James Frances Durante – Jimmy Durante – was born on 10th February 1893 in the Lower East Side, of New York City. He was of Italian-Catholic descent, serving as an altar boy at St Malachy’s church for many years whilst at school, the church that he later married in. It is an anachronism then that he is perhaps most famous for his rather large nose, which he nicknamed the “Schnozzola”, which is from the Yiddish word “schnozz”, meaning nose.
He began his musical career shortly after leaving school in the eighth grade, and began performing with his first cousin – also named Jimmy Durante – but soon outstripped the talents of his partner and went it alone. He was a very talented pianist, and a skilled ragtime player. He progressed into the world of vaudeville, adding singing and dancing to his repertoire as well as telling jokes and making comedic interruptions in his own and others’ performances. From the boards of the music hall stages he went on to star on the radio, then film and TV. He retired from performing in 1972 after a serious stroke which left him wheelchair bound, but he still managed to do a couple of advertising voice-overs after that, using his famous New York accent and gravelly voiced catchphrases to good effect.
Catchphrases such as “STOP da music!” and “Dat’s my boy dat said dat!” are instantly recognisable as his, and have been parodied many times over in animations and films. My personal favourite parody/tribute is Spike, the dog in Tom and Jerry who pats his son’s head with the words “Dat’s my boy” in the same deep, gruff voice as Durante.
Jimmy Durante was married only twice during his life, which as a top star of the day seems unusual as many of his peers enjoyed several marriages and affairs. His second marriage, to Margaret in 1960, came 17 years after the death of his first wife Jean in 1943. Known for his love of children, Durante supported many charities and foundations for kids, and he adopted a daughter with his second wife when he was 67.
Despite his death in January 1980, Jimmy Durante’s work lives on in the huge archive of film amassed, and in the songs he recorded and are used even today for films and advertisements. For example, two of his most famous songs, “Make Someone Happy” and “As Time Goes By”, were used in the closing and opening credits respectively to the film “Sleepless in Seattle” in 1993.
I’m going to leave you with a video of his fantastic little novelty song “Inka Dinka Doo”, which I think is brilliant. My favourite moment (being a trumpet player myself) is when the band leader breaks into an improvised solo and Jimmy Durante gives him a full length, up and down dirty look. Wonderful stuff and I hope you enjoy it too.
Happy birthday Mr Durante. Your memory lives on.