Durward Kirby, Proto Television Sidekick

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    His interest aroused, Dewey Webb, a staff writer for Phoenix New Times who'd recently been given Kirby's autobiography as a gift, contacted Tabby House in mid-1997. "I called the publisher and said, 'Let's skip this nonsense,'" Webb explains over the phone from his office at the newspaper, "and he said, 'Oh, you know, you'll have to ask Durward about that.'" Webb duly mailed Kirby a request for the "curiosity," accompanied by two bucks.

    Several months later, in November, a handwritten note?autographed!?arrived from Kirby: "The material you asked for is no longer existing. I'm sorry. Thank you for your interest." Also enclosed: Webb's $2. The nature of Kirby's supposedly ribald episode remained vexingly unascertained. "One can only speculate," sighs Webb. "It probably has something to do with bodily functions during the middle of a tv show." If, in fact, the missing tale pertains to pee-pee or poop, its inclusion in My Life would have complemented Kirby's regaling readers with his trips to a Manhattan proctologist named, claims the author, Dr. Robin Hood, whose nurse asked Kirby, on the examining table assuming the position at the time, for tickets to the then-popular Garry Moore Show.

    The only child of a railroad dispatcher and homemaker, Durward Kirby?his parents lifted his first name from a character in an early 20th-century play?was born on Aug. 24, 1912, in Covington, KY, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. He studied mechanical engineering at Purdue University, where he began working at the campus radio station in 1931, then sped through a series of professional broadcasting jobs, beginning in Indianapolis in 1934, then Cincinnati in 1935 and, two years later, Chicago, hired as a staff announcer for the NBC network.

    After serving in the Navy as a member of its Chicago-based public relations staff during World War II, Kirby moved to New York. At 6 feet, 4 inches, with wavy blond hair, a medium build and unthreatening handsomeness, he possessed the requisite physical attributes, not forgetting his resonant voice, to make the transition from radio to the then-inchoate television business. Accordingly, from 1950 to 1964 (and 1966-1967) he worked with Moore on either the latter's daytime or primetime variety shows, acting as second banana in sketch comedy and as the programs' announcer; and from 1961 to 1966 he functioned as aide-de-camp to Allen Funt. But Kirby, like many other radio alumni, fell from favor in the late 60s as television and the culture changed, and except for occasionally filling in for Ed McMahon on The Tonight Show he virtually vanished, ultimately retiring to Florida, where he died, in Fort Myers, on March 15, age 88, of congestive heart failure.

    Despite his seemingly ubiquitous small-screen presence in the 50s and 60s, Kirby stumbled into genuine immortality among pop culturati via The Bullwinkle Show, when from September to December 1961, over the course of 26 segments of the "Missouri Mish Mash" saga, his name underwent a gentle skewering: Kurward Derby. Louis Chunovic, author of 1996's The Rocky and Bullwinkle Book and the upcoming One Foot on the Floor: The Curious Evolution of Sex on Television, gleefully recounts the episodes' plotline from his home in Los Angeles: "Boris and Natasha are after the Derby because whoever wears it will become the smartest person in the world. Now, the only way to find the Derby is by following the stupidest person in the world, who, of course, is Bullwinkle. So Bullwinkle takes them all around, and finally he goes into a dusty little hat store, and there he finds a derby that fits him exactly. He puts it on, and right away Bullwinkle becomes a genius. Then Boris and Natasha try to slip Bullwinkle a fake derby with a bomb inside. Eventually, [the two Moonmen] Cloyd and Gidney show up to explain that the Derby had been created by a wizard on the moon for their unusually stupid King Nosmo 1/2. So they take the Derby back to the moon, and Rocky, as a token of thanks for once again saving the country, is elected to Congress."

    Astoundingly, Kirby makes no mention of this key Moose and Squirrel connection in his book. Not a peep. "He probably thought this was a slam at him," suggests Webb. "The only thing I can figure was that this guy took himself so seriously that he didn't understand that this would be his lasting legacy."

    Chunovic, perhaps, can account for Kirby's heretical omission. While researching his R&B book, he unearthed a press release dated Nov. 10, 1961, one of many sent out by Rocky & Bullwinkle creator Jay Ward, whom Chunovic terms "a master of promotion." It reads: "Regular viewers of The Bullwinkle Show are familiar with a remarkable piece of headgear known as the Kurward Derby, which gives its wearer enormous intellectual properties. A well-known TV announcer and personality, whose name bears a startling resemblance to that of the famous hat, has seen the humor of the situation, and in an effort to join us in the fun...is suing us. While his and our attorneys are haggling, we'd like to invite Mr. Kirby to feel free to name one of his hats after any one of the characters on The Bullwinkle Show, including the producers Jay Ward and Bill Scott. Toward this end, we're sending Mr. Kirby a Bullwinkle beanie. We hope he will wear it in good health."

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