Jimmy Durante was born in New York City on February 10, 1893. He left school at a young age; by the 1920s, he had opened his own club and become part of a vaudeville comedy act. Durante later gained fame for his work on Broadway, as well as his appearances on radio and television, and his roles in Hollywood films. A beloved figure in American entertainment, Durante died on January 29, 1980.
James Francis Durante was born on February 10, 1893, in New York City. His parents, Bartolomeo and Rosa, were Italian immigrants living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; his father worked as a barber.
Durante began studying piano at an early age. He left school when he was in the seventh grade, and by 1910 he was playing honky-tonk piano at bars in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Coney Island.
Throughout the 1910s, Durante continued to play at bars and clubs in the city. This work brought him into the orbit of other performers, such as singer Eddie Cantor. In 1918, Durante encountered aspiring singer Jeanne Olson. The two married on June 19, 1921.
Vaudeville and Theater Career
In 1923, Club Durant opened in midtown Manhattan. Jimmy Durante ran the spot along with fellow performers Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, and the speakeasy became a popular hangout during Prohibition. The three men appeared as a comedy team in their own club, at least until authorities cracked down on its illegal alcohol sales.
When their club was shuttered, Durante and his friends found other venues on the vaudeville circuit where fans could enjoy their blend of music, patter and assorted antics. Audiences particularly loved Durante’s style, which featured his self-deprecating humor and unforgettable mispronunciations.
In 1929, Durante, Clayton and Jackson were seen in Show Girl, a musical revue put on by Florenz Ziegfeld. Durante soon became a star on Broadway, performing in shows such as Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers (1930) and Red, Hot and Blue (1936).
Durante also started to act in movies (he signed on with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a solo act, though he remained close to Clayton and Jackson). It was in Palooka (1934) that "Inka Dinka Doo," which became a signature song for Durante, was first heard. However, the films he made in the 1930s paled in comparison to Durante's onstage triumphs.
Comedy Star of Television and Radio
Durante enjoyed great success on the radio in the 1940s, when he was featured on shows such as The Camel Comedy Caravan. He also teamed up with comedian Garry Moore to create his own radio program.
With an appearance on NBC's Four Star Revue in 1950, Durante made his debut in the new medium of television. His trademark humor, raspy voice and the large nose that had earned him the affectionate nicknames of “Schnozzola” and “Schnozzle” helped Durante became a popular TV performer who would be seen on The Colgate Comedy Hour and The Jimmy Durante Show.
Durante found more success with his later films than he had experienced at the beginning of his movie career. One of his last movies was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), a zany caper whose all-star cast included Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman and Milton Berle.
Durante remained married to his first wife, Jeanne, until her death in 1943. In 1960, he wed Marjorie Little. The couple adopted a daughter in 1961.
At the age of 86, Durante died in Santa Monica, California, on January 29, 1980. Durante was remembered with great affection as a kind and generous man who had also been a unique and beloved performer.
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