James Francis Durante (February 10, 1893 – January 29, 1980) was an American singer, pianist, comedian, and actor. His distinctive clipped gravelly speech, Lower East Side Manhattan accent, comic language-butchery, jazz-influenced songs, and prominent nose helped make him one of America's most familiar and popular personalities of the 1920s through the 1970s. He often referred to his nose as the schnozzola (from the American Yiddish slang word "schnoz" [big nose]), and the word became his nickname.
Durante as host of The Hollywood Palace, 1964
James Francis Durante
February 10, 1893
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
|Died||January 29, 1980 (aged 86)|
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
|Other names||The Schnoz|
The Great Schnozzola
|Occupation||Actor, comedian, singer, pianist|
(m. 1921; her death 1943)
Margie Little (m. 1960)
Durante was born on the Lower East Side of New York City. He was the youngest of four children born to Rosa (Lentino) and Bartolomeo Durante, both of whom were immigrants from Salerno, Italy. Bartolomeo was a barber. Young Jimmy served as an altar boy at St. Malachy Roman Catholic Church, known as the Actor's Chapel.
Durante dropped out of school in seventh 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.
By the mid-1920s, Durante had become a vaudeville star and radio personality in a trio called Clayton, Jackson and Durante. Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, Durante's closest friends, often reunited with Durante in subsequent years. 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 appeared in the movie Roadhouse Nights, ostensibly based on Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest.
By 1934, Durante had a major record hit with his own novelty composition, "Inka Dinka Doo", with lyrics by Ben Ryan. 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. A scene in which a police officer stopped Durante's character—who was leading a live elephant across the stage—to ask, "what are you doing with that elephant?", followed by Durante's reply, "what elephant?", was a regular show-stopper. This comedy bit, also reprised in his role in Billy Rose's Jumbo, 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).
During the early 1930s, Durante alternated between Hollywood and Broadway. His early motion pictures included an original Rodgers & Hart musical The Phantom President (1932), which featured Durante singing the self-referential Schnozzola. He was initially paired with silent film legend Buster Keaton in a series of three popular comedies for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Speak Easily (1932), The Passionate Plumber (1932), and What! No Beer? (1933), which were financial hits and a career springboard for the distinctive newcomer. However, Keaton's vociferous dissatisfaction with constraints the studio had placed upon him, his perceived incompatibility with Durante's broad chatty humor, exacerbated by his alcoholism, led the studio to end the series. Durante went on to appear in 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), and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In 1934, he starred in Hollywood Party, where he dreams he is 'Schnarzan', a parody of 'Tarzan' who was popular at the time due to the Johnny Weissmuller films.
On September 10, 1933, Durante appeared on Eddie Cantor's NBC radio show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour, continuing until November 12 of that year. When Cantor left the show, Durante took over as its star from April 22 to September 30, 1934. He then moved on to The Jumbo Fire Chief Program (1935–36).
Durante 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, which would later inspire the cartoon Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy. The duo was one of the nation's favorites for the rest of the decade. Their Armed Forces Radio Network Command Performance with Frank Sinatra remains a favorite of radio-show collectors today. Moore left the duo in mid-1947, and the program returned October 1, 1947 as The Jimmy Durante Show. Durante continued the show for three more years, and featured a reunion of Clayton, Jackson and Durante on his April 21, 1948 broadcast.
Although Durante made his television debut on November 1, 1950 (on the Four Star Revue - see below) he continued to keep a presence in radio, as a frequent guest 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, along with 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 premiere 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 1950 to 1951, Durante was the host once a month (alternating with Ed Wynn, Danny Thomas and Jack Carson) on Wednesday evenings at 8 p.m, on NBC's comedy-variety series Four Star Revue. Jimmy continued with the show until 1954.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Durante teamed with sidekick Sonny King, a collaboration that would continue until Durante's death. He was often 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.
Several times in the 1960s, Durante served as host of ABC's Hollywood Palace variety show, which were taped live (and consequently include ad-libs by the seasoned vaudevillian).
Durante's first wife was Jean "Jeanne" Olson, whom he married on June 19, 1921. She was born in Ohio on August 31, 1896. She was 46 years old when she died on Valentine's Day in 1943, after a lingering heart ailment of about two years, although different newspaper accounts of her death suggest she was 45 or perhaps 52. As her death was not immediately expected, Durante was touring in New York at the time and returned to Los Angeles right away to complete the funeral arrangements.
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 no one knew who Mrs. Calabash referred to and 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 wife, Jeanne..."Calabash" might have been a mangle of Calabasas, the California city where they made their home during the last years of her life. His friend and co-star, Candy Candido, (in an interview with Chuck Shaden's "Speaking of Radio" in 1988), reported that he met the actual woman in Chicago when traveling with Durante, but was sworn to keep the secret. Alternatively, Jimmy's friend and radio producer, Phil Cohan revealed to Chuck Shaden's Speaking of Radio interview in 1988 that it was a fabrication. Needing a closing to his show, the writers tossed around several names, settling on Cohan's calabash pipe as the best-sounding moniker.
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 Jean 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 married his second wife, Margaret "Margie" Little, at St. Malachy Roman Catholic Church in New York City on December 14, 1960. As a teenager she 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. She and Durante met there 16 years before their marriage, when he performed there and she was a hatcheck girl. She was 41 and he 67 when they married. With help from their attorney, Mary G. Rogan, the couple were 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. Margie died on June 7, 2009, at the age of 89.
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 reads: "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 Durante started out his career with Clayton and Jackson and when he became a big star and they were left behind, he kept them on his payroll for the rest of their life.
Durante's love for children continued through the Fraternal Order of Eagles, who among many causes raise money for handicapped and abused children. At Durante's first appearance at the Eagles International Convention in 1961, Judge Bob Hansen inquired about his fee for performing. Durante 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. Durante 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 titled Give a Guy a Job to accompany it. He performed at both the inaugural gala for President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and a year later at the famous Madison Square Garden rally for the Democratic party that featured Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to JFK.
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 de old schnozzola!"
In 1963, Durante recorded the 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 interpretation of the song "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 compiled by Dick Hyman entitled Cockeyed Americana. In the first paragraph of the "Foreword!, as Durante called it, he describes meeting Hyman and discussing the book and the contribution that 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."
Durante retired from performing in 1972 after he became wheelchair-bound following a stroke. He died of pneumonia in Santa Monica, California on January 29, 1980, twelve days before he would have turned 87. 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 (titled Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies in the U.S.) sung over the film's animated opening credits. There are numerous Durante depictions and allusions in animation. 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 short, 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!" The 1945 MGM cartoon Jerky Turkey featured a turkey which was a caricature of Durante.
Many Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons had characters based on Durante. One Harman-Ising short from 1933, Bosko's Picture Show, featured a caricature of Adolf Hitler chasing Durante with a meat cleaver. Two examples from the 1940s include 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 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, Catstello (a Lou Costello 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. 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!". One of the main characters in Terrytoons' Heckle and Jeckle cartoon series also takes to imitating Jimmy in 1948's Taming The Cat ("Get a couple of song birds today...").
Bosko in Person is an American animated short film. It is a Looney Tune cartoon, featuring Bosko, the original star of the series. It was released on February 11, 1933, though one source claims the release date is April 10, 1933. Like most Looney Tunes of its day, it was directed by Hugh Harman; its score is by Frank Marsales. The film features Bosko and Honey in a vaudeville-act. This is the first cartoon directed by Friz Freleng.Carnival (1935 film)
Carnival is a 1935 American film directed by Walter Lang and starring Jimmy Durante, Lee Tracy, and Sally Eilers.The film also includes a young Lucille Ball in a small uncredited role as a nurse.Frosty the Snowman
"Frosty the Snowman" (or "Frosty the Snow Man") is a popular Christmas song written by Walter "Jack" Rollins and Steve Nelson, and first recorded by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys in 1950 and later recorded by Jimmy Durante, releasing it as a single. It was written after the success of Autry's recording of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" the previous year; Rollins and Nelson shipped the new song to Autry, who recorded "Frosty" in search of another seasonal hit. Like "Rudolph", "Frosty" was subsequently adapted to other media including a popular television special by Rankin/Bass Productions, Frosty the Snowman. The ancillary rights to the Frosty the Snowman character are owned by Warner Bros., but due to the prominence of the TV special, merchandising of the character is generally licensed in tandem with that special's current owners, DreamWorks Classics.Hollywood Party (1934 film)
Hollywood Party, also known under its working title of Hollywood Revue of 1933 and Star Spangled Banquet, is a 1934 American Pre-Code musical film starring Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Jimmy Durante, Lupe Vélez and Mickey Mouse (voiced by an uncredited Walt Disney). It was distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Each sequence featured a different star with a separate scriptwriter and director assigned.Inka Dinka Doo
"Inka Dinka Doo" is a 1933 popular song whose words were written by Ben Ryan, and whose music was composed by James Francis "Jimmy" Durante. The song debuted in the 1934 movie Palooka, a film about the comics character Joe Palooka. By 1934, Durante's recording of the song was a major hit record, and it became Durante's theme song for the rest of his life. When he performed it on his radio and television programs, Durante would frequently interrupt it with the line, "STOP--da music, everybody!" He performed it again in the 1944 film Two Girls and a Sailor, which starred Van Johnson, June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven.
In 1950, Sammy Davis Jr. recorded a unique version of the song, in which he impersonated various musical artists of the time. He released this as his debut record, along with "Laura."Other artists who have recorded this song include Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Jimmie Noone, Ronnie Aldrich, Ray Anthony, Ann-Margret, and John Lithgow.Meet the Baron
Meet the Baron is a 1933 American Pre-Code comedy film starring Jack Pearl, Jimmy Durante, Edna May Oliver, Zasu Pitts, Ted Healy and His Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard). The title of the film refers to Pearl's character of Baron Munchhausen, which he made famous on his radio show.Mickey's Gala Premier
Mickey's Gala Premier is a Walt Disney cartoon produced in 1933, directed by Burt Gillett, and featuring parodies of several famous Hollywood film actors from the 1930s.
Some sources claim this cartoon is called "Mickey's Gala Premiere". However "Premier" can be clearly read from the title card.Music for Millions
Music for Millions is a 1944 musical comedy film directed by Henry Koster and starring Margaret O'Brien, José Iturbi, Jimmy Durante, June Allyson, Marsha Hunt, Hugh Herbert, Harry Davenport, and Marie Wilson. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1946.On an Island with You
On an Island with You is a 1948 musical Technicolor romantic comedy film directed by Richard Thorpe. It stars Esther Williams, Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalbán, Cyd Charisse, Kathryn Beaumont and Jimmy Durante.Palooka (film)
Palooka is a 1934 American Pre-Code comedy film directed by Benjamin Stoloff starring Jimmy Durante and based on the comic strip by Ham Fisher. The movie was adapted by Jack Jevne, Arthur Kober, Gertrude Purcell, Murray Roth and Ben Ryan from the comic strip. The film is also known as The Great Schnozzle in the United Kingdom.Roadhouse Nights
Roadhouse Nights is a 1930 American Pre-Code gangster film. A number of sources including Sally Cline in her book Dashiell Hammett Man of Mystery claim it is based on the classic novel Red Harvest written by Dashiell Hammett (author of The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and The Glass Key). However the credits of the film itself say only "An Original Screenplay by Ben Hecht." Hammett receives no mention at all (and the plots are not similar).
The movie, an unusual amalgam of musical comedy and gangster melodrama, was directed by Hobart Henley, stars Helen Morgan, Charles Ruggles, and Fred Kohler, and features a rare screen musical comedy performance by Jimmy Durante, in his screen debut, with his vaudeville partners Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson ("Clayton, Jackson, and Durante"). Helen Morgan also sings It Can't Go On Like This.Speak Easily
Speak Easily is a 1932 American Pre-Code comedy film starring Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, and Thelma Todd, and directed by Edward Sedgwick. The studio also paired Keaton and Durante as a comedy team during this period in The Passionate Plumber and What! No Beer? Keaton later used many of the physical gags he created for this film later when he wrote (uncredited) gags for the Marx Brothers' A Night At The Opera.Start Cheering
Start Cheering is a 1938 musical motion picture directed by Albert S. Rogell and starring Jimmy Durante, Walter Connolly and Joan Perry. It is best remembered today for a cameo appearance by The Three Stooges (Curly Howard, Moe Howard and Larry Fine), who were Columbia Pictures' short subject headliners at the time, as Campus Firemen. The film's choreography was by Danny Dare.Strictly Dynamite
Strictly Dynamite is a 1934 American pre-Code film directed by Elliott Nugent and starring Lupe Velez and Jimmy Durante.The Jimmy Durante Show
The Jimmy Durante Show is a 51-episode half-hour comedy/variety television program presented live on NBC from October 2, 1954, to June 23, 1956.The Merry Old Soul
The Merry Old Soul is a 1933 animated short film by Walter Lantz Productions, and part of the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. The cartoon was also nominated for an Academy Award.The Milkman
The Milkman is a 1950 comedy film starring Donald O'Connor, Jimmy Durante, and Piper Laurie.The New Yorkers
The New Yorkers is a musical written by Cole Porter (lyrics and music) and Herbert Fields (book). Star Jimmy Durante also wrote the words and music for the songs in which his character was featured.
The musical premiered on Broadway in 1930. It is based on a story by cartoonist for The New Yorker, Peter Arno, and E. Ray Goetz. The musical satirizes New York types, from high society matrons to con men, bootleggers, thieves and prostitutes during Prohibition. The musical includes Porter's famous, sad song about a prostitute, "Love for Sale", which was banned from the radio for its frank lyrics. The original Broadway production received mostly good reviews and ran for 168 performances.Two Girls and a Sailor
Two Girls and a Sailor is a 1944 musical film about two singing sisters who are helped to set up a canteen to entertain soldiers by a mysterious wealthy admirer. It featured a host of celebrity performances, including Jimmy Durante doing his hallmark "Inka Dinka Doo", Gracie Allen, and Lena Horne. Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.