Picture a young mother enjoying a day out.
She’s delighted to have scored a ticket to one of Pittsburgh’s hottest shows. And it’s a seat on the aisle.
things take a nasty turn and she leaves the theater in tears –
thoroughly humiliated by the star performer who has taken liberties.
If you’re thinking this is a blog post about R Kelly – you’re wrong.
The man in question is Jimmy Durante and the year is 1935.
Jimmy had been booked for a week long engagement at Pittsburgh’s Penn Theater, starting February 15th and ending February 21st.
He arrived on Wednesday, February 13th.
While in town, Durante was also appearing at the Schenley Hotel Continental Room as part of the Pittsburgh Press Pinochle Tournament – top prize of $500.00.
Typical of the time, the program at The Penn consisted of live performances and a feature film.
In this instance, the film being shown was “The Gilded Lily” starring Claudette Colbert.
|The Pittsburgh Press, Feb 16, 1935|
Durante’s arrival and scheduled performances were big news in Pittsburgh that February.
His song “Inka Dinka Doo” (released in 1934) was a huge hit plus Durante was well-known to audiences for his appearances on stage, radio and the big screen.
On February 18th 1935, at a matinee performance, Mrs. Evelyn Loether entered his life.
Well, actually, she was just sitting there and Durante found her.
Part of Durante’s act involved him coming down off the stage and interacting with the audience and he’d simply picked the wrong target.
Two days later, Durante was hit with a lawsuit filed by Herman and Evelyn Loether, demanding $5,000 (that’s $95,032.12, in today’s money).
They were seeking financial compensation for Durante having assaulted Evelyn Loether then humiliating both Mr. and Mrs. Loether.
According to the plaintiffs, Durante “seized her (Evelyn) in an indiscreet manner.
“He made an unlawful, illegal assault upon her by placing his arm around her neck and kissing her.
“Without her consent and overcoming her resistance, he put her arms around his neck and forced her head against his.
“He kissed her left cheek … knocked her hat off her head and her coat off her lap.”
Durante returned to the stage, shouted to the audience “I can’t forget this girl” and “Boy, am I in luck” then he sang a song while pointing to where the Loethers sat.
Unfortunately, the song is not named in any of the newspaper reports but apparently it was risque in nature and audience members were eager to see what said girl looked like.
There was much craning of heads while Evelyn cowered in embarrassment then left the theater with tears in her eyes and howls of laughter ringing in her ears.
Durante vehemently denied any wrongdoing before, during and after posting his $1000 bond.
“Aw, it’s just one of those things,” Durante replied when asked about the validity of charges.
“Kiss her? Of course, I didn’t kiss her. I know better than that.
“It’s just a gag, see. I slips down from the stage and runs to where she is. Then I says ‘Oh, I thought you were alone,’ for there was a man with her. Her husband, as it develops.
“But get this straight – I didn’t touch her. And they won’t get no $5,000 from me.
“I’m going to try and get the case postponed, and then I’ll come back for the hearing.”
|Star Tribune – Feb 22, 1925|
On the surface, Durante seemed little concerned. He mugged for the cameras and claimed, naturally, to be “mortified.”
However, according to Durante’s biographer Jhan Robbins, the matter weighed on him. Jimmy was especially worried about how his wife Jeanne would react to the news.
This passage, with quotes from Durante’s longtime friend and theatrical partner Eddie Jackson is from “Inka Dinka Doo: The Life of Jimmy Durante” –
While a lawyer was working an out-of-court settlement, Jimmy moped in his hotel suite. “Jeanne hadn’t come with him,” Jackson said. “But the radio reported what happened and she must have thought Jimmy was playing around. She kept calling him.”
Jackson remembered him muttering, “I’m innocent. There was no evil content in my actions.”
I perused two Durante biographies, looking for information about this incident.
The aforementioned Jhan Robbins book, from 1991, states Durante “kissed the cheek of a lady sitting in an aisle seat. When he got back on the stage he said ‘Boy, I can’t forget that gal.’ The lady laughed and started applauding. But the next day we heard that she was suing Jimmy for five thousand dollars. She said that he had humiliated her in front of her friends.”
According to “Schnozzola: The Story of Jimmy Durante,” published in 1951 and written by Gene Fowler, “One afternoon Jimmy went among members of the audience to improvise jokes and comments. He paused in his mad gallop to kiss the head of a woman sitting in the fourth row, then returned to the stage, shouting ‘Boy! I can’t forget that gal!’ The audience laughed and applauded.
“The next day the kissed woman and her husband sued Durante for five thousand dollars, charging that he had humiliated her.”
I’m happy to not see any vilification of either Evelyn or Herman Loether in the 1935 newspaper accounts and I suppose I’m relieved simply because I don’t get a sense of Evelyn being a money-grubbing opportunist.
the time the lawsuit was filed, Evelyn, her husband Herman Carl and
their 4-year-old son Herman John lived at 25 Merritt Avenue in Carrick
(Pittsburgh), PA. Mr. Loether made his living as a building contractor.
The closest we come to anyone taking sides is when The Pittsburgh Press reported, on February 25, 1935, that hundreds of theatergoers who had attended that February 18 matinee performance were willing to testify on Durante’s behalf.
The lawsuit did, in fact, drag on although perhaps even longer than Durante had hoped for.
According to the May 15, 1938 edition of The Atlanta Constitution, in an article about the hazards of unsolicited “public osculation” (that’s just a fancy word for “kissing”), Durante “had just paid” an out of court settlement in the amount of $300.00. ($5,701.93, in today’s money.)
|Atlanta Constitution, artwork by Colin Allen|
A few months later, the Loethers purchased an 8-room house at 443 Antenor Ave in Carrick – very near their previous residence.
In 1945, the Loethers moved west to California, where Herman’s parents and his brother John lived. John, in 1939 at least, was working at M-G-M Studios.
|Oakland Tribune-Aug 19, 1954|
Evelyn spent 17 years working as an “Ice Cream Lady” for Challenge Dairy, demonstrating dairy products at grocery stores in the LA Basin.
Evelyn and Herman relocated to West Point, Calaveras County, California in 1969 which is where Herman died on March 19, 1974, at the age of 65.
Evelyn was known to many in West Point as “Mrs. Santa” after starting and holding children’s Christmas parties, with the assistance of the West Point Lions Club and local AARP Chapter, for nearly 2 decades
She moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1995. Evelyn passed away, in Torrance, on May 10, 2000 (her birthday).
Jimmy Durante’s career survived this incident, which doesn’t even warrant a mention on his Wikipedia page.
|Jeanne and Jimmy, 1933|
Jimmy’s beloved wife of 21 years, Jeanne (aka “Mrs. Calabash”), passed away on February 14, 1943, after a lingering heart ailment.
Durante married again, in 1960, to Margie Little, a woman 26 years his junior.
They had met in 1944 when she was a hatcheck girl at NYC’s Copacabana.
On Christmas Day 1961, Jimmy and Margie adopted a little girl.
Margie died on June 7, 2009, at the age of 89.
Durante suffered a stroke in 1972 and died on January 29, 1980.