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Jimmy Durante: Ragtime and Beyond

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Jimmy Durante
I'm not proud – it takes a lot of time and trouble to keep even the smallest nose in the air.
– Jimmy Durante

There are very few people in modern US history who have been almost universally beloved. Betty White was one. Another was James Francis Durante (1893-1980), aka Schnozzola1. In his lifetime, Jimmy Durante charmed audiences with his piano playing, singing (if you could call it that), and comedic mugging. He raised money for charity. Gangsters loved him – but so did J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. They applauded him in sinful Las Vegas and quoted him in the pious Guideposts2. His story is an interesting one – and parts of it are hair-raising. Let us begin.

Ragtime and Speakeasies

In a business where bitter rivalries are everyday affairs, this remarkable man had managed to have but one enemy – the King's English!
– Joe Franklin, critic, quoted in Jhan Robbins, Inka Dinka Doo, 1991, p 166

Jimmy Durante was born on the kitchen table in a tiny tenement in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. The Lower East Side was a crowded place, and almost everyone was desperately poor. Jimmy's father, Bartolomeo, a barber from Salerno, Italy, was no exception. This didn't keep him from being an open-handed and generous man who would cut your hair for free if you couldn't pay. He and his wife Rosa, also from Salerno, doted on their children, especially baby Jimmy. He couldn't help his nose, really, and after all, beauty wasn't everything.

The Durantes were devout Catholics and honest people in a neighbourhood that was filled with poverty and criminality. They wanted their children to grow up to live respectable lives. They scrimped to provide Jimmy with a musical education. 'They wanted me to be another Sergeant Rockinoff3.' Imagine their horror when their son preferred... ragtime, that music of the Devil. Jimmy tried to reassure them that being a ragtime pianist wasn't that disreputable4.

Jimmy went off and got a job as a piano player at Coney Island, the four-mile-long beach area with a boardwalk and amusement park. He played in places like Diamond Tony's, which sounds fancier than it was (Tony's 'diamonds' were from the dime store). He didn't tell his folks about the gaudily-dressed women on the balcony, or how the singing waiters literally sang the praises of the women to the male customers because they got a tip for the 'matchmaking'. One of those singing waiters became a lifelong friend: Eddie Cantor.

Another lifelong friend and partner, Eddie Jackson, started out as a printer's apprentice. Joining show business was probably an improvement in his case. His foreman was named Alphonse Capone. (Capone always treated Jimmy and his friends well when they came to Chicago.) Other regulars at the places Jimmy played had euphonious names like Razor Riley or Pretty Boy Moran. One place closed after there were four murders in a week.

How did Durante manage to be such a remarkable person? His friends wondered, too.

There's nobody as sweet as he is, or as great. This crazy age that produced us sent lots of fellows to Sing Sing, but something inside that man kept him good and honest and kind. When you're near him it's like warming your hands over a fire.
– Lou Clayton, quoted in Inka Dinka Doo, p 142

By the early 1920s, Jimmy Durante was leading a ragtime band. He even composed ragtime music. He composed 'I've Got My Habits On', which became a hit and earned him $1,500 in royalties. Fortunately, somebody else wrote the lyrics.

Irving Berlin, another denizen of the Lower East Side and a much better-known composer, commented on Durante's songs, which included such titles as 'Did You Ever Have the Feeling That You Wanted to Go, Still You Wanted to Stay?' and 'So I Ups to Him and He Ups to Me':

Schnozzola and I worked for the same cabaret... I hope that some of mine made sense. None of Jimmy's did. They were filled with the most wonderful nonsense. One of my great pleasures was hearing him sing, 'I Can Do Without Broadway, But Can Broadway Do Without Me?'
– quoted in Inka Dinka Doo, p 168

The answer, according to Berlin, was a resounding, 'No, they can't do without him.' He loved Jimmy Durante as much as everyone else.

Durante's lyrics bordered on the surreal – with occasional frontier incursions. There is poetry here to rival James Joyce at his weirdest:

Ink a dinka do, a dinka dee, a dinka doo
Oh what a tune, what a tune for crooning
Ink a dinka do, a dinka dee, a dinka doo
It's got the whole world spooning
Eskimo bells up in Iceland are ringing...

Another reason for the 'wonderful nonsense' was that Jimmy Durante and the English language were on a constant war footing. He'd never heard of Mark Twain's admonition to 'use the word, not its second cousin.' A distant relative was good enough for Jimmy, who would describe a terrible situation as a 'catostroke' and advise agitated people, 'There's no need to become historical!' But if anyone had ever told him what Twain said, Jimmy would probably have replied, 'It's humiliatin'! I'm mortified! Stop the music!' Nobody told him that, anyway. They were too busy laughing.

Besides composing ragtime music, in the 1920s Durante and his friends got into the speakeasy business. A speakeasy was an entertainment venue that dealt in clandestine liquor during the Prohibition years. In New York City, the better speakeasies were located in nice neighbourhoods in old brownstone houses once occupied by the upper class. In a speakeasy, Broadway performers rubbed shoulders with society elites. Both rubbed shoulders with the gangsters who provided the liquor. As long as the police got paid and nobody needed a headline bust in an election year, the speakeasy stayed open. Durante's customers came for the music and jokes, not the watered booze.

Marriage and Personal Life

I'm working in an uptown joint in Harlem then, the Alamo, and she drops in looking for a job. The boss eyes her, and says:
'Let's hear you sing. Go ahead, Jimmy, play the piano for her.'
I resent that because I'm busy – I don't know what I'm busy about. But I feel busy. So I play a few blue notes and clinkers. She stops, and she's real angry, and she says:
'You are probably the worst piano player in the world.'
'Them are the conditions that pervails,' I say.
First she busts out laughing, and then she lights up the room with the shiningest smile I ever see.
So what do I do? I marry her.

- Jimmy Durante, 'Four Gifts of Faith', Guideposts, January 1955.

That is how Jimmy Durante met his first wife, Jeanne. They wed in 1921, and stayed together until her death 22 years later. Friends often couldn't understand their marriage: Jeanne could be difficult and had a volatile personality. She may have struggled with mental health issues people in their time and place were ill-prepared to understand. She also had a drinking problem. But Jimmy obviously loved her dearly and was very loyal. He called her from work wherever he was, and rushed to her side at the slightest sign of trouble.

Jeanne's death was a severe blow to Durante. He didn't remarry for a long time. In fact, he courted his second wife for 16 years. When they finally married, he was 67 and his wife Margie was 39. They adopted a baby girl right away. CeeCee, their daughter, became an equestrian and horse trainer.

Broadway, Radio, and Film

The stock market crashed and took a lot of the badly-invested Prohibition money away. Durante worked on Broadway. He appeared in Jumbo, a Rodgers and Hart musical in which he worked with an elephant, among other musicals, good and bad. He also went to Hollywood, appearing in films with Buster Keaton like Speak Easily, What, No Beer? and numerous others. He also started doing radio programs, such as the Durante-Moore Show with Garry Moore. He was a very busy man.

In 1935, Durante went on an overseas tour. He was a big hit in London. In Dublin, he met with the Abbey Theatre actors. He even took off on his own to continental Europe, alarming his handlers. They located him two weeks later in his parents' native Salerno, having a wonderful time.

Television

That Professor Einstein makes even more mistakes than me. I don't think he can count so good.
– quoted in Inka Dinka Doo, p 179

When television came along, Durante went with it. He debuted in 1950 as a host on Four Star Revue. Between 1954 and 1956, he had his own half-hour show, The Jimmy Durante Show. This show featured a famous sign-off in which Durante would say mysteriously, 'Good night, Mrs Calabash, wherever you are.'

Many people had theories about who Mrs Calabash was. They thought she might be a lost love, or a nickname for his late wife. These theories, though charming, were not true. Durante made Mrs Calabash up as a piece of whimsy. Later, he wanted to confess what he'd done – but some monks he visited urged him not to do this. Too many people had become emotionally invested in Mrs Calabash. There was even a Girl Scout troop named after her. Jimmy kept his secret.

By the time Jimmy Durante retired in 1972, he had performed with Rudolf Nureyev, former US president Harry S Truman, and violinist (and physicist) Albert Einstein. He'd broadcast shows from Las Vegas and Hollywood. He'd also raised a lot of money for charities. He'd had an enormously good time, and so had his audiences.

Do Some Schnozzola Research

To complete your education on this musician/composer/comic actor, it is recommended that you turn to YouTube. Here is a brief list of suggested performances:

PS: About J Edgar Hoover

The FBI file on Jimmy Durante released under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that J Edgar Hoover was on a first-name basis with the famous singer and comic. The file mostly consists of friendly correspondence between the two, plus a newspaper clipping about the time the Durantes' home in California was burglarised. But there is also a summary of Jimmy Durante's possible connections to organised crime and communists which makes interesting reading. Here is an excerpt.

Jimmy Durante's FBI file, which includes the information that he was anti-fascist, that he went to a wake for Bugsy Siegel at Eddie Cantor's house, and that he attended the birthday party of Paul Robeson, a 'known communist'.

All in all, even the FBI must have concluded that Jimmy Durante was an asset to America, even if he did have friends they disapproved of.

1The nickname 'Schnozzola' was given to the musician by a gangster in the 1920s. It's a combination of the Yiddish word shnoz, meaning 'nose' (cf. German Schnauze), and the fanciful suffix -ola, as in pianola, or player piano, which no one needed when Schnozzola was around because he was usually busy pounding the ivories himself.2Guideposts is a 'spiritual non-profit magazine' founded by the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale. It prints uplifting stories.3He meant 'Sergei Rachmaninoff'.4But it was. Imagine wanting your son to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition and having him opt to play keyboard in a Heavy Metal band instead.

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