Known to friends, family and fans as “The Schnozzola” because of his Cyrano-sized nose, American entertainer Jimmy Durante was the youngest child of an immigrant Italian barber. Fed up with his schooling by the second grade, Durante dedicated himself to becoming a piano player, performing in the usual dives, beer halls and public events. He organized a ragtime band, playing for such spots as the Coney Island College Inn and Harlem’s Alamo Club.
He secured two long-lasting relationships in 1921 when he married Maud Jeanne Olson and formed a professional partnership with dancer Eddie Jackson; two years later Jimmy Durante and Jackson combined with another dancer, Lou Jackson, to form one of the best-known roughhouse teams of the 1920s. Clayton, Jackson and Durante opened their own speakeasy, the Club Durant (they couldn’t afford the “E” on the sign), which quickly became the “in” spot for show-business celebrities and the bane of Prohibition agents.
Jimmy Durante was clearly the star of the proceedings, adopting his lifelong stage character of an aggressive, pugnacious singer, yelling “Stop the music” at the slightest provocation and behaving as though he had to finish his song before the authorities hauled him away for having the nerve to perform. Durante’s trio went uptown in the Ziegfeld musical Show Girl in 1929, the same year that Durante made his screen debut in Roadhouse Nights.
Though popular in personal appearances, Durante’s overbearing performing style did not translate well to movies, especially when MGM teamed the megawatt Durante with stone-faced comedian Buster Keaton. Though Durante and Keaton liked each other, their comedy styles were not compatible. Durante had reached his peak in films by 1934, and was thereafter used only as a specialty or in supporting roles. On stage, however, Durante was still a proven audience favorite: he stopped the show with the moment in the 1935 Billy Rose stage musical Jumbo, wherein, while leading a live elephant away from his creditors, he was stopped by a cop. “What are you doing with that elephant?” demanded the cop.
Jimmy Durante looked askance and bellowed, “What elephant?” In hit after hit on Broadway, Durante was a metropolitan success, expanding his popularity nationwide with a radio program co-starring young comedian Garry Moore, which began in 1943, the year of Durante’s first wife’s death (she may or may not have been the “Mrs. Calabash” to whom he said goodnight at the end of each broadcast). Virtually out of films by the 1950s, Durante continued to thrive on TV and in nightclubs, finding solace in his private life with his 1960 marriage to Margie Little. By the mid-1960s, Durante was capable of fracturing a TV audience simply by mangling the words written for him on cue cards; a perennial of ABC’s weekly Hollywood Palace, he took on a weekly series in his 76th year in a variety program co-starring the Lennon Sisters.
Suffering several strokes in the 1970s, Jimmy Durante decided to retire completely, though he occasionally showed up (in a wheelchair) for such celebrations as MGM’s 50th anniversary. Few stars were as beloved as Durante, and even fewer were spoken of so highly and without any trace of jealousy or rancor after his death in 1980; perhaps this adulation was due in part to Durante’s ending each performance by finding a telephone, dialing G-O-D, and saying “Thanks!”