Feb 102018
 

Today is the birthday (1893) of James Francis (“Jimmy”) Durante, US singer, pianist, comedian, and actor. His distinctive clipped gravelly speech, New York accent, comic language-butchery, jazz-influenced songs, and prominent nose helped make him one of America’s most familiar and popular personalities of the 1920s through the 1970s. He often referred to his nose as the Schnozzola, and the word became his nickname.

Durante was born on the Lower East Side of New York City. He was the youngest of four children born to Rosa (Lentino) and Bartolomeo Durante, both of whom were immigrants from Salerno in Italy. Bartolomeo was a barber. Young Jimmy served as an altar boy at Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, known as the Actor’s Chapel. Durante dropped out of school in seventh grade to become a full-time ragtime pianist. He first played with his cousin, whose name was also Jimmy Durante. It was a family act, but he proved to be too professional for his cousin. He continued working the city’s piano bar circuit and earned the nickname “Ragtime Jimmy”, before he joined one of the first recognizable jazz bands in New York, the Original New Orleans Jazz Band. Durante was the only member not from New Orleans. His routine of breaking into a song to deliver a joke, with band or orchestra chord punctuation after each line, became a Durante trademark. In 1920 the group was renamed Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band.

By the mid-1920s, Durante had become a vaudeville star and radio personality in a trio called Clayton, Jackson and Durante. Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, Durante’s closest friends, often reunited with Durante in subsequent years. Jackson and Durante appeared in the Cole Porter musical The New Yorkers, which opened on Broadway on December 8, 1930. Earlier that same year, the team appeared in the movie Roadhouse Nights, ostensibly based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest.

By 1934, Durante had a major record hit with his own novelty composition, “Inka Dinka Doo”, with lyrics by Ben Ryan. It became his theme song for the rest of his life. A year later, Durante starred on Broadway in the Billy Rose stage musical Jumbo. A scene in which a police officer stopped Durante’s character—who was leading a live elephant across the stage—to ask, “What are you doing with that elephant?”, followed by Durante’s reply, “What elephant?”, was a regular show-stopper. This comedy bit likely contributed to the popularity of the idiom the elephant in the room. Durante also appeared on Broadway in Show Girl (1929), Strike Me Pink (1934) and Red, Hot and Blue (1936).

During the early 1930s, Durante alternated between Hollywood and Broadway. His early motion pictures included an original Rodgers & Hart musical The Phantom President (1932), which featured Durante singing the self-referential Schnozzola. He was initially paired with silent film legend Buster Keaton in a series of three popular comedies for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Speak Easily (1932), The Passionate Plumber (1932), and What! No Beer? (1933), which were financial hits and a career springboard for the distinctive newcomer. However, Keaton’s vociferous dissatisfaction with constraints the studio had placed upon him, his perceived incompatibility with Durante’s broad chatty humor, exacerbated by his alcoholism, led the studio to end the series. Durante went on to appear in The Wet Parade (1932), Broadway to Hollywood (1933), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942, playing Banjo, a character based on Harpo Marx), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962, based on the 1935 musical), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In 1934, he starred in Hollywood Party, where he dreams he is ‘Schnarzan’, a parody of ‘Tarzan’ who was popular at the time due to the Johnny Weissmuller films.

On September 10, 1933, Durante appeared on Eddie Cantor’s NBC radio show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour, continuing until November 12 of that year. When Cantor left the show, Durante took over as its star from April 22 to September 30, 1934. He then moved on to The Jumbo Fire Chief Program (1935–36).

Durante teamed with Garry Moore for The Durante-Moore Show in 1943. Durante’s comic chemistry with the young, brushcut Moore brought Durante an even larger audience. “Dat’s my boy dat said dat!” became an instant catchphrase, which would later inspire the cartoon Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy. The duo was one of the nation’s favorites for the rest of the decade. Their Armed Forces Radio Network Command Performance with Frank Sinatra remains a favorite of radio-show collectors today. Moore left the duo in mid-1947, and the program returned October 1, 1947 as The Jimmy Durante Show. Durante continued the show for three more years, and featured a reunion of Clayton, Jackson and Durante on his April 21, 1948 broadcast.

Durante made his television debut on November 1, 1950 (although he kept a presence in radio, as a frequent guest on Tallulah Bankhead’s two-year NBC comedy-variety show The Big Show). Durante was one of the cast on the show’s premiere November 5, 1950. The rest of the cast included humorist Fred Allen, singers Mindy Carson and Frankie Laine, stage musical performer Ethel Merman, actors Jose Ferrer and Paul Lukas, and comic-singer Danny Thomas (about to become a major television star in his own right). A highlight of the show was Durante and Thomas, whose own nose rivaled Durante’s, in a routine in which Durante accused Thomas of stealing his nose. “Stay outta dis, No-Nose!” Durante barked at Bankhead to a big laugh.

From 1950 to 1951, Durante was one of four alternating hosts on NBC’s comedy-variety series Four Star Revue. He alternated Wednesdays with Danny Thomas (now a headliner), Jack Carson, and Ed Wynn. Durante had a half-hour variety show – The Jimmy Durante Show – on NBC from October 2, 1954, to June 23, 1956.

Beginning in the early 1950s, Durante teamed with sidekick Sonny King, a collaboration that continued until Durante’s death. He was often seen regularly in Las Vegas after Sunday Mass outside of the Guardian Angel Cathedral standing next to the priest and greeting the people as they left Mass.

Durante’s radio show was bracketed with two trademarks: “Inka Dinka Doo” as his opening theme, and the invariable signoff that became another familiar national catchphrase: “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” For years Durante preferred to keep the mystery alive. One theory was that it referred to the owner of a restaurant in Calabash, North Carolina, where Durante and his troupe had stopped to eat. He was so taken by the food, the service, and the chitchat he told the owner that he would make her famous. Since he did not know her name, he referred to her as “Mrs. Calabash”. Another idea was that it was a personal salute to his deceased first wife, Jeanne (Olsen) Durante, who died in 1943. “Calabash” might be a mangle of Calabasas, the California city where they made their home during the last years of her life. His friend and co-star, Candy Candido, (in an interview with Chuck Shaden’s “Speaking of Radio” in 1988), reported that he met the actual woman in Chicago when traveling with Durante, but was sworn to keep the secret. Alternatively, Jimmy’s friend and radio producer, Phil Cohan revealed to Chuck Shaden’s Speaking of Radio interview in 1988 that it was a fabrication. Needing a closing to his show, the writers tossed around several names settling on Cohan’s calabash pipe as the best-sounding moniker.

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At a National Press Club meeting in 1966 (broadcast on NBC’s Monitor program), Durante finally revealed that it was indeed a tribute to his wife. While driving across the country, they stopped in Calabash, whose food they liked, but she also loved the name. “Mrs. Calabash” became his pet name for her, and he signed off his radio program with “Good night, Mrs. Calabash.” He added “wherever you are” after the first year.

Calabash, North Carolina, was named after the gourds that grew in the region, which were used for drinking well water. Since the 1930s, Calabash has been known for its distinctive style of fried seafood, which has come to be known as “Calabash Style” Calabash style buffets are common in many eastern Carolina coastal towns.  I lived on the coast of North Carolina for a year in the late 1970s and never tired of fish buffets. You may tire, however, if you are a longtime reader of my endless mantra: “You have to go there to appreciate the food.” I’ll give you a recipe anyway. It looks like the recipe for English deep fried fish, but if you go to Calabash you’ll know the difference.

Calabash North Carolina Shrimp Recipe

Ingredients

2 eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
salt and black pepper
2 lbs small shrimp, shelled
oil for frying

Instructions

Heat oil in a deep fryer to 375˚F/190˚C.

Beat together the eggs and milk in a large mixing bowl. Sift in the flour, a little at a time, and beat until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let rest for a few minutes while the oil is heating.

Dip the shrimp in batter, in batches, making sure that each shrimp is well coated. Fry in the hot oil, being careful not to fry too many at once in order to avoid cooling the oil excessively at the beginning of frying.

Deep fry the shrimp, turning them periodically to make sure that they are golden on all sides, and, when crisp, remove with a slotted spoon and drain briefly on a wire rack. Serve with cole slaw, fried potatoes, and the dipping sauce of your choice. Tomato and horseradish is a common favorite along the coast.

Mar 032016
 

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Today is the birthday (1845) of Georg Ferdinand Ludwig Philipp Cantor a German mathematician of immense importance. He created set theory, which has become a fundamental theory in mathematics. Cantor’s work is of great philosophical interest, as well as being purely mathematical, a fact I want to dwell on after dribbling on a bit about his life.

Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers (numbers larger than all finite numbers, yet not absolutely infinite) was originally regarded as so counter-intuitive – even shocking – that it encountered resistance from his mathematical contemporaries and later from philosophers. Cantor, a devout Lutheran, believed the theory had been communicated to him by God. Some Christian theologians saw Cantor’s work as a challenge to the uniqueness of the absolute infinity in the nature of God – on one occasion equating the theory of transfinite numbers with pantheism – a proposition that Cantor vigorously rejected.

The objections to Cantor’s work were occasionally fierce: Henri Poincaré referred to his ideas as a “grave disease infecting the discipline of mathematics,” and Leopold Kronecker’s public opposition and personal attacks included describing Cantor as a “scientific charlatan”, a “renegade” and a “corrupter of youth” (shades of Socrates !!). Writing decades after Cantor’s death, Wittgenstein lamented that mathematics is “ridden through and through with the pernicious idioms of set theory,” which he dismissed as “utter nonsense,” “laughable” and “wrong”. Cantor’s recurring bouts of depression from 1884 to the end of his life have been blamed on the hostile attitude of many of his contemporaries, though some have explained these episodes as probable manifestations of a bipolar disorder.

Those whose eyes glaze over at the mere mention of mathematics might be amazed that mathematical propositions could engender such base emotions. But Cantor’s work had, and has, implications for some of the most basic, but enduring, human questions such as “what is real?” and “what is God?” I promise I won’t delve too deeply into mathematics, I’ll just use a few analogies, with apologies to those who know a bit more than the basics about number theory and set theory. I realize they are over-simplifications, as well as being vaguer than the underlying mathematics.

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Georg Cantor was born in the western merchant colony in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and brought up in the city until he was eleven. Georg, the oldest of six children, was regarded as an outstanding violinist. His grandfather Franz Böhm (1788–1846) was a well-known musician and soloist in a Russian imperial orchestra. Cantor’s father had been a member of the Saint Petersburg stock exchange but when he became ill, the family moved to Germany in 1856, first to Wiesbaden then to Frankfurt, seeking winters milder than those in Saint Petersburg. In 1860, Cantor graduated with distinction from the Realschule in Darmstadt. His exceptional skills in mathematics, trigonometry in particular, were noted. In 1862, Cantor entered the University of Zürich. After receiving a substantial inheritance upon his father’s death in 1863, Cantor shifted his studies to the University of Berlin, and then spent the summer of 1866 at the University of Göttingen, a major center for mathematical research.

Cantor submitted his dissertation on number theory to the University of Berlin in 1867. After teaching briefly in a Berlin girls’ school, Cantor took up a position at the University of Halle, where he spent his entire career. Cantor was promoted to Extraordinary Professor in 1872 and made full Professor in 1879. To attain the latter rank at the age of 34 was a notable accomplishment, but Cantor desired a chair at a more prestigious university, in particular at Berlin, at that time the leading German university. However, his work encountered too much opposition for that to be possible.

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Cantor suffered his first known bout of depression in 1884, which some scholars attribute to the constant criticism of his work by famous scholars that weighed heavily upon him. This crisis led him to apply to lecture on philosophy rather than mathematics. He also began an intense study of Elizabethan literature thinking there might be evidence that Francis Bacon wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare (in my opinion a fruitless quest, but endlessly simmering at the fringes of Shakespeare scholarship). It never ceases to annoy me that such investigation is based on the premise that a poor grammar school boy can’t be a genius.

After Cantor’s 1884 hospitalization his youngest son Rudolph died suddenly (while Cantor was delivering a lecture on his views on Baconian theory and William Shakespeare), and this tragedy drained Cantor of much of his passion for mathematics. Cantor was again hospitalized in 1903. One year later, he was outraged and agitated by a paper presented by Julius König at the Third International Congress of Mathematicians. The paper attempted to prove that the basic tenets of transfinite set theory were false. Since the paper had been read in front of his daughters and colleagues, Cantor perceived himself as having been publicly humiliated. Although Ernst Zermelo demonstrated less than a day later that König’s proof had failed, Cantor remained shaken, and momentarily questioning the existence of God. Cantor suffered from chronic depression for the rest of his life, for which he was excused from teaching on several occasions and repeatedly confined in various sanatoria. The events of 1904 preceded a series of hospitalizations at intervals of two or three years. He did not abandon mathematics completely, however, lecturing on the paradoxes of set theory (I’ll get to it in a minute !!) to a meeting of the Deutsche Mathematiker–Vereinigung in 1903, and attending the International Congress of Mathematicians at Heidelberg in 1904.

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Cantor retired in 1913, living in poverty and suffering from malnourishment during World War I. The public celebration of his 70th birthday was canceled because of the war. He died on January 6, 1918 in the sanatorium where he had spent the final year of his life.

The concept of the existence of an actual infinity was an important shared concern within the realms of mathematics, philosophy and religion. Differential calculus was not developed until the 17th century, even though the basic building blocks had been available to ancient Arab and Greek mathematicians. The problem was that calculus requires use of infinity and ancient mathematicians could not accept the existence of infinity. It turns out that you don’t have to accept the existence of infinity to use the concept mathematically. The square root of -1 cannot logically exist, because there does not exist a pair of identical numbers that when multiplied together produce -1. But if you just give it a name (the letter “i”) and use it in equations without worrying about whether it exists or not, the equations often work out when you cancel out i. For example, x – i = y – i simplifies to x = y, so you don’t need to worry about whether i exists or not. Infinity can work in much the same way mathematically. But dealing with infinity is both tricky and counterintuitive.

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If you’re smart but not especially well versed in mathematics, I highly recommend George Gamow’s book, One, Two, Three . . . Infinity. It explores Cantor’s mathematics in simple terms. Gamow’s birthday is tomorrow and since I can’t very well celebrate a mathematician followed next day by a theoretical physicist (working in complex mathematics), I’ll tip my hat to Gamow today. He was an early advocate and developer of the Big Bang Theory. In the book he uses a thought experiment to help explain the weirdness of infinity. Imagine you have a hotel with finite rooms, all of which are full, and a new guest arrives. You have to send him away because there is no room. Now imagine you have a hotel with infinite rooms and a new guest arrives. “No problem,” you say. You move the person in room 1 to room 2, in room 2 to room 3, in room 3 to room 4 . . . and so on. The series of integers (whole numbers) is infinite, so you never run out at the upper end. Now room 1 is free for the new guest. Now suppose the infinity hotel is full and an infinite number of guests shows up. “No problem,” you say again. This time you put every guest in the room that is double the number of the room they are in now. The guest in room 1 goes to room 2, in room 2 goes to room 4, room 3 goes to room 6 . . . and so on. In this way you free up all the odd-numbered rooms (double ANY number is an even number). There is an infinite number of odd numbers, so you can accommodate an infinite number of new guests. Maybe now you are beginning to grasp the problem of the existence of infinity. This thought experiment is counter-intuitive, and, hence, why so many philosophers and mathematicians objected.

So . . . are mathematical objects (things) real or not? Mathematicians, philosophers, and theologians have been arguing about this question for millennia with no end in sight. Cantor believed that absolute infinity was God. I find this equation an admirable idea, but it does not answer the question as to whether absolute infinity exists any more than whether God exists. Even if infinity defines God it does not prove his existence. I can define unicorns, but they don’t exist.

Cantor’s set theory also can lead to paradoxes, and mathematicians don’t like paradoxes. The barber paradox is an informal version. Imagine a town in which all the men need to shave, but are clean shaven. Men either shave themselves OR are shaved by the barber. Who shaves the barber? The two sets “shaved by the barber” and “shave themselves” cannot logically be distinct sets.

 

If nothing else, I hope I have shown that mathematics prompts questions and puzzles that are more than of scientific or logical interest. They strike at the very heart of issues such as, “What is the meaning of life?” and “Is there a God?” or “What is existence?” Cantor died poor and believing he was a failure. How many giants have died likewise? We owe it to Cantor today to keep him in memory.

I’m going to give you a great Saint Petersburg recipe in Cantor’s honor, because he was born there, even though he spent most of his life in Germany. Germans will like this too. It is a version of stuffed cabbage, but not the kind that you are used to. Instead of peeling off the leaves and stuffing them individually, you stuff the whole cabbage intact. Herbs can be of your choosing.

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St Petersburg Stuffed Cabbage.

Ingredients:

1 small cabbage
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
3 onions, peeled and sliced
1 bouquet garni
1-2 bay leaves
2-3 cloves
5-8 peppercorns
salt

Filling:

14 oz veal
7 oz pork lard
2-3 slices stale white bread
1 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper

Instructions:

To make the filling, grind the veal with the lard. Soak the bread in milk for several hours, then wring out the excess. Mix the bread thoroughly with the meat and lard, add the eggs and mix the whole filling uniformly. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Remove the toughest outer leaves of the cabbage. Immerse fully in a large pot of water and simmer until the leaves are soft and pliant. Drain the cabbage and put the filling between the leaves without tearing them off. Tie the cabbage with strong (colorless) twine and simmer in water or stock. Add the carrot, onions and seasonings. Cook on low heat for around 30 minutes. Serve the cabbage whole with the vegetables to garnish, and with sour cream.