|Jimmy Durante and his Original New Orleans Jazz Band about 1918.|
Few American entertainers of the 20th Century had such a long and varied career as the Old Schnozzola. In 70 some-odd active years Jimmy Durante mastered every conceivable popular entertainment form and re-invented himself and his act over and over delighting generations of fans. He was so resilient that his career was re-invigorated well after his death and he is known to new generations who may never have even seen his singular face.
James Francis Durante was born on February 10, 1893 in the teeming immigrant slums of New York City’s Lower East Side. He was the baby among four children of parents born in Salerno in southern Italy. Dad was a barber and the family lived crowded together in a rooming house where they took common meals with the other residence. The family was devout and young Jimmy Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church which was famous as the Actor’s Chapel. He remained a faithful and active Catholic the rest of his life.
But on the streets of New York he mingled with other immigrants, particularly Jews from Eastern Europe and the cocky, combative, and sometimes dangerous Irish. He learned from them all and mingling with them on the tough streets learned to speak the distinctive accent of working class Manhattan, influenced by but different from all of languages and lilts of the immigrant parents. From the Jews he picked up and adapted his life-long nickname, adding an Italian vowel to the end of a Yiddish word for nose—the Schnozzola, in honor of his impressive proboscis. From the Irish he picked up a certain cocky swagger.
Durante learned to play piano on a parlor upright in the boarding house. But hanging out around saloon doors smoking cigarettes with his pals he picked up the wild new music not found in the genteel sheet music he played at home. Soon he was imitating it well enough to drop out of school in the 8th grade—about as much education as anyone in his neighborhood got—to make his living as a ragtime piano player in Bowery dives.
Early on he teamed with a cousin, also named Jimmy Durante, for a duo in which they split duties tickling the ivories and singing while our Jimmy fended off drunks with snappy patter. Jimmy no. 2 soon dropped out of the act. The remaining Durante, now known as Ragtime Jimmy, began to get better books and tonier saloons, rising from the joints where they had worked for tips thrown into the straw skimmer he put on the piano, to the kind of places swells in silk hats and tails sometime wandered into with a chorus girl on their arms.
By 1917 Durante was the house piano pounder at the Alamo in Harlem. On a night off he caught the Original Dixieland Jass Band, an all-White combo that was the first to bring New Orleans Jazz to the Big Apple, and got them at booking at the Alamo. He listened carefully, picked up the techniques, learned the songs, and how to improvise on a tune. While Durante helped advance their careers, he also stole some of their material and style and sent to New Orleans for musicians to from a band of his own, which was soon playing clubs and issuing sides on the Okeh label as the New Orleans Jazz Band. That made him one of the pioneers in popularizing the new music that would come to define the post-World War I era. In 1920 he renamed the group Durante’s Jazz Band.
In 1921 Durante married a pretty girl from Ohio, Jeanie Olson. Although they had no children, the couple would remain devoted until she died of heart failure at the age of 46 in 1943. Years later Durante revealed that she was the woman to whom he addressed the closing of all of his shows. On TV dressed in his trademark overcoat and fedora he would walk into the darkness stepping in pools of light before turning to the camera and saying, “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, where ever you are.”
By the mid-‘20’s Durante had left the band behind to become a vaudeville headliner in an act with his closest friends, Eddie Jackson who was Durante’s partner in a speakeasy, and the Jewish song and dance man Lou Clayton. Together they performed as Clayton, Jackson, and Durante, or the Three Sawdust Bums.
The trio made their vaudeville debut at Loew’s State on Broadway in March 1927. By the following April 1928 they were headlining at the Palace, breaking the house record for receipts, and making $5500 a week. They toured the country’s top flight vaudeville houses and made it to the Broadway stage in Forenz Ziegfeld’s Show Girl in 1929, and the Cole Porter revue The New Yorkers the following year.
Also in 1930 the trio was cast in a Paramount movie shot at their Queens Astoria studio. Roadhouse Nights was an odd, musical gangster flick set in a speakeasy—familiar territory for the boys. They, naturally, played performers in the joint alongside of famed torch singer Helen Morgan. It was said to be loosely based on Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest—so loosely that the plot is hardly recognized—with a screen play by Ben Hecht.
Durante was such a stand out in the film that in their trio act, he replaced Clayton who had been the front man in most numbers. Not long after, Clayton decided to go out as a single. It was an amicable parting. Jackson and Durante worked as a duo and then with Jackson in support of Durante. Those two would remain associated for much of his career and Jackson would also act as Durante’s manager. All three would periodically re-unite on his radio and TV shows.
|Durante teamed with Buster Keaton for three early MGM talkies.|
In addition to continued success in vaudeville and night clubs, Durante launched a movie career. MGM signed him to team up with their fading silent super star Buster Keaton who was having a difficult time transitioning to talkies. The combination of the stoic Keaton and manic Durante was popular with audiences through three film pairings, The Passionate Plumber, Wet Parade, and Speak Easily. But despite their box office success in 1931 and ‘32, Keaton was resentful of losing the complete control he had over his classic silent films and uncomfortable both with Durante and talkies. He was drinking heavily and MGM pulled the plug on the series.
The New York born and bred Durante was a lifelong Democrat and a passionate Wet. He was an active member of the New York Democratic Clubs that were the backbone of the Party in the city. He worked actively for New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and after FDR took office made a theatrical film short for the new administration promoting its policies to lift the country out of the Depression. In the film he sang his own composition Give a Guy a Job to promote the New Deal. He would continue to support the party all of his life and was often called on for fundraisers and banquets.
As Keaton’s star faded, Durante’s continued to rise mostly as a supporting player. He was billed as a co-star in the Marion Davies showbiz weeper Blondie of the Follies but appeared in only one scene, performing at a party. Apparently Davies’s lover, the powerful media mogul William Randolph Hearst leaned on the studio to cut additional scenes which he felt detracted attention from Davies.
Over at Paramount in the midst of the 1932 election, Durante played support to the great George M. Cohan in his only sound film The Phantom President also starring Claudette Colbert. The film featured his own song and early theme Schinozzola with a melody co-written by Arthur Johnson and lyrics by Lorenz Hart.
Through the ‘30’s Durante made as many as five films a year at various studios. Among the most memorable were George White’s Scandals in 1933 with Rudy Vallee and 18 year old Alice Faye in her first big role; first billed in RKOs Strictly Dynamite with Lupe Velez; and Little Miss Broadway with Shirley Temple and George Murphy in 1938.
Even though his film schedule was busy, in most movies he was featured for one or two specialty numbers or in a supporting role. That left plenty of time to pursue other career opportunities open to one of the country’s favorite singing comedians. By this time he had honed his persona and act—rapid patter in mangled East Side street argot, singing in his raspy voice in a syncopated style that showed off his roots in ragtime and jazz, doffing his hat to show off the increasingly thinning hair on a balding dome, shaking his head and thrusting his nose forward, chomping a stubby cigar, and pounding the piano with abandon. He developed the largest repertoire of catch phrases in the business adding over the years bits like “It’s dynamite!”, “I’m surrounded by assassins,” “Stop da music,” “Dat’s my boy dat said dat!”, and of course “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash.”
Durante began to appear regularly as a guest on radio programs and then in 1933 joined the cast of Eddie Cantor’s NBC show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour. When Cantor left the show, Durante took it over. Then in from 1935 through ’36 he stared in the network’s Jumbo Fire Chief Show. During the World War II years he made several transcription broadcasts for the Armed Forces Radio Network including a famous Command Performance with Frank Sinatra. After a hiatus from regular series radio, Durante returned to the airways in 1943 in the Durante-Moore Show teamed with young comic Garry Moore known for his straight arrow middle-American persona, flat top haired style, and bow tie. The contrast in styles clicked and the show ran until ’47 when Moore left for other opportunities. He continued the program under the banner The Jimmie Durante Show through 1950.
He also had a recording career, mostly doing songs from his night club act which he wrote or co-wrote or from his films. The novelty patter song Inka Dinka Do with lyrics by Ben Ryan became a break-out hit in 1934 and became his opening theme song for the rest of his career.
Durante also found time to return to the Broadway stage in starring roles. In Jumbo in 1934 he had one of his most famous bits. Leading the title beast across the stage he was accosted by a policeman who asks, “Just where do you think you are going with that elephant” to which he replied “What elephant?” bringing down the house night after night. Twenty-five years later he was cast in the same part in the Technicolor film extravaganza Billy Rose’s Jumbo.
He also appeared in Strike Me Pink in1934 and Red, Hot and Blue in ’36.
|Durante and Frank Sinatra in It Happened in Brooklyn, 1947|
Durante’s movie career was still going strong in the 40’s. There was Melody Ranch at Republic, one of Gene Autry’s most successful movies co-starring Ann Miller. In 1941 Jimmy got top billing and a star turn in the timely You’re in the Army Now with Phil Silvers and Jane Wyman. In the acclaimed The Man Who Came to Dinner he played Banjo, a character loosely based on the real Harpo Marx and sang one of his signature numbers, Did You Ever Have the Feeling That You Wanted to Go? 1947’s It Happened in Brooklyn teamed him up with heartthrob Frank Sinatra and included a memorable duet by the two, The Song's Gotta Come From the Heart. He made an Esther Williams aquacade spectacular, This Time for Keeps and he capped the decade starring in a family Christmas miracle story, The Great Rupert, also released as A Christmas Wish.
In 1943 Durante was performing in New York when he got the news that his wife had died suddenly of heart failure in California. She was only 46 years old and the couple was very close. Durante was devastated but buried himself in work. In 1944 he met a 25 year old red headed hat check girl at New York’s famed Copacabana night club. He courted her for 16 years and in 1960 she finally agreed to marry him when she was 41 and he was 67. They were married at St. Malachi’s Church were Durante had been an altar boy. The following year the couple adopted a daughter, Cecelia Alicia, fondly called CeCe on whom the overage father doted.
In 1950 Durante made his last film appearance in a decade, except for a cameo as himself In Bob Hope’s Beau James, co-starring with Donald O’Connor in The Milkman. The same year he wound down his radio show.
But he was ready to get in on the ground floor of yet another medium—television. On November 1, 1950 he made his TV bow on Tallulah Bankhead’s CBS variety program The Big Show. On that first program appearing with such big names as Fred Allen, Frankie Laine, Ethel Merman, and rising star Danny Thomas he made such an impression that he became a semi-regular over the show’s two year run. Guest shots on most of the major variety shows followed. From late 1950 to 1951, Durante was one of four alternating hosts on NBC's comedy-variety series 4-Star Revue. He alternated Wednesdays with Thomas, Jack Carson, and Ed Wynn.
|About to exit for the famous finish to his Jimmy Durante Show.|
In 1954 Durante began a two year run of 51 episodes of The Jimmy Durante Show, the half hour variety program on NBC for which he is best remembered on the tube. Set in Durante’s supposed New York night club, guest stars performed and Jimmy resurrected many of his famous comic numbers from the movies. Peter Lawford and old vaudeville partner Eddie Jackson were semi-regulars and at least once Lou Clayton appeared to reunite the trio.
Among several guest stars was Carmen Miranda. She and Durante were doing production number during her second appearance on the show on August 4, 1955. When she collapsed on stage Durante yelled “Stop Da Music!” and rushed to help her to her feet telling her on live TV “Dat’s OK, honey, I’ll take yer lines.” Miranda was able to finish the number, but died at her home of heart failure the next morning.
The most memorable part of the show, however, was the last segment, after the club had supposedly shut down and waiters were putting chairs up on tables. Durante pulled on a rumpled overcoat and his trademark hat and would sit noodling at the piano. Most often he would sing simply and with heartfelt earnestness some classic tune from the Great American Songbook. These ballads, many of them bitter-sweet love songs were a far cry from the manic comic patter Durante was best known for, but they emotionally grabbed the audience. After finishing his song he would exit out the back door into a supposed black night stepping into the spots of light supposedly cast by unseen street lamps before delivering his “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, where ever you are.”
After the show ended its first run, several episodes were re-broadcast as a summer replacement in 1956.
The introduction of the ballad singing helped revive Durante’s career well after the show ended. It led to regular bookings in Las Vegas with a new partner, Italian-American lounge singer Sonny King. The pair would continue to work together as long as Durante performed. In 1963 Durante issued a popular compellation of his ballads on the LP September Song. That led to a string of successful albums of standards released annually over the rest of the decade. Thirty years later in 1993 director Rob Reiner used two cuts off of the album, As Time Goes By and Make Someone Happy over the opening and closing credits of the blockbuster romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle introducing Durante to a whole new generation of fans. Other songs including September Song were snapped up for the sound track of other films and have been used in several commercials.
Durante continued to be seen on TV. His next series, NBC's Club Oasis, ran in the ’57-’58 season. He returned one more time a decade later hosting Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sister for one year on ABC.
Billy Rose’s Jumbo in 1963 marked his return to the screen, recreating his old Broadway roll. He was teamed with Martha Raye while Doris Day and Stephen Boyd played the leads. That was followed in 1964 by a brief but memorable cameo as the dying man whose last words before literally kicking the bucket set of the madcap chase of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He made guest appearances on TV series, including a memorable turn with Danny Thomas on Make Room for Daddy and acted in anthology shows and TV movies.
But generations of children now think of him as the narrator for the Rankin-Bass annual animated Christmas special Frosty the Snowman and his rendition of the title song first made a hit by Gene Autry into a staple of Holiday radio.
Durante worked until a stroke confined him to a wheel chair in 1972. He died He of pneumonia in Santa Monica, California on January 29, 1980 at the age of 86 and after a Catholic mass was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. His beloved wife Margaret was laid at his side under the same marker when she died in 2008.