James Francis "Jimmy" Durante, the youngest child of an immigrant Italian barber was an American singer, pianist, comedian and actor. His distinctive gravelly speech, comic language butchery, jazz-influenced songs, and large nose helped make him one of America's most familiar and popular personalities of the 1920s through to the 1970s. Durante was a vaudeville favorite who remained a hit in the early days of radio and TV. Originally a saloon piano player, he combined his ragged musical talents with a rumpled charm and endless jokes about his nose, which earned him the nickname "Schnozzola" or just "the Schnoz."
Sometime between 1919 and 1923 he formed a trio with Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson. Their crazy act won instant popularity. 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.
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. The act was disbanded in 1931, although it was frequently reunited for special appearances.
Durante then appeared in Strike Me Pink (1933), Jumbo (1935), Red, Hot and Blue! (1936), Stars in Your Eyes (1939), and Keep Off the Grass (1940). The Durante schnozzola also made several cameo 'appearances' in assorted Walt Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons of the period, truly becoming a national star, an instantly recognizable comedic icon.
Another favorite routine was his wild dismantling of a piano. In later years he was popular in nightclubs and films, as well as on radio and television. He had a musical hit with the novelty tune "Inka Dinka Doo" and his famous sign-off phrase was "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." The origin of the phrase "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash" was for many years unknown, but in 1966 Durante revealed that it was indeed a tribute to the first Mrs. Durante, Jeanne Olsen, whom he married on June 19, 1921. She died on Valentine's Day in 1943.
On December 14, 1960, he married his second wife, Margaret Little, whom he had met 16 years earlier at the Copacabana, where she worked as a hatcheck girl. She was 41, he 67, when they married. The couple adopted a baby, Cecilia Alicia (nicknamed CeCe and now known as CeCe Durante-Bloum) on Christmas Day, 1961. CeCe became a horseback-riding instructor near San Diego, married a computer designer, and has two sons and a daughter.
Legend has it that Durante was a shy man, unwilling to draw attention to himself because of the merciless teasing he had taken as a child about his looks. The majority of this taunting primarily focused itself on the size of his nose, which became even larger after a pack of schoolyard bullies broke it and it mended incorrectly.
Throughout the '60s Durante was as busy as ever with more TV and nightclub work. Although his character stayed the same, his twilight years imbued it with an old man wistfulness. At the age of 70, his album, September Song, became an unexpected Top 40 hit in 1963. He made his final film that same year as Smiler Grogan in Stanley Kramer's It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World where his cameo deathbed statement had him literally kick the bucket.
Durante's frail condition worsened through the rest of the '60s. In the '70s, a series of strokes confined him to a wheelchair. He died of pneumonia in Santa Monica, California, on January 29, 1980, 12 days before his 87th birthday, and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.
February 10, 1893 – January 29, 1980
There are a million good lookin' guys, but I'm a novelty