Shaggy Dog for a Good Cause

On Jimmy Durante, President Truman, pipe tobacco and Calabash


Gabe ‘the Nose’ Meline

One of the great mysteries of television’s early era concerned Jimmy Durante’s famously intimate sign-off, “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” Climbing down from its usually noisy, animated squawk, Durante’s voice adopted a tender depth as he bid goodnight to the unknown woman. Hundreds of letters from touched fans poured into the NBC offices pleading for Durante to reveal Mrs. Calabash’s true identity, but week in and week out, Durante stayed mum, whispering his sensitive farewell to a curious nation wondering the same thing: Who the heck was Mrs. Calabash?

Gossip columnist Louella Parsons printed a story claiming that Mrs. Calabash was Durante’s pet name for his wife, Jeanne. Durante refuted it. President Truman convinced his daughter Margaret to ask Durante about Mrs. Calabash when she appeared on his show. No luck. Mrs. Calabash was variously rumored to be the name of a losing racehorse, a former neighbor who disappeared, an old girlfriend who married a dentist from the Bronx and the widowed mother of a boy who had died from polio.

It wasn’t until Durante died in 1980 that the truth came out: Mrs. Calabash was a joke based on the kind of pipe that Durante’s then-radio producer, Phil Cohan, was smoking at the time. Durante used it, and it stuck. Cohan and Durante flirted with exposing the truth about Mrs. Calabash to viewers, but having captured the nation’s curiosity with the simple image, they kept it under wraps. “We realized that we had a good thing going for us,” said Cohan. “I’m glad we did, because the fan letters kept pouring in.”

The Calabash Festival, which has nothing to do with Jimmy Durante but everything to do with the excellent people at Food for Thought, the charitable efforts of the Sonoma County AIDS Food Bank, the wonderful gang at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, and over a hundred artists and musicians working with beautiful gourds and gourd art, takes place this Sunday, Oct. 7, at the Food for Thought gardens, 6550 Railroad Ave., Forestville. 1pm. $30–$35. 707.887.1647.



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