Jimmy Durante was a white bandleader who featured black Musicians in his live band, such as Achille Baquet, who played and recorded in Durante's Original New Orleans Jazz Band (1918–1920).
Durante dropped out of school in seventh grade to become a full-time ragtime Pianist. He first played with his cousin, whose name was also Jimmy Durante. It was a family act, but he was too professional for his cousin. He continued working the city's piano bar 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's first wife was Jean "Jeanne" Olson, whom he married on June 19, 1921. She was born in Ohio on August 31, 1896. She died on Valentine's Day in 1943, after a lingering heart ailment of about two years. She was 46 years old when she died, although different newspaper accounts of her death suggest she was 45 or perhaps 52. Her death was not immediately expected, as Durante was touring in New York at the time and returned to Los Angeles right away to complete the funeral arrangements.
During the early 1930s, Durante alternated between Hollywood and Broadway. His early motion pictures included an original Rodgers & Hart musical The Phantom President (1932), which featured Durante singing the self-referential Schnozzola. He was initially paired with silent film legend Buster Keaton in a series of three popular comedies for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Speak Easily (1932), The Passionate Plumber (1932), and What! No Beer? (1933), which were financial hits and a career springboard for the distinctive newcomer. However, Keaton's vociferous dissatisfaction with constraints the studio had placed upon him, his perceived incompatibility with Durante's broad chatty humor, exacerbated by his alcoholism, led the studio to end the series. Durante went on to appear in 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). In 1934, he starred in Hollywood Party, where he dreams he is 'Schnarzan', a parody of 'Tarzan' who was popular at the time due to the Johnny Weissmuller films.
Many Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons had characters based on Durante. One Harman-Ising short from 1933, Bosko's Picture Show, featured a caricature of Adolf Hitler chasing Durante with a meat cleaver. Two examples from the 1940s include 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 Hollywood Daffy, Durante is directly depicted as himself, pronouncing his catchphrase "Those are the conditions that prevail!" In The Mouse-Merized Cat, Catstello (a Lou Costello mouse) is briefly hypnotized to imitate Jimmy Durante singing Lullaby of Broadway. One of Durante's Common catch phrases, "I got a million of 'em!", was used as Bugs' final line in Stage Door Cartoon.
By 1934, Durante had a major record hit with his own novelty composition, "Inka Dinka Doo", with lyrics by Ben Ryan. 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. A scene in which a police officer stopped Durante's character—who was leading a live elephant across the stage—to ask, "What are you doing with that elephant?", followed by Durante's reply, "What elephant?", was a regular show-stopper. This comedy bit, also reprised in his role in Billy Rose's Jumbo, likely contributed to the popularity of the idiom the elephant in the room. Durante also appeared on Broadway in Show Girl (1929), Strike Me Pink (1934) and Red, Hot and Blue (1936).
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. One theory was that it referred to the owner of a restaurant in Calabash, North Carolina, where Durante and his troupe had stopped to eat. He was so taken by the food, the Service, and the chitchat he told the owner that he would make her famous. Since he did not know her name, he referred to her as "Mrs. Calabash". Another idea was that it was a personal salute to his deceased first wife, Jeanne (Olsen) Durante, who died in 1943. "Calabash" might be a mangle of Calabasas, the California city where they made their home during the last years of her life. His friend and co-star, Candy Candido, (in an interview with Chuck Shaden's "Speaking of Radio" in 1988), reported that he met the actual woman in Chicago when traveling with Durante, but was sworn to keep the secret. Alternatively, Jimmy's friend and radio Producer, Phil Cohan revealed to Chuck Shaden's Speaking of Radio interview in 1988 that it was a fabrication. Needing a closing to his show, the Writers tossed around several names settling on Cohan's calabash pipe as the best-sounding moniker.
Durante 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, which would later inspire the cartoon Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy. The duo was one of the nation's favorites for the rest of the decade. Their Armed Forces Radio Network Command Performance with Frank Sinatra remains a favorite of radio-show Collectors today. Moore left the duo in mid-1947, and the program returned October 1, 1947 as The Jimmy Durante Show. Durante continued the show for three more years, and featured a reunion of Clayton, Jackson and Durante on his April 21, 1948 broadcast.
A Durante-like voice was also used for Marvel Comics superhero The Thing in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Fred and Barney Meet the Thing. The voice and appearance of Crispy, the mascot for Crispy Critters cereal, was also based on Durante. In Disney's House of Mouse, a character named Mortimer Mouse (voiced by Maurice LaMarche) was based on Durante, complete with the "ha-cha-cha!". One of the main characters in Terrytoons' Heckle and Jeckle cartoon series also takes to imitating Jimmy in 1948's Taming The Cat ("Get a couple of song birds today...").
Beginning in the early 1950s, Durante teamed with sidekick Sonny King, a collaboration that would continue until Durante's death. He was often 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.
From 1950 to 1951, Durante was one of four alternating hosts on NBC's comedy-variety series Four Star Revue. He alternated Wednesdays with Danny Thomas (now a headliner), Jack Carson, and Ed Wynn. Durante had a half-hour variety show - The Jimmy Durante Show - on NBC from October 2, 1954, to June 23, 1956.
On August 15, 1958, for his charitable acts, Durante was awarded a huge three-foot-high brass loving cup by the Al Bahr Shriners Temple. The inscription reads: "JIMMY DURANTE THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS Comedian. A loving cup to you Jimmy, it's larger than your nose, but smaller than your heart. Happiness always, Al Bahr Temple, August 15, 1958."
Durante married his second wife, Margaret "Margie" Little, at St. Malachy's Catholic Church in New York City on December 14, 1960. As a teenager she had been crowned Queen of the New Jersey State Fair. She attended New York University before being hired by the legendary Copacabana in New York City. She and Durante met there 16 years before their marriage, when he performed there and she was a hatcheck girl. She was 41 and he 67 when they married. With help from their attorney, Mary G. Rogan, the couple were able to adopt a baby, Cecilia Alicia (nicknamed CeCe and now known as CeCe Durante-Bloum), on Christmas Day, 1961. CeCe became a champion horsewoman and then a horse trainer and horseback-riding instructor. Margie died on June 7, 2009, at the age of 89.
Durante's love for children continued through the Fraternal Order of Eagles, who among many causes raise money for handicapped and abused children. At Durante's first appearance at the Eagles International Convention in 1961, Judge Bob Hansen inquired about his fee for performing. Durante replied, "Do not 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. Durante performed for many years at Eagles conventions free of charge, even refusing travel money. The Fraternal Order of Eagles changed the name of their children's fund to the Jimmy Durante Children's Fund in his honor, and in his memory have raised over 20 million dollars to help children. A reporter once remarked of Durante after an interview: "You could warm your hands on this one." One of the projects built using money from the Durante Fund was a heated therapy swimming pool at the Hughen School in Port Arthur, Texas. Completed in 1968, Durante named the pool the "Inka Dinka Doo Pool".
In 1963, Durante recorded the 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. From the Jimmy Durante's Way of Life album came the gravelly interpretation of the song "As Time Goes By", which 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. Both are included on the film's best-selling Soundtrack. Durante also recorded a cover of the well known song I'll Be Seeing You, which became a trademark song on his 60's TV show. This song was also featured in the 2004 film The Notebook.
At a National Press Club meeting in 1966 (broadcast on NBC's Monitor program), Durante finally revealed that it was indeed a tribute to his wife. While driving across the country, they stopped in a small town called Calabash, whose name she had loved. "Mrs. Calabash" became his pet name for her, and he signed off his radio program with "Good night, Mrs. Calabash." He added "wherever you are" after the first year.
Jimmy Durante is known to most modern audiences as the character who narrated and sang the 1969 animated special Frosty the Snowman. He also performed the Ron Goodwin title song to the 1968 comedy-adventure Monte Carlo or Bust (titled Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies in the U.S.) sung over the film's animated opening credits. There are numerous Durante depictions and allusions in animation. 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 short, a starfish lands on Tom's head, giving him a big nose. He then proceeds with Durante's famous "Ha-cha-cha-cha" call. The 1943 Tex Avery cartoon "What's Buzzin' Buzzard" featured a vulture with a voice that sounded like Jimmy Durante. A Durante-like voice (originally by Doug Young) 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!" The 1945 MGM cartoon Jerky Turkey featured a Turkey which was a caricature of Durante.
Durante continued his film appearances through It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World 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 de old schnozzola!"
Durante retired from performing in 1972 after he became wheelchair-bound following a stroke. He died of pneumonia in Santa Monica, California on January 29, 1980, twelve days before he would have turned 87. He received Roman Catholic funeral rites four days later, with fellow entertainers including Desi Arnaz, Ernest Borgnine, Marty Allen, and Jack Carter in attendance, and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.
He wrote a foreword for a humorous book compiled by Dick Hyman entitled Cockeyed Americana. In the first paragraph of the "Foreword!, as Durante called it, he describes meeting Hyman and discussing the book and the contribution that 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. [Capitalization Durante's] Four little words that make a sentence—and a sentence that will eventually get me six months."