James Francis "Jimmy" Durante (February 10, 1893 – March 29, 1980) was an American singer, pianist, comedian, and actor. His distinctive clipped gravelly speech, comic language butchery, jazz-influenced songs, and large nose helped make him one of America's most familiar and popular personalities of the 1920s through the 1970s. His jokes about his nose included referring to it as aSchnozzola, and the word became his nickname.
Durante was born on the Lower East Side of New York City. He was the youngest of four children born to Bartolomeo and Rosa Durante, both of whom were immigrants from Salerno, Italy. Bartolomeo was a barber, and his wife Rosa was the sister of a woman who lived in the same boarding house. Jimmy Durante served as an altar boy at Saint Malachy's Roman Catholic Church, known as the Actor's Chapel.
Durante dropped out of school in eighth grade to become a full-time ragtime pianist. He first played with his cousin, whose name was also "Jimmy Durante." It was a family act, but he was too professional for his cousin. He continued working the city's piano bar circuit and earned the nickname "Ragtime Jimmy," before he joined one of the first recognizable jazz bands in New York, the Original New Orleans Jazz Band. Durante was the only member not from New Orleans. His routine of breaking into a song to deliver a joke, with band or orchestra chord punctuation after each line, became a Durante trademark. In 1920, the group was renamed Jimmy Durante's Jazz Band.
Durante became a vaudeville star and radio personality by the mid-1920s, with a trio called Clayton, Jackson and Durante. Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, Durante's closest friends, often reunited professionally. Jackson and Durante appeared in the Cole Porter musical The New Yorkers, which opened on Broadway on December 8, 1930. Earlier that same year, the team had appeared in the movie Roadhouse Nights, ostensibly based on Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest.
By 1934, he had a major record hit with his own novelty composition, "Inka Dinka Doo," with lyrics written by Ben Ryan to music that Durante himself composed. It became his theme song for the rest of his life. A year later, Durante starred on Broadway in the Billy Rose stage musical Jumbo, in which a police officer stopped him while leading a live elephant and asked him, "What are you doing with that elephant?" Durante's reply, "What elephant?" was a regular show-stopper. This comedy bit, also reprised in his role in Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962, based on the 1935 musical) likely contributed to the popularity of the idiom the elephant in the room. Durante also appeared on Broadway in Show Girl (1929),Strike Me Pink (1934) and Red, Hot and Blue (1936).
He began appearing in motion pictures in a comedy series pairing him with silent film legend Buster Keaton and continuing with The Wet Parade (1932), Broadway to Hollywood(1933), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942, playing Banjo, a character based on Harpo Marx), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962, based on the 1935 musical) andIt's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In 1934 he starred in Hollywood Party, where he dreams he is 'Schnarzan', a character in parody of 'Tarzan', extremely popular at the time due to the Johnny Weissmuller films.
Durante on The Jumbo Fire Chief Program
On September 10, 1933, Durante appeared on Eddie Cantor's The Chase and Sanborn Hour, continuing until November 12 of that year. When Cantor departed, Durante took over the NBC show as its star from April 22 to September 30, 1934, moving on to The Jumbo Fire Chief Program (1935–36).
He teamed with Garry Moore for The Durante-Moore Show in 1943. Durante's comic chemistry with the young, brushcut Moore brought Durante an even larger audience. "Dat's my boy dat said dat!" became an instant catchphrase. The duo became one of the nation's favorites for the rest of the decade, including a well-reviewed Armed Forces Radio Network command performance with Frank Sinatra that remains a favorite of radio collectors today. Moore left in mid-1947, and the program returned October 1, 1947 as The Jimmy Durante Show. Durante worked in radio for three years after Moore's 1947 departure, including a reunion of Clayton, Jackson and Durante on his April 21, 1948 broadcast.
Durante made his television debut on November 1, 1950, though he kept a presence in radio as one of the frequent guests on Tallulah Bankhead's two-year, NBC comedy-variety show, The Big Show. Durante was one of the cast on the show's premiere November 5, 1950. The rest of the cast included humorist Fred Allen, singers Mindy Carson and Frankie Laine, stage musical performer Ethel Merman, actors Jose Ferrer and Paul Lukas, and comic-singer Danny Thomas (about to become a major television star in his own right). A highlight of the show was Durante and Thomas, whose own nose rivaled Durante's, in a routine in which Durante accused Thomas of stealing his nose. "Stay outta dis, No-Nose!" Durante barked at Bankhead to a big laugh.
from the Broadway to Hollywood
From 1950-51, Durante was one of four alternating hosts on NBC's comedy-variety series 4-Star Revue. He alternated Wednesdays withDanny Thomas (now a headliner), Jack Carson, and Ed Wynn.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Durante teamed with sidekick Sonny King, a collaboration that would continue until Durante's death. Jimmy could be seen regularly in Las Vegas after Sunday Mass outside of the Guardian Angel Cathedral standing next to the priest and greeting the people as they left Mass.
On August 4, 1955, The Jimmy Durante Show on NBC was the venue of the final performance by the famous Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda. Miranda fell to her knees while dancing with Durante, who instinctively told the band, "STOP--da music!" He helped Miranda up to her feet as she laughed, "I'm all out of breath!" "Dat's OK, honey, I'll take yer lines," Durante replied. Miranda laughed again and quickly pulled herself together and finished the show. However, the next morning, August 5, Miranda died at home from heart failure.
Durante also appeared on NBC's Club Oasis, another comedy/variety show broadcast in the 1957-1958 season, alternating first with The Polly Bergen Show.
Durante's radio show was bracketed with two trademarks: "Inka Dinka Doo" as his opening theme, and the invariable signoff that became another familiar national catchphrase: "Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." For years Durante preferred to keep the mystery alive. One theory was that it referred to the owner of a restaurant in Calabash, North Carolina, where Durante and his troupe had stopped to eat. He was so taken by the food, the service, and the chitchat he told the owner that he would make her famous. Since he did not know her name, he referred to her as "Mrs. Calabash." Another idea was that it was a personal salute to his deceased first wife, Jeanne (Olsen) Durante, who died in 1943. "Calabash" might be a mangle of Calabasas, the California city where they made their home during the last years of her life.
At a National Press Club meeting in 1966 (broadcast on NBC's Monitor program), Durante finally revealed that it was indeed a tribute to his wife. While driving across the country, they stopped in a small town called Calabash, whose name she had loved. "Mrs. Calabash" became his pet name for her, and he signed off his radio program with "Good night, Mrs. Calabash." He added "wherever you are" after the first year.
Durante's first wife was the former Jean (Jeanne) Olson, whom he married on June 19, 1921. She was born in Ohio on August 31, 1896. She died on Valentine's Day in 1943, after a lingering heart ailment of about two years. She was 46 years old when she died, although different newspaper accounts of her death suggest she was 45 or perhaps 52. Her death was not immediately expected, as Jimmy was touring in New York at the time and returned to Los Angeles right away to complete funeral arrangements.
Durante married his second wife, Margaret "Margie" Little, at St. Malachy's Catholic Church in New York City on December 14, 1960. As a teenager, with her gorgeous red hair and undeniable charm, Margie had been crowned Queen of the New Jersey State Fair. She attended New York University before being hired by the legendary Copacabana, in New York City. They met 16 years before their marriage when he was performing there and where she worked as a hatcheck girl. She was 41, he 67, when they married. With help from their attorney Mary G. Rogan, the couple was able to adopt a baby, Cecilia Alicia (nicknamed CeCe and now known as CeCe Durante-Bloum) on Christmas Day, 1961. CeCe became a champion horsewoman and then a horse trainer and horseback-riding instructor near San Diego, married a computer designer (Stephen), and has two sons and a daughter (Connor, Ryan and Maddie). Margaret died on June 7, 2009, at age 90.
On August 15, 1958, for his charitable acts, Durante was awarded a huge three-foot-high brass loving cup by the Al Bahr Shriners Temple. The inscription read: "JIMMY DURANTE THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS COMEDIAN. A loving cup to you Jimmy, it's larger than your nose, but smaller than your heart. Happiness always, Al Bahr Temple, August 15, 1958."
Jimmy's love for children continued through the Fraternal Order of Eagles children, who among many causes raise money for handicapped and abused. At Jimmy's first appearance at the Eagles International Convention in 1961, judge Bob Hansen inquired about his fee for performing. Jimmy replied, "Do not even mention money judge or I'll have to mention a figure that'll make ya sorry ya brought it up" "What can we do then?" asked Hansen. "Help da kids," was Durante's reply. Jimmy performed for many years at Eagles conventions free of charge, even refusing travel money. The Fraternal Order of Eagles changed the name of their children's fund to the Jimmy Durante Children's Fund in his honor, and in his memory have raised over 20 million dollars to help children. A reporter once remarked of Durante after an interview: "You could warm your hands on this one." One of the projects built using money from the Durante Fund was a heated therapy swimming pool at the Hughen School in Port Arthur, Texas. Completed in 1968, Durante named the pool the "Inka Dinka Doo Pool."
Durante was an active member of the Democratic Party. In 1933, he appeared in an advertisement shown in theaters supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs and wrote a musical score entitled Give a Guy a Job to accompany it.
Durante in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Durante continued his film appearances through It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and television appearances through the early 1970s. He narrated the Rankin-Bass animated Christmas special Frosty the Snowman (1969), re-run for many years since. The television work also included a series of commercial spots for Kellogg's Corn Flakes cereals in the mid-1960s, which introduced Durante's gravelly growl and narrow-eyed, large-nosed countenance to millions of children. "Dis is Jimmy Durante, in puy-son!" was his introduction to some of the Kellogg's spots. One of his last appearances was in a memorable television commercial for the 1973 Volkswagen Beetle, where he proclaimed that the new, roomier Beetle had "plenty of breathin' room... for da old schnozzola!"
In 1963, Durante recorded an album of pop standards, September Song. The album became a best-seller and provided Durante's re-introduction, to yet another generation, almost three decades later. From the Jimmy Durante's Way of Life album, came the gravelly interpretations of As Time Goes By, which accompanied the opening credits of the romantic comedy hit,Sleepless in Seattle, while his version of "Make Someone Happy" launched the film's closing credits. Both are included on the film's best-selling soundtrack. Durante also recorded a cover of the well known song I'll Be Seeing You, which became a trademark song on his 60's TV show. This song was also featured in the 2004 film The Notebook.
He wrote a foreword for a humorous book titled Cockeyed Americana, compiled by Dick Hyman. In the first paragraph of the "Foreword!, as Durante called it, he met Hyman and discussed the book and the contribution Hyman wanted Durante to make to it. Durante wrote, "Before I can say gaziggadeegasackeegazobbath, we're at his luxurious office." After reading the material Hyman had compiled for the book, Durante commented on it, "COLOSSAL, GIGANTIC, MAGNANIMOUS, and last but not first, AURORA BOREALIS.[Capitalization Durante's.] Four little words that make a sentence--and a sentence that will eventually get me six months."
Aside from "Dat's my boy dat said dat!", "Dat's moral turpentine!" and "It's a catastastroke!" (for "catastrophe",) Durante sent such catchphrases as "Everybody wants ta get inta the act!", "Umbriago!", "Ha-cha-cha-chaaaaaaa!", "I got a million of 'em" and "Surrounded by assassins!" into the vernacular.
Jimmy and Margaret Durante's grave atHoly Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California
Durante retired from performing in 1972 after suffering a stroke that left him confined to a wheelchair. He died of pneumonia in Santa Monica, California, on March 29, 1980. He received Roman Catholic funeral rites four days later, with fellow entertainers including Desi Arnaz, Ernest Borgnine, Marty Allen, and Jack Carter in attendance, and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.
Jimmy Durante is known to most modern audiences as the character who narrated and sang the 1969 animated special Frosty the Snowman. He also performed the Ron Goodwin title song to the 1968 comedy-adventure Monte Carlo or Bust sung over the film's animated opening credits. There are numerous Durante depictions and allusions in animation. Pumbaa does a brief Durante impression while singing "Hakuna Matata" in The Lion King. A character in M-G-M cartoons, a bulldog named Spike, whose puppy son was always getting caught by accident in the middle of Tom and Jerry's activities, referenced Durante with a raspy voice and an affectionate "Dat's my boy!" In another Tom and Jerry episode, a starfish lands on Tom's head, giving him a big nose. He then proceeds with Durante's famous "Ha-cha-cha-cha" call. The 1943 Tex Avery cartoon "What's Buzzin' Buzzard" featured a vulture with a voice that sounded like Jimmy Durante. A Durante-like voice (originally by Doug Young) was also given to the father beagle, Doggie Daddy, in Hanna-Barbera's Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy cartoons, Doggie Daddy invariably addressing the junior beagle with a Durante-like "Augie, my son, my son," and with frequent citations of, "That's my boy who said that!" In the 1933 Warner Bros. Looney Tunes short, Bosko's Picture Show, there is a scene where he is chased by Adolf Hitler with a meat cleaver.
Many 1940s Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons had characters based on Durante. Two examples are A Gruesome Twosome, which features a cat based on Durante andBaby Bottleneck, which in unedited versions opens with a Durante-like stork. Book Revue shows the well-known (at that time) 1924 Edna Ferber novel So Big featuring a Durante caricature on the cover. The "so big" refers to his nose, and as a runaway criminal turns the corner by the book, Durante turns sideways using his nose to trip the criminal, allowing his capture. In Hollywood Daffy, Durante is directly depicted as himself, pronouncing his catchphrase "Those are the conditions that prevail!" In The Mouse-Merized Cat, Babbit (aBud Abbott mouse) is briefly hypnotized to imitate Jimmy Durante singing Lullaby of Broadway. One of Durante's common catch phrases, "I got a million of 'em!", was used as Bugs' final line in Stage Door Cartoon.
A Durante-like voice was also used for Marvel Comics superhero The Thing in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Fred and Barney Meet the Thing. In a 1993 episode of The Simpsons titledLady Bouvier's Lover, after Grampa cries out, "Good night, Mrs. Bouvier, wherever you are," the blue-haired lawyer announces himself in charge of Jimmy Durante's estate and therefore puts a halt to Abraham Simpson's "unauthorized imitation" of Durante. The voice and appearance of Crispy, the mascot for Crispy Critters cereal, was also based on Durante. In Disney's House of Mouse, a character named Mortimer Mouse (voiced by Maurice LaMarche) was based on Durante, complete with the 'ha-cha-cha!'.