Whether you remember him or are discovering him for the first time, you will probably recognize Jimmy Durante as an embodiment of authenticity—of unpretentious soul and depth of feeling—one of the most popular performers of the 20th century. To the fans of his day, Bing Crosby conveyed coolness, an urbane pipe-smoking sophistication. Frank Sinatra, by contrast, sent a message of heat, sexuality, romance and danger that enthralled his audience. Like Crosby, Durante was a pioneer in many areas of the entertainment business: jazz recordings, radio, sound film, nightclubs, television. Sinatra admired both older men and learned from them. With Durante part of the charm was a case of what- you-see-is-what-you-get: straightforward, uncomplicated, hilarious. In the show biz world full of image and ambition, Durante tells us that "The Song's Gotta Come from the Heart." That message continues to resonate. If he were to appear on a stage today, his performances would likely still be SRO, standing room only.
One of Jimmy Durante's many humorous songs on MGM records was "It's My Nose's Birthday [Not Mine]," with the lyric that two weeks later the stork delivered me. To the many millions of Durante fans his Cyrano de Bergerac proboscus was a running joke, like Jack Benny's reported stinginess. The homely looking child turned what could have been a lifelong insecurity into a statement that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the heart is more important than physical appearances. In his early show business career Durante was often called "The Schnoz," or "Schnozzola." And as a publicity stunt his nose was said to have been insured by Lloyd's of London for one million dollars (no doubt insurance against shrinkage). With Bob Hope he recorded "The Boys with the Proboskis," even though Hope's nose was a bit less prominent.
Jimmy Durante's career went far beyond just joking about his nose. He was a skilled ragtime piano player with a voice that would progress over the years from raucous humor to sentimental songs that touched many a listener's heart. He could win an audience over with any composer's songs or with one of his own, from over the 200 he wrote, including "I've Got My Habits On," "Inka Dinka Doo," "Umbriago," "You Gotta Start Off Each Day With a Song," and "A Real Piano Player."
Durante brought musicians from New Orleans to perform at his club in Harlem. Between 1918 and 1922 Durante and groups with which he worked made some of the first instrumental jazz recordings. In 1923 he opened the Club Durant in midtown New York where the dynamic singing-strutting-joking trio of Clayton, Jackson and Durante was born. Durante was at his best when he was in the spotlight live on stage, whether in a vaudeville show or nightclub performance with his partners Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson. When much later as a pioneer in yet another medium, television, the best part of his regular show was the segment that recreated the Club Durant experience, still breaking up pianos and throwing the pieces at his drummer, and still strutting with Eddie Jackson, hats in the air.
His funniest line anywhere might have been in the 1935 show "Jumbo," when lawmen for creditors of a circus on the edge of bankruptcy try to repossess its star elephant and Durante tries to hide it by spreading his arms and innocently asking, "What elephant?" This was reprised in the MGM film of 1962, "Billy Rose's Jumbo." On Broadway Durante appeared in seven shows, including the 1929 "Show Girl," produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, and the 1936 Cole Porter show, "Red, Hot and Blue!," costarring Ethel Merman and Bob Hope.
He hosted a radio show beginning in 1933 when he stepped in to substitute for Eddie Cantor. In 1943 he and Gary Moore took over for Abbott and Costello when illness struck, then landed their own show. And as one of the pioneers of sound films, Durante costarred with such top names of the day as Helen Morgan, George M. Cohan, and Buster Keaton, through films with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Donald O'Connor, and Esther Williams. Durante appeared in a total of 38 movies, often saving "B" pictures as a tornado rushing into a scene and waking up the audience. A great scene in the 1947 MGM picture "It Happened in Brooklyn" has Durante and Sinatra singing Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne's "The Song's Gotta Come from the Heart." Sinatra so enjoyed performing with his older friend that he appeared on Durante's radio and television shows and invited Durante to appear on his own show. Sinatra felt it was a pleasure to work with Durante, calling him a sweet man. One Sinatra television show paid tribute to Clayton, Jackson and Durante. Sinatra played Lou Clayton, Bing Crosby played Eddie Jackson, and Dean Martin played Durante. Terrific! Then Durante himself appeared unbilled. Even more terrific!
Durante's producer convinced him to do sentimental, heartwarming songs for his recordings and his television show because it became clear how effective Durante was with gentler songs like "Young at Heart," "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You," and "September Song." The closing of each television show had Jimmy with his overcoat and ever-present hat in hand, moving from one spotlight to another as he exited to the orchestral strains of "It's Time to Say Goodnight," adding "and good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." The most poignant closing in all show business.
In the 1960s Durante continued appearing on television, primarily on the variety show "Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters Hour," as well as continuing his live nightclub act with Sonny King strutting instead of Eddie Jackson. The recordings continued with the only sanctioned record made of his stage show, the 1961 Roulette release "Durante at the Copacabana." His last Warner Brothers album was so strikingly different, intensely religious and even more emotional: "Songs for Sunday" (1967). A highpoint was "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," most famously associated with Ethel Waters (the title of her autobiography) and Mahalia Jackson.
In November 1972, Jimmy suffered a massive stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Tributes were paid and at one he bravely tried to sing his greatest hit, "Inka Dinka Doo," from a wheelchair. When he died January 29, 1980, the world lost an entertainer who warmed the hearts of everyone who came to know him on and off the stage—from adoring children to tough mafia nightclub owners. He was the most beloved of show business personalities.
Durante's life took him from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he was born February 10, 1893, through all forms of the entertainment world, and through two marriages separated by many years, Maude Jean Olson, who died much too young, and Margie Little. Together Margie and Jimmy adopted and raised CeCe, the little girl who appeared on the album cover of the Warner Brothers album "One of Those Songs" (1966). The same album contained the song "Margie."
Older fans of Jimmy Durante continue to wonder about the identity of Mrs. Calabash, the mysterious woman he bid good night at the end of every show. His linguistic flights and nonsensical expressions, "It's a catastastroke," "Inka Dinka Doo," or an exuberant exclamation of "Hot cha cha," still evoke a joyful smile. Younger fans are charmed by his later songs that have more recently been used in TV commercials for products like Volkswagen and soundtracks of popular films like "Sleepless in Seattle," starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, or "City Slickers," starring Billy Crystal. Children looking forward to Christmas can enjoy the animated color cartoon "Frosty the Snowman" on TV each year, with Durante narrating the story and singing the song. Vocalists developing their craft study Durante's unique ability to engage his audience. For years to come, Durante will continue to entertain and instruct those fortunate enough to be touched by his magic.
Biography written by David Bakish.
Purchase the Book
JIMMY DURANTE: HIS SHOW BUSINESS CAREER
(McFarland, 1995; currently available in reissued paperback)