Wednesday, March 10, 2010

One-Armed Soldiers Clapping

Michael David Harris, Always on Sunday. Ed Sullivan: An Inside View (Toronto: Signet Books, 1969), pp. 93-5.

[During World War II Ed Sullivan "organized the entertainment program at Halloran General Hospital on Staten Island."]

There is one Halloran show Ed Sullivan remembers before all others. Sullivan was scheduled for a show there and received a phone call from the Halloran chaplain, Father Delaney, who said the soldiers read that Jimmy Durante was in town and wondered if he would join the troupe. Sullivan called Durante at the Astor and discovered he had a bad cold and was also scheduled to do two radio programs on the day of the Halloran show, but to Sullivan's surprise Durante said Yes. The two men worked out a precise schedule for Durante to get back for the radio broadcasts, and this involved catching a particular ferry. It meant that Durante could only do one song, but Sullivan reassured him the men would understand and be delighted he came at all.

When Durante arrived at the island, he was kept hidden in the general's office so the men would be surprised. On that particular evening the first shipload of wounded had come in on the liner Gripsholm. Most of them had been American prisoners of war, and the Halloran wounded insisted that the newcomers take the best seats on the divans in rows one and two. When Sullivan introduced Durante, the place went wild. The comic did a routine in which he threw sheet music around and ripped the top off his piano. When he finished, the applause was incredible. As he left the stage, Sullivan started to explain that Durante had to rush back to town for a radio date but the comic came out of the wings, grabbed the mike, and went into another number and then a third. "Thanks to Jimmy this was the greatest night the hospital had ever had. The place was pandemonium."

After Sullivan introduced the next act he went backstage and said to Durante, "Are you out of your mind? You'll never make your ferry." Durante told him to look at the front row of the audience. "When I saw that, Ed, I made up my mind that my radio broadcast wasn't so important, and my cold wasn't so important either." Sullivan put his head through the curtain and saw two young lieutenants in the center divan. They had each lost an arm and were applauding by clapping their two remaining hands together.

Bennett Cerf, The Sound of Laughter (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1970), pp. 276-7.

In Michael David Harris' engaging book about TV star and columnist Ed Sullivan's career, Always on Sunday, there is told the story of the day when Ed and the great Jimmy Durante rode out to Halloran General Hospital to entertain the sorely wounded war veterans there.

Durante explained in advance that he had two very remunerative radio dates scheduled for later that very day, so that he would have time to do only one number. When he actually did that number, however, the audience was so ecstatic that he grabbed the microphone and did two more complete routines.

Sullivan cried, "You were great, Jimmy. But now you'll never make those two radio dates of yours."

"Look at the front row of the audience," Durante told him. "You'll see why I forgot all about those two dates."

Ed Sullivan poked his head through the curtain and spotted two soldiers in the center divan. They each had lost an arm and were applauding happily by clapping their two remaining hands together.

Bennett Cerf, Stories To Make You Feel Better (New York: Random House, 1972), pp. 4-5.

Several times a year Ed Sullivan performs a worthy service indeed. He persuades a group of top-flight Broadway stars to accompany him to Halloran General Hospital in Staten Island to entertain the sorely wounded war veterans there.

For one of these expeditions, Sullivan sought out the beloved veteran Jimmy Durante, who accepted the invitation but explained in advance that he had a very remunerative date to perform at a private party later that night and would, accordingly, be able to do only one number for the boys.

The number he chose, naturally, was his famous "Inky Dinky Doo," and at its conclusion he audience was so ecstatic that he grabbed the microphone back and did eight more complete routines.

When he finally staggered off the platform, exhausted, Sullivan cried, "You were just great, Jimmy, but didn't you see me signaling to you? What came into you? You'll never make your private party now!"

"Look at the front row of that audience," Durante told him, "and you'll see why I forgot all about that private engagement."

Ed Sullivan poked his head through the curtain and spotted two lieutenants in a first-row divan, applauding happily. The lieutenant on the right had lost his left arm, the one on the left his right arm. With no semblance of self-consciousness, they were clapping their two remaining hands together, and giving Jimmy Durante the most soul-satisfying round of applause he ever in his life had received.

James Maguire, Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan (New York: Billboard Books, 2006), p. 110.

In addition to his whirlwind of war benefits, Ed organized a constant stream of celebrity-filled shows at New York-area hospitals filled with wounded soldiers. He often recounted moments from these shows in his column, always in highly emotional terms. Typical of his anecdotes was one from a variety revue he put together at Staten Island's Halloran Hospital, starring comedienne Beatrice Lilly, Jimmy Durante, and Peg Leg Bates. In the show, Durante reprised his wildly physical 1920s act from Club Durant in which he tore apart a piano, hurling the pieces pell-mell through the hall. After his act, standing offstage with Ed as Peg Leg Bates performed, Durante pointed out two soldiers. "Then I noticed the tears on his face," Ed wrote. " 'Ed,' he said, in that hoarse whisper, 'take a look at those two kids out there.' He indicated two youngsters, one a lieutenant and the other a G.I., each of whom had lost an arm...They were applauding Peg Leg Bates. With great spirit and not the slightest self-consciousness, they were clapping their hands -- the lieutenant's left against the G.I.'s right."

Ed's story of the one-armed soldiers clapping was, to some, quite maudlin, though few would have carped about such a thing at the time.

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Using Amazon.com's book search feature, I could find no mention of this anecdote in Gerald Nachman's Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America (University of California Press, 2009).

Bennett Cerf's more elaborate version of the anecdote differs so much in important details from his first version that I suspect he wrote it from memory.

Judging from some Google Books snippets, Sullivan's own account -- from one of his New York Daily News columns? -- was reprinted in I.B.M.'s internal magazine, Think (1959, vol. 29, p. 17):

I also called Jimmy Durante. "I know you're not well," I told him, "but if you could come out with us and make just one appearance, it would mean a lot to those kids."

Jimmy said he would ask his doctor whether it would be all right to make the trip. It's my guess that he used a little persuasion; at any rate, the doctor gave his okay but stipulated that Jimmy could sing only one song [....]

I rushed backstage, where I found Durante drying himself with a towel.

"Are you out of your mind?" I asked. "I promised your doctor that you wouldn't do more than one number."

Then I noticed the tears on his face. "Ed," he said, in that hoarse whisper, "take a look at those two kids out there." [...] I figured even the doc would have told me I had to go on. Watch them."

I saw it then. They were applauding Peg Leg Bates. With great spirit and not the slightest self-consciousness, they were clapping their hands -- the lieutenant's right against the G.I.'s left....

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According to a source on the Internet, the 1921 Buster Keaton film The Playhouse features a running gag about a pair of one-armed men who applaud by clapping their remaining hands together. -- bc