James Francis ?Jimmy? Durante (February 10, 1893 ? January 29, 1980) was an American singer and movie icon, 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 Bartolomeo Durante (1849-1942) and Rosa (Lentino) Durante (1858-1921). Durante dropped out of school in the eighth grade to become a full-time ragtime pianist. He first played with his cousin, who was also "Jimmy Durante." It was a family act, but he was too professional for his cousin. He continued working the city 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.
By 1934, he had a major record hit with his own novelty composition, Inka Dinka Doo. 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. 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), and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
On September 10, 1933 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, 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 , 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 , 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 1950-51, Durante was one of four alternating hosts on NBC's comedy-variety series, "4 Star Revue." He alternated Wednesdays with Danny 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 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." For years Durante preferred to keep the mystery alive, but eventually relented.
One theory was that the phrase referred 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 was that it was his personal salute to his late first wife, Jeanne Olsen, whom he married on June 19, 1921. She died 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.
At a National Press Club meeting in 1966 (broadcast on NBC's Monitor program), Durante revealed that it was indeed a tribute to the first Mrs. Durante. One time while driving across the country, they stopped in a small town called Calabash, which Mrs. Durante loved. He recalled the town as being near Chicago. "Mrs. Calabash" became his private pet name for her, so years later he came to sign off his radio program with "Good night, Mrs. Calabash." He added "...wherever you are" after the first year.
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, Cecilia Alicia (nicknamed CeCe and now known as CeCe Durante-Bloum), 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 in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Durante continued his film appearances through It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) (in which, early in the film, his Smiler Grogan character tells a concerned crowd of $350,000 "buried under a big W" and then dies, literally "kicking the bucket") 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. 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 used a wheelchair during the last years of his life. He died of pneumonia in Santa Monica, California on , 1980, aged 86, and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.
A testament to Jimmy Durante's character
The anonymous sleeve notes accompanying the 1959 Decca album entitled ?Jimmy Durante (in person) At The Piano? describe Durante?s character perfectly: ?When Jimmy Durante stepped into the studio to record this album, it seemed as though a burst of dazzling sunlight had enveloped the stark, acoustically insulated walls and danced gaily amid the tangle of electronic equipment. Hat in one hand, a cigar in the other; the familiar, irresistible grin flashing in the shadow cast by the most famous ?proboscus? in the world?Jimmy the ?pie-a-nist? had arrived?in person! Seating himself at the keyboard of one of the two freshly tuned concert grands in the room, Jimmy executed a beautiful, florid glissando. Looking a bit surprised himself, he quipped ?Whatsa matter, didn?t you think I could do it?? Actually, no-one was surprised that he could do it, but amazed that he would let us know it. It is that element of his personality, a resolute refusal to ever take himself too seriously, that has, perhaps more than anything else, endeared him to everyone he has ever met, either on or off stage.? The notes continue ?In this album, we present Jimmy Durante (in person) at the piano. A pianist of considerably more talent than he?ll ever admit to , he plays with great enthusiasm and obvious joy. The melodies, several of which are written by Durante, are rendered - to the accompaniment of Jack Roth on drums and some rollicking commentary by Jimmy - in the most delightful manner imaginable?.
The sleeve notes conclude ? Undoubtedly one of the most fabulous showmen of our time, Jimmy Durante?s hilarious antics, hair-trigger wit, sincere warmth and captivatingly earthy charm have placed him in the ranks of the world?s greatest entertainers?.
A reporter once remarked of Durante after an interview: "You could warm your hands on this man".
Jimmy Durante is known to most as the character who narrated and sang the 1969 animated special Frosty the Snowman. 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. 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," 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 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 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 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 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 the movie Greedy, Michael J. Fox imitates Durante to amuse his rich uncle. In the movie My Stepmother Is an Alien, the alien stepmother (Kim Basinger) sees Durante on TV and later repeats part of the sketch with her husband for an alien audience.
Other cultural references
Animated sitcom The Simpsons featured an impersonation of Durante by character Abe Simpson in the episode Lady Bouvier's Lover.
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 1960s 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".
In the late 1960s, Jimmy Durante appeared in a commercial for Scotties tissue, claiming that he liked them because they were "3-sneezers".
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.
In the "Powerpuff Girls" there is a monkey that is named Ha-cha-cha-cha and has a big nose, which refers to Jimmy's quote ha-cha-cha-cha
Cartoonist Drew Friedman created a one-page comic strip for Spy Magazine called "Jimmy Durante Boffs Young Starlets." The strip shows Durante with a bevy of young ladies to whom he exclaims, "And you goils thought my NOSE was big!"
The 1991 film City Slickers features Durante singing "Young At Heart" during scenes from the first day of the cattle drive.
The somewhat comic band 'The Blanks', also known as "Ted's Band" from the US comedy-drama Scrubs, released a song in their album 'Ride The Wave' called 'The Ballad of Jimmy Durante'. The song tells the story of Jimmy's life, with mention of his 'Schnozz', 'Ha cha cha cha' and everybody wanting to get into the act. The Ballad of Jimmy Durante lyrics, on The Blanks Website
In the musical 42nd Street, (set in the year 1933), the song "Gettin' Out of Town" features the phrase "hot-cha-cha-cha, hot-cha-cha-cha"--a possible reference to Durante.
Referenced in a Crispy Critters cereal commercial (1987). The commercials for the cereal featured a puppet named "Crispy" with pom-pom antennae and a furry yellow body. Crispy spoke and sang with a voice based on that of Jimmy Durante including the nonsense phrase "Ah-cha-cha-cha".
Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1921)
Roadhouse Nights (1930)
The New Adventures of Get-Rich Quick Wallingford (1931)
The Cuban Love Song (1931)
Jackie Cooper's Birthday Party (1931) (short subject)
The Christmas Party (1931) (short subject)
Hollywood on Parade: Down Memory Lane (1932) (short subject)
The Wet Parade (1932)
Hollywood on Parade (1932) (short subject)
Speak Easily (1932)
Blondie of the Follies (1932)
The Phantom President (1932)
Give a Man a Job (1933) (short subject)
What! No Beer? (1933)
Hollywood on Parade No. 9 (1933) (short subject)
Hell Below (1933)
Broadway to Hollywood (1933)
Meet the Baron (1933)
George White's Scandals (1934)
Strictly Dynamite (1934)
Hollywood Party (1934)
Student Tour (1934)
Land Without Music (1936)
Start Cheering (1938)
Sally, Irene and Mary (1938)
Little Miss Broadway (1938)
Melody Ranch (1940)
You're in the Army Now (1941)
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Two Girls and a Sailor (1944)
Music for Millions (1944)
Two Sisters from Boston (1946)
It Happened in Brooklyn (1947)
This Time for Keeps (1947)
On an Island with You (1948)
The Great Rupert (1950)
The Milkman (1950)
Screen Snapshots: Hollywood Premiere (1955) (short subject)
The Heart of Show Business (1957) (short subject)
Beau James (1957) (Cameo)
Pepe (1960) (Cameo)
The Last Judgment (Il Giudizio universale 1961)
Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962)
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Just One More Time (1974) (short subject)