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If any performer can truly be said to have carved out his own comedic turf, made a huge success out of it lasting over several decades, while completely owning that piece of turf lock, stock, and barrel, then that performer would have to be Jimmy Durante. There never has been — nor is there likely ever to be — a stylistic school of Durante; the man and his character are of one piece and ingrained in the national consciousness to the extreme. Anyone foolish enough to start appropriating any part of his act would be immediately branded as a slavish imitator — someone just merely "doing Durante" — while always being doomed to comparison with the one and only real-deal "Schnozzola" and again, falling well short of the mark. On the surface, Durante's mega-success defied all commonly understood show business laws. No one with such a gravelly voice should have been able to put over a song as well as he did. No one as ugly as him should have made as much profitable hay as he did about being that ugly, and parlaying those looks into a movie career at that. No one wore rumpled suits and a beat-up fedora (covering what little hair he had left), smoked a cheap cigar, and mangled the English language with more charm and hilarity than he. No one won the hearts of his audience by simply being himself — a comic Everyman from the poor side of town — than did one Jimmy Durante. He didn't sing good, he didn't look good, and he had the audacity to keep bringing it up, he dressed like a bum, and couldn't say a complete sentence without screwing up some (or all) of the words. Not much of a show business résumé on the surface of it, but Durante's uncloneable charm gathered its main strength from being just that; an average guy who — as one critic put it — "acted like a heckler from an audience who had finally decided he could do a better job himself and, upsetting all conventional show business decorum, had snuck into the spotlight." There was not one subtle thing about Jimmy Durante; whether it was wrecking a piano and throwing the resultant debris at the audience, singing a song like "I Know Darn Well I Can Do Without Broadway (But Can Broadway Do Without Me?)," or doing a complete about face and providing a brief glimpse of the wistful side of his character, he tapped the deepest of emotions every single time and did it at full bore.
He was born James Francis Durante on February 10, 1893 into an Italian community on Manhattan's Lower East Side, just a stone's throw away from Chinatown. He showed an early propensity for the piano and this, indeed, is his least recognized talent. His parents had early aspirations for him to enter the classical field with his talent, but even the small child version of Durante was already carving his own path: "My perfesser tried to make me play "Poet and Peasant." I played "Maple Leaf," "Popularity," and "Wild Cherries." I couldn't do nuttin' else then, and I can't do nuttin' else today." Those who heard him in his pre-comedy days of working around Harlem clubs and Coney Island clip joints spoke in high praise of a white ragtime piano man who was the finest of his kind. Nobody of his skin color had a more African-American feel for the ivories as Ragtime Jimmy, his original stake moniker. His left hand was a law unto it itself, while his right could combine with it to make early 20th century ragtime achieve the status of American art. He was that good. As the singing waiters inside Diamond Tony's — a typical Coney Island saloon — went through their paces (one of them being a young Eddie Cantor), it was the 17-year-old Durante's job to collect all the small tips the waiters could kick his way. He had the reputation of being able to collect every bit of chump change that came rolling his way while never missing a beat; Cantor was the best nickel kicker at Coney Island.
By early 1916, Durante was working at the Club Alamo in Harlem and put together a sextet called "Jimmy Durante's Original Jazz Novelty Band." It was a noisy little combo to be sure, actually having to hold up signs when they played waltzes and fox trots so their ear-bludgeoned audience would know how to respond. It was during the run at the Alamo that one of the acts on the bill started referring to Durante as "The Schnozzola," what would become his most enduring nickname. The act was an immediate hit, working every speakeasy around New York. He still wasn't singing or talking or telling jokes in the act yet, just playing his piano in his more than energetic style.
Legend has it that Durante was a shy man, unwilling to draw attention to himself because of the merciless teasing he had taken as a child about his looks. The majority of this taunting primarily focused itself on the size of his nose, which became even larger after a pack of schoolyard bullies broke it and it mended incorrectly. It was his friend Eddie Cantor who encouraged him to stand up while playing and start throwing insults at his drummer to break up the act. As first he demurred ("I couldn't do that, I'd be afraid people would laugh at me"), but very soon found that the sound of laughter from an audience wasn't such a bad thing after all. The die was cast. The act was certainly getting noticed, but Durante certainly wasn't getting rich from his success. After pulling down a mere $100 a week at the Club Nightingale, he was convinced by a waiter at the club — friend Frank Nolan — that with his own club, he could become a millionaire in no time flat. Durante found a loft above a used-car dealership in downtown Manhattan and started looking for partners. Nolan was aboard and so was singing waiter Eddie Jackson and his song-and-dance partner Harry Harris. The four men started one of the most notorious and legendary speakeasies of the Prohibition era, the Club Durant, its odd spelling — so legend has it — the simple result of the partners running out of money for the extra "e" on the neon sign.
Despite Durante's notable local following, the club was not an immediate hit. But one of the regular clients was Lou Clayton, pretty big stuff in vaudeville circles as a soft-shoe dancer. Clayton saw potential in the venture, especially as a springboard for showcasing the largely unused comedic talent of Durante. Buying out Harris' share and joining forces with Clayton and Durante on-stage, the three men came up with an act that made the audience packed into the tiny club feel like they were in the middle of a very violent cartoon or all three acts of a three-ring circus. As noted critic John Fisher pointed out, "The extraordinary gusto of their comic performance, as it bounced from one to the other with Jimmy storming backwards and forth, always the center of attention, set a standard for improvised cabaret humor that has never been surpassed. It would be inaccurate to say that they pulled out all the stops, but only for the simple reason that in their crazy world the stops were inexhaustible." The team of "Clayton, Jackson, and Durante" would form a friendship of immense loyalty that lasted long after they stopped performing together as a unit, indeed,' til death did they part.
The shows became legendary, the tiny club became the hot ticket in town, and their star-studded audience on any given night could include writers like Damon Runyon, Ed Sullivan, and Walter Winchell, Broadway stars like George Jessel, Al Jolson, and regular George M. Cohan, to notorious gangsters such as Waxey Gordon and Legs Diamond. Once the cops padlocked the place in the late '20s, the trio immediately found work elsewhere, making successful forays on Broadway and the night club circuit of the period. When Hollywood came calling, the offer was for Durante alone. He soon started working solo in a no less frenzied manner, with Clayton staying on as his manager and Jackson hanging around as one of one of many "vice presidents," still contributing material to the stage act.
His MGM movie contract found him initially teamed with fading silent star Buster Keaton. Although it was reported that the two men didn't enjoy working together — each feeling the other one was impeding their own personal styles — they made a number of fine films together, including 1932's Speak Easily. It was Durante's appearance two years later in Palooka that introduced the song that would soon become his enduring theme, "Inka Dinka Doo." His other film credits include Hollywood Party, Roadhouse Nights, Student Tour, George White's Scandals, Cuban Love Song, Music for Millions, It Happened in Brooklyn, and The Milkman. The Durante schnozzola also made several cameo "appearances" in assorted Walt Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons of the period, truly becoming a national star, an instantly recognizable comedic icon.
By the late '40s, he was on radio with his own show, sometimes working with partners as varied as Alan Young and Garry Moore. But he truly hit his (second? third? fourth?) stride when television became the new dominant medium. Recreating Club Durant with Eddie Jackson for television brought Durante to a whole new audience who had never seen him work in a night club setting and proved to be enormously successful. Even though it was a variety show in the traditional sense (bringing on guest stars like Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, etc.), Durante's manic energy combined with his established character made for an hour of TV unlike any other. Many of the old songs and routines were recycled for this new audience, but the biggest change in Durante's act came with the show's closing. Instead of his trademark head-waggling, fedora-shaking "hot cha cha" set-closing walk-off, the new TV ending was a far more somber affair. A night with Durante ended with him walking into successive spotlights — each one further away than the other til he disappeared — turning to both the studio and the unseen television audience and delivering the immortal line, "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." Durante could do outrageous slapstick and tug at an audience's heartstrings with equally consummate ease. The '60s saw him busy as ever with more TV projects and a great deal of night club work. Although his character stayed the same, his twilight years imbued it with an old man wistfulness that made him even more lovable. At the age of 70, his recordings of old standards, issued by Warner Bros as September Song, became an unexpected Top 40 album hit in 1963. He made his final film that same year as Smiler Grogan in Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World, where his cameo deathbed statement had him literally kick the bucket.
Durante's increasing frail condition worsened through the rest of the '60s. In 1970, he had a stroke which confined him to a wheelchair and relegated his performing days to old film clips and scrapbooks. His circle of friends and old cronies stayed with him to the end, regardless, until his heart ceased on January 20, 1980. If any comedian could truly be called a one of a kind, then Jimmy Durante deserves that accolade, and much, much more.