Those of a certain age will remember Ish Kabibble, the zany cornet player with the strange haircut who played with bandleader Kay Kyser in the 1940s and 1950s, appearing on radio, television and the big screen.
Kabibble was born Merwyn Bogue in 1908 in Pennsylvania. According to his daughter Janet Arnot, a Palm Desert resident, he originally studied piano, but didn’t like it—however, he liked the sound of the trumpet. Bogue got one when he was 12, and learned on his own how to play “God Bless America.” Hanging around speakeasy clubs, Bogue fell in love with Dixieland jazz.
While in his third year of pre-law studies at West Virginia University, Bogue was playing with small bands. At a dance in 1931, bandleader Hal Kemp asked from the stage, “Is there a trumpet player in the audience?” Bogue sat in, and within months, he heard from Kay Kyser, an old friend of Kemp; he asked Bogue to try out for first chair in Kyser’s band. Musician friends told him he had to know how to triple-tongue; he learned, practiced and played without a hitch. Bogue got the job.
“He got this telegram,” says Arnot, “saying, ‘No whisky, no mustache, clean cut.’”
His father agreed he could drop out of school and pursue music, but he had to promise he would someday complete his degree—a promise he finally kept at age 70.
One of the comedic songs in the Kyser repertoire was a song, “Isch Gabibble,” taken from a mock-Yiddish expression meaning, “What, me worry?” (Yes, it’s the same slogan adopted by Mad Magazine.) When Kyser became host of the popular ’30s radio program Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, Bogue portrayed a silly character called Ish Kabibble, called down from the bandstand to join Kyser on the stage as a comic sidekick. Bogue wore his dark hair with funny bangs, and dressed like a bumpkin. He would tell funny jokes and poems, and is known by music-lovers of the time for his chant, “boop boop dittem dattem whattem chu,” in the band’s hit “Three Little Fishies,” which topped Billboard’s pop chart in 1939.
In spite of the funny persona, Bogue was a standout soloist with Kyser’s band for nearly 20 years, and he served as the business manager for the orchestra.
One of Ish Kabibble’s poems flows easily from Arnot:
I sneezed a sneeze into the air.
It fell to earth I know not where.
But you shoulda seen the looks on those
In whose vicinity I snoze.
As for family life, “Dad met my mom (Janet Meade), when she was 17, and he was 21,” says Arnot. “She was with a date at a dance where he was playing. He saw her in the audience and said it was love at first sight. They started dating, but her father was upset that she was involved with someone in show business. She snuck out to see dad secretly, a daring thing to do at 17.”
They married a few years later. He had a gig in San Francisco that would pay no money, but would provide food and lodging and get them to California. He played at small places along the way, and by the time they arrived, he had 17 cents in his pocket—and some Lorna Doone cookies.
“They had to wait for another band member to show up to get enough for the toll to get across the bridge,” says Arnot. “They stayed married for over 60 years, dying within eight days of each other in 1994, and every year on their anniversary, he always gave her a box of Lorna Doones.”
Arnot is the youngest of Bogue’s three children.
“I was really too young to experience much of his time with Kyser,” she says. “After Kyser retired, dad teamed up with Mike Douglas (before he became a big talk-show host) doing something like a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis act. They had summer bookings all over the U.S., so we traveled in the back seat of a Ford woodie station wagon. For us kids, it was an adventure.
“In 1955, after he and Douglas split, he started a six-piece Dixieland group called The Shy Guys. He was often gone five months at a time, but whenever he was home, we were his priority. He was easy-going, caring, kind, a devoted father and husband. Mom was a trouper, but it was hard.”
When Arnot was 12, her dad was booked to play throughout Nevada.
“I was already enrolled in school. Mom said we were selling our house, putting stuff in storage, and going to be with my dad,” she said. “I remember once he was playing the lounge at the Fremont Hotel in Las Vegas. Kids couldn’t go in there, but sometimes, they would let us go behind the curtain. I would peek through a rip and watch his show. I especially remember one night after the show, we went to a restaurant with the rest of the band, and dad let me order a bowl of chili. Imagine, chili at 2 a.m.!
“That tour ended in Lake Tahoe, and mom decided she wanted to travel with dad, so we stayed with friends and went to school there,” says Arnot. “At 16, I was acting up so they sent me back. My dad greeted me with, ‘Whatever happened up there, you’re forgiven for being a troublemaker … but you’re grounded!’ He was so trusting. I realized he deserved someone who would respect him. I turned over a new leaf.”
When Bogue was drafted in 1944, no less than Gen. Douglas MacArthur tapped him to join Kyser in entertaining the troops.
“He always felt a little guilty,” says Arnot, “because other guys were getting killed, and he was playing. But he brought so much joy to the troops.”
As for Arnot’s life: After a brief stint as a nun, she married, raised three daughters, and is now the grandmother of eight. Arnot was attendance clerk at Nellie Coffman School for nine years. Her parents were desert residents when they passed away.
“My dad was always happy when he could make people smile,” she recalls. “He was so compassionate. When I was 12, in my third junior high school, I remember crying to him that I didn’t have any friends. ‘I will always be your friend,’ he said. And he was.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.