunt him when clients begin to suspect it indicates he’s involved in organised crime . . . and his partner John Vail becomes a suspect when he’s found dead in the trunk of Vail’s car, bringing Vail’s old acquaintance Blackie (Dick Kollmar) into a tangle to prove his innocence. Boilerplate, but not necessarily unpleasant. Faraday: Maurice Tarplin. Mary: Jan Minor.
21st Precinct: The Door (CBS, 1954)—Kennelly (Everett Sloane) tries to help a probation patrolman whose salary has been garnished after a loan to the man’s new brother-in-law goes delinquent, coordinates a surveillance aimed at stopping garment district burglaries committed by a clever team, and questions the girl friend of one of the suspects. Imagine a New York version of Dragnet minus much of the wryness and you have a radio blueprint for future television entryThe Felony Squad, which would prove even more dry. Additional cast: Unknown. Announcer: Art Hanna. Music: Unknown. Writer: Stanley Niss.