James Francis “Jimmy” Durante (February 10 1893 – January 29 1980) was an American singer, pianist, comedian and actor, whose distinctive gravel delivery, comic language butchery, jazz-influenced songs, and large nose — his frequent jokes about it included a frequent self-reference that became his nickname: "Schnozzola" — helped make him one of America's most familiar and popular personalities of the 1920s through the 1970s.
Durante was born in Brooklyn
, the third of four children born to Italian-Americans
Mitch Durante (1855-1929) and Margaret Durante (1858-1936). A product of working-class New York, Durante dropped out of school in the eighth grade to become a full-time ragtime
pianist, working the city circuit and earning 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 of the group who did not hail 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 attraction by the mid-1920s, with a music and comedy trio called Clayton, Jackson and Durante. Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, probably Durante's closest friends, often reunited with Durante professionally. By 1934, he had a major record hit, his own novelty composition Inka Dinka Doo and it became his theme song for practically the rest of his life. A year later, Durante starred 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.
He began appearing in motion pictures at about the same time, beginning with a comedy series pairing him with silent film legend Buster Keaton and continuing with such offerings as The Wet Parade (1932), 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) and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
On September 10
Durante appeared on Eddie Cantor
's popular 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
, moving on to The Jumbo Fire Chief Program
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
. 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.
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 was the venue of the last performance by the famous Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda. Miranda fell to her knees while dancing with Durante, who instinctively told the band to "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, finishing the show. However, the next morning, August 5, Carmen died at home from heart failure.
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." Durante never revealed the meaning, preferring instead to keep the mystery alive.
One theory is that the phrase refers to the owner of a restaurant in Calabash, North Carolina, where Jimmy and his troupe stopped once to eat. He was so taken by the food, the service, and the chitchat that Jimmy told the owner that he would make her famous. Not knowing her name he instead referred to her as "Mrs. Calabash".
Another theory is that it was his personal salute to his late first wife, Jeanne Olsen, whom he married on June 19, 1921. They stayed married until her death on Valentine's Day in 1943. "Calabash" may have been a typical Durante mangle of Calabasas, the southern California locale where the couple made their home for the last years of her life.
If Valentine's Day proved a day of sorrow for the comedian, he made Christmas Day, 1960, even more joyous than usual when he married his second wife, Marjorie Little, whom he had befriended for 16 years after meeting her at the Copacabana, where she worked as a hatcheck girl. She was 39, he 67, when they married. The couple adopted a baby, Cecelia Alicia (nicknamed CeCe), who became a horseback-riding instructor near San Diego, married a computer designer, and has two sons and a daughter.
Jimmy's love for children continued through the Fraternal Order of Eagles
, who among many causes raise money for handicapped and abused children. At Jimmy's first appearance at the Eagles International Convention in 1961, judge Bob Hansen inquired about his fee for performing. Jimmy replied, "don't 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, not even accepting travel money. The Fraternal Order of Eagles in his honor changed the name of their Children's Fund to the Jimmy Durante Children's Fund, and in his memory have raised over 20 million dollars to help children.
Durante continued his film appearances through It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) (in which his Smiler Grogan character dies at the beginning) 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. His gravelly interpretation of "As Time Goes By" 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. The former number appeared on the film's best-selling soundtrack.
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. [Captialization 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 catch phrases as "Everybody wants ta get inta the act!", "Umbriago!" and "Ha-cha-cha-chaaaaaaa!" into the vernacular.
Durante suffered a stroke in 1972, and was confined to a wheelchair in the last years of his life. He died of pneumonia in Santa Monica, California on January 29, 1980, aged 86, and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.
There are numerous Durante depictions and allusions in animation. Pumba 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. A Durante-like voice 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." 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 and "Baby Bottleneck", which in unedited versions opens with a Durante-like stork. "Book Revue" shows a book featuring a Durante caricature on the cover. In the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies
cartoon named "Hollywood Daffy", Durante is directly depicted as himself, pronouncing his catch-phrase "Those are the conditions that prevail!". 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 the Looney Tunes cartoon A Gruesome Twosome
one cat is caricature of Jimmy Durante. In a 1993 episode of The Simpsons
titled Lady Bouvier's Lover
, after Grampa cries out, "Good night, Mrs. Bouvier, wherever you are," the Blue-haired lawyer, himself an amalgamation of many roles played by character actor Charles Lane
, announces himself in charge of Jimmy Durante's estate and therefore puts a halt to Abraham Simpson
's "unauthorized imitation" of Durante. Charlie Chaplin
is also referenced in a similar fashion in the episode. The voice and appearance of Crispy, the mascot for Crispy Critters
cereal, was also based on Durante.He was also the narrator for the famous 1969 christmas special of Frosty the Snowman
In the movie Greedy
, Michael J. Fox
imitates Durante to amuse his rich uncle. In the movie My Stepmother is an Alien
, the alien stepmother, "reading" audio records from a bookcase, picks up a Durante record, "listens" telekinetically and laughs.
Other cultural references
- British comedian Eric Morecambe would occasionally break into an impression of Durante on the Morecambe and Wise Show while wearing a plastic cup on his nose, miming piano-playing and putting on a fake accent to say: "Sitting at my pianna the udder day..."
- Durante has also remained a favorite subject of comic impersonation, including the recent television comedy, Family Guy.
- 'The Blanks' album, 'Riding the Wave' includes a song entitled The Ballad of Jimmy Durante, performed in a doo-wop, vocal group style.
- Herry Monster from Sesame Street had a voice (and nose) modeled after Jimmy Durante.
- A street on the east side of Las Vegas is named after Durante. A street in Del Mar, California, specifically located at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, is also named after him.
- In the fourth season of I Love Lucy, Lucy impersonates famous Hollywood celebrities, including Jimmy Durante.
- Referred to in Cole Porter's song "You're the Top."
- Martin Short uses a Jimmy Durante imitation in character as aging vaudevillian songsmith Irving Cohen. When this character was revived almost 20 years later for his one-man show, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, he amped up the Durante imitation to the point of using his catchphrase "Ha-cha-cha-chaaaaaaa!" as his exit line.
- The 1960's North Carolina Beach Music group, The Huckleberry Mudflap, featured a song referencing Durante, "Goodnight, Mrs. Kollendoffer, Wherever You Are," as the flip side to their regional hit record "Blue Surf".
- Mentioned in the Frank Sinatra song, "How about you."
- A 2008 Acura MDX commercial uses Durante's "Make Someone Happy" throughout.
- Crow, from Mystery Science Theater 3000, often imitated Jimmy Durante during movies or in sketches.