Stars of Vaudeville #117: Jimmy Durante
In a field where enthusiasm was everything, Jimmy Durante wrote the book. If somebody laughed at one of his jokes, “I got a million of ‘em” was his gleefully shouted reply.
Blessed with a physiognomy that practically dictated a career in show business (that or a life of crime), exuberance radiated out of him like sunbeams. Born with an extremely large proboscis (the famous “Schnozolla”), he was also afflicted with tiny “piggy” eyes, a diminutive chin, a very small body (5’4”, 135 lbs.) and premature baldness. Added to that was a peculiar hoarse voice, a “dese” and “dem” New York accent, and a natural disinclination to book learning that had him checking out of school in the seventh grade.
He was to make assets out of all of these attributes, despite the fact that other people would have considered them tough breaks. The physique (well, the nose, really) became his material, and he exaggerated his lack of education by peppering his speech with a beguiling combination of malapropisms and jazz age slang (“hot-cha-cha” was one of his). Listening to him tell any anecdote is like a window into another culture: “So I goes into de jernt and I says to de guy,” is the way he talked. He was such a “character” that he actually had two straight men, Clayton and Jackson, who patronizingly fed him lines as though he were a child, an animal or a sideshow freak. Clayton, Jackson and Durante were only in vaudeville for two years, and while they were there they headlined the whole time, giving them a perfect (if skewed) record in the show business annals.
James Francis Durante was born in New York’s Lower East Side in 1893., the son of Italian immigrants. His father’s skills as a barber allowed for a respectable working class living in a neighborhood where many of the people were destitute. Teased mercilessly about his nose as a child, his gentle nature led him to laugh it off. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider a number of other responses – think of what Pete Townsend did to all those guitars.
Jimmy’s father was a music lover, so much so that he traded a lifetime supply of haircuts to one of his cousins in exchange for a second-hand piano, or as Jimmy would say, “pee-YAN-a”. Jimmy hated his classical lessons, however, and gravitated naturally to ragtime. It was in this capacity that the show business world first knew him, and he never strayed very far from his roots. Rudy Blesh once called him “The best white ragtime piano player who ever lived.” As a teenager, Jimmy was already sneaking into saloons to observe the “professors” play barrelhouse. He left school in the 7th grade to take a job as a silent movie accompanist. By 1910, he was working regularly at such Coney Island dives as Diamond Tony’s and the legendary Carey Walsh’s, where he worked with Eddie Cantor (see below).
Being a honky-tonk musician was an unbelievable grind. Jimmy was expected to play nonstop, from 7 p.m. to dawn, with no breaks. Of Diamond Tony’s, he said “It was the kind of a job if I wanted to go to the gent’s room, the boss’d say, ‘What you tryin’ to do? Take advantage?’” When Durante’s cousin died in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the boss chewed him out for taking time off to go to the funeral.
In 1915 things improved for him somewhat. A gig as musical director at the Alamo, a Harlem night club, allowed him to pick and hire his own band. At this time, he began to work with his longtime partner Eddie Jackson, who sang (“Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” was a favorite) and did cakewalks. In this period Durante was first dubbed “Schnozzolla” by Jack Duffy of the vaudeville team of Bernard and Duffy (prior to this, he’d always been “Ragtime Jimmy”). In 1919, the Volstead Act and Prohibition took effect, and these years and this milieu were truly the making of Jimmy Durante. Though not a crook himself, he was at home in this semi-criminal environment. Prohibition was the great leveler. Since it made a criminal out of everyone who took a drink, and nearly everyone took a drink, there was a certain democratizing effect, a bonding similar to the one hippies no doubt shared when they passed a joint around sixty years later. “It’s us against the world”. Durante had this kind of rapport, almost a sort of lovemaking with his audience.
In 1922, he became the bandleader at a Ritzier club called Nightingale’s. Here he started to increase the amount of patter for which he was to become famous, the exuberant and anarchistic spirit, which prompted him to shout “Stop da music! Stop da music!” and get off a few one-liners before finishing a number.
In 1923, Durante and Jackson opened their own speakeasy, the Club Durant. The story goes they ran out of money before they could paint the “e”. At first there were very few customers, until a vaudeville softshoe man named Lou Clayton, a former partner of Ukulele Ike, came in and liked what he saw. A real hail-fellow-well-met, he encouraged his seemingly limitless supply of friends (many of whom were influential gangsters) to come down and check out the club. The club full of his buddies, Clayton now joined the act, and they became “Clayton, Jackson and Durante”, perhaps the worst name for an act in show business history, though it did have the virtue of being accurate. More appealing was their tagline “Three Sawdust Bums” , the name suggesting a saloon atmosphere, although its doubtful that Durante actually sprinkled sawdust on the floor of his swank nightclub, no matter how much booze was spilled there.
Clayton and Jackson were indistinguishable in performance, the pair of them basking in Durante’s glow, and throwing ten-dollar words from the dictionary at him to mangle and toss back. The beauty of the set-up here was the club’s proximity to Broadway (it was at 232 West 58th Street). The casts of all the big Broadway shows would come over and watch Jimmy perform after the curtain rang down on their own performances. In this way, Durante cultivated the appreciation of such powerful fans as W.C. Fields and Will Rogers, who would come over after the Follies. An atmosphere of joyful chaos reigned, where not only Clayton and Jackson, but celebrities from the audience might grab Jimmy’s attention whereupon he would stop and complain “everybody wants ta get into de act!” The act would frequently get out of hand, and the climax, in which a piano was smashed to pieces, was just another way Durante resembled Pete Townsend of the Who.
In 1925, Club Durant was shut down and padlocked by the authorities and Clayton, Jackson and Durante continued to gig in nightclubs for the next couple of years. In 1927, already stars, they finally made the move to vaudeville with a booking first at Lowe’s State, then at the Palace, where they are held over three weeks. They played the Palace numerous times during the next two years, and also mounted a highly successful tour of the Orpheum circuit.
In 1929, while still playing vaudeville and speakeasies, they were cast in their first book musical, Ziegfeld’s Show Girl. Their first film Roadhouse Nights was released in 1930.
The following year, Durante signed a contract with MGM, which effectively cut Clayton and Jackson out of the picture for good, although the loyal Durante kept them on salary from here on in, Clayton as his manager, and Jackson as his Man Friday. Durante starred in a series of mostly terrible films over the next 30 years, notably a notoriously bad series of pictures wherein he was unaccountably paired with a drunken and no-longer-funny Buster Keaton.
A far more impressive record of Durante’s talent is his legacy of musical recordings, recorded from the 1920s-1960s. These are pure, distilled Durante, each song in the catalog another piece in the puzzle of this delightful character. Famous titles include his theme song “Inka Dinka Doo”, “I’m Jimmy the Well Dressed Man”, “You Gotta Start Off Each Day With a Song” “I Can Do Without Broadway, But Can Broadway Do Without Me?”, “The Day I Read a Book”, and “It’s My Nose’s Birthday” are a sampling of the scores of titles he produced over the years. As with Bob Dylan much later (think “Blonde on Blonde”) these are songs that only make sense when sung by the songwriter – they are by, of, and for Durante to sing in his highly idiosyncratic style, with his highly individual personality. Many of these cuts are so beloved that film-makers have plundered them for their soundtracks. His cover of “Young at Heart” is used in the 1991 Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers. The 1993 film Sleepless in Seattle uses his version of “As Time Goes By” and “Make Someone Happy”.
The television legacy is also impressive. While a radio show in the mid-40s with Gary Moore was very popular, the added visual element of TV allowed Durante to add his considerable physical presence to the performance matrix. Unencumbered by the straightjacket of plot as in films, the TV variety format allowed Durante to do what he did best, play piano, sing and clown around with the audience – in essence re-creating the magic of the Club Durante. 1950, he was one of four hosts who switched off each week on The Four Star Revue, alternating with Ed Wynn, Jack Carter and Danny Thomas. The closing ritual for this show has been called the best ever. First Durante would say goodnight to the audience, followed by the sentimental “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash (a nickname for his wife, although no one knew it at the time), wherever you are.” Then he would put on his hat and trenchcoat, and exit, by walking from one pool of spotlight to another, until you saw him and the cast at the other end of the studio before the final credit crawl. In the 1954-55 season, he took over Texaco Star Theatre for Milton Berle (alternating with Donald O’Connor), and the following season, he had his own show The Jimmy Durante Show. Lou Clayton had died in 1950, but Eddie Jackson is frequently visible on these TV outings, enthusiastically cutting up with Jimmy as he always had.
Throughout these many other careers, stage appearances continued. There were large scale book musicals like Billy Rose’s Jumbo in 1935, and Red. Hot and Blue, with music by Cole Porter, in which Durante co-starred with Bob Hope and Ethel Merman in 1936. (Note that the Cole Porter song You’re the Top includes a reference to Durante’s nose!) Night club dates persisted through the 40s, 50s and into the 60s.
Durante continued to work right up into a stroke felled him in 1972. There was the 1963 film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (his last), his 1969 narration of the perennial children’s animated TV classic Frosty the Snowman, and one final TV series with the Lennon Sisters of Lawrence Welk fame in 1969-70. Following the stroke (and subsequent ones), Jimmy was almost completely debilitated. He finally stepped into that last spot light in 1980. Today, Durante remains one of the all time most popular bobble-headed bar trinkets, up there with Groucho, W.C. Fields and Mae West.
To learn about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc