Jimmy Durante Biography

James Francis Durante, 10 February 1893, New York City, New York, USA, d. 29 January 1980, Santa Monica, California, USA. A unique entertainer: a comedian, actor and singer whose straight-legged strut, outsize nose (which brought him the nickname ‘Schnozzola’) and a penchant for mangling the English language (‘Da hours I worked were eight to unconscious’) made him a much-loved character throughout the world. The son of immigrant French-Italian parents, Durante taught himself to play ragtime on a piano his father bought him when he was 12. While in his teens he played in New York clubs and gangster hangouts, and later had his own six-piece jazz band in New Orleans.

In the early 20s Durante ran his own speakeasy, the Club Durant, with his partners, dancer and businessman Lou Clayton and song-and-dance-man Eddie Jackson. When the trio began to receive ‘offers that they couldn’t refuse’ from certain shady characters, they gave up the club and toured as a vaudeville act. They also appeared in the Broadway musicals Show Girl and The New Yorkers (1930). In 1931 the partnership split up and Durante signed a contract with MGM, going on to make nearly 40 films. In the 30s these included musicals such as Roadhouse Nights, The Cuban Love Song, The Phantom President, Blondie Of The Follies, Broadway To Hollywood, George White’s Scandals, Palooka, Strictly Dynamite, Hollywood Party, She Learned About Sailors, Sally, Irene And Mary, Little Miss Broadway, and Start Cheering (1938). During that period Durante also starred in several Broadway musicals, Strike Me Pink, Jumbo, Red, Hot And Blue!, Stars In Your Eyes, and Keep Off the Grass (1940), as well as performing his comedy act at the London Palladium. He was successful on radio, too, and was teamed with straight man Garry Moore in The Camel Comedy Hour from 1943-47. After that Durante had his own show for three years before he moved into television with the comedy-variety All Star Revue (they called him ‘TV’s newest and freshest face’ - he was 57), and later, The Jimmy Durante Show in a nightclub setting similar to the old Club Durant with his old friend Jackson. In 1952 he was back at the London Palladium and played other theatres and important clubs. Throughout the 40s and 50s he continued to appear in film musicals such as Melody Ranch, This Time For Keeps, Two Girls And A Sailor, Music For Millions, Two Sisters From Boston, It Happened In Brooklyn, and On An Island With You.

In 1960 Durante was one of the guest stars in Pepe, and, two years later, co-starred with Doris Day in Billy Rose’s Jumbo. His final film appearance was a cameo role in that orgy of slapstick (or slapschtik), It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), but he remained popular on US television shows in such as Jimmy Durante Meets The Seven Lively Arts, Jimmy Durante Presents The Lennon Sisters and The Hollywood Palace. In 1960, at the age of 67, he was married for the second time (his first wife died in 1943) to the actress Margaret Alice Little, an actress he had been dating for 16 years. Four years later he was honoured for his 50 years in showbusiness with a lavish ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. His other awards included Best TV Performer (Motion Picture Daily 1951), George Foster Peabody Award (1951), and Citation Of Merit, City Of New York (1956), and Special Page One Award (1962).

Durante was the composer or co-composer of several of his most popular numbers, including his trademark ‘Inka Dinka Doo’, and others such as ‘Umbriago’, ‘So I Ups To Him’, ‘Start Off Each Day With A Song’, ‘Can Broadway Do Without Me?’, and ‘Jimmy, The Well Dressed Man’. Several of these, and others that he did not write but are indelibly associated with him such as ‘September Song’, were featured in two tribute shows, both entitled Durante, which played in Hollywood and San Francisco in 1982 and 1989. No doubt Durante’s immortal protest ‘Everybody wants to get into the act’ and his closing message ‘Goodnight, Mrs, Calabash, wherever you are’, also cropped up in these celebrations of this loveable clown who was much-missed after he died in 1980 following several years of ill health.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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