KIndred’s Special: Take a Bow, Jimmy! A Comedy Genius

It may be that most viewing this article and today’s column will not find the name Jimmy Durante on anyone’s lips.  I grew up with him, his radio and TV shows were a part of my life.  Full of compassion, a true clownish comedian who could devise simple and yet effect audience appeal that made you love the man!  You sensed a close brotherhood because he spoke with that loveable slang that everybody knew even if they never heard it before.  He was Jimmy Durante but even better known as ‘Schnozzola’.

He came out of the depression years and he made people laugh in many settings.  One time he had to take a flight on an airplane, said to be his first ever.  He did what he always did–made people laugh and have a good time.  I can picture him with his felt hat and big schnooze, his distinctive trademark of a Punchinello nose.  When the passengers laughed, they all forgot their worries for a little while.  People came on board as strangers and departed as friends–that was the Schnozzola!

One of his favorite sayings was probably coined when he was just a kid.  He’d go down the  street and he would hear, “Look at da big nosed kid!” Years later when I would come out on stage, laughing and kidding about my big beak, at no time was I ever happy about it.  He grew up to accept his looks which became one of his trademarks in the act.  He would chirp up with, “Dem’s da conditions dat prevail.”  One of his decidedly remembrances from those nasty comments about his appearance as a child found a bounty within his act on stage. He often told the story that he could remember when he was born and held by a distraught midwife on February 10th 1893 when she protested, “Dis ain’t da baby–it’s da stork!”  Jimmy always joked about it but it was a secret sorrow to him all his life.

His rink-a-dink piano playing led to a spot with the Club Alamo in Harlem; he got a chance to do some act hiring. He hired Eddie Jackson who sang and danced. Jimmy picked his songs and dance numbers he joined Jimmy’s act. Jackson said, “When you go on stage with that man, you’re in.”  Then happy time came when a young singer by the name of Jeanne Olson came to the Alamo. Three years later they were married. On top of this, a friend suggested they start their own place the Club Durant that opened in January 1923.  Jimmy made Eddie a partner.  He loved and was always helping the down on luck vaudeville stars and he picked up his friend Lou Clayton, thus came the comedy team of Clayton, Jackson and Durante.  They were full of gags.  One of the best and often spoke was a skit about a blind date. “I walked over to the telephone–pickin’ up the receiver, I said ‘Hello’ and she sez, ‘Hello, come right over.’ When I got dere, she took one look at my nose and said,’You sure musta hurried. You forgot to hang up da phone!'” When Jimmy got a longterm Hollywood  contract the team broke up.  Jimmy hired Clayton as his manager. Success came in 20 films in 10 years, and several Broadway musicals.  Around Christmas 1942 Jimmy was not doing well because Jeanne had cancer and very ill.  He was taking care of her and she said he should take a job and the following morning he got a call that Jeanne died.  Then Jimmy got the old act together again.  This is pretty much where I came in the picture.

Garry Moore had a radio show and I remember a college sketch that went: “Ya know, Junior, dis college is a serious ting wid me. I get to the classroom every morning at four o’clock.  Moore played the straight man setting up the punch line. ‘Four o’clock in the morning! What do you take?’ Jimmy came back with the quip, “Oh, the usual tings–a pail and a mop!” On both radio and TV shows, he always closed with a serious and tender, “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash–wherever you are.”  Mom, Dad, Grandma, and I along with millions of folks across the country and maybe the world never was told by Jimmy Durante just who was this lady.  As far as I know, no one ever knew.  He took this secret with him to the grave.

Those who were down on their luck as Jimmy called it, Clayton was forced to put him on an allowance and he is said to give most of that away. Sometimes he was teased about it but came back with a statement you could not find fault with, “Maybe we ain’t born equal, but it’s a cinch we all die equal.”

1950 was a major change in Jimmy’s life.  His long time manager and partner Lou Clayton died of cancer.  Jimmy spent millions to the Damon  Runyon Foundation for Cancer Research; his move to TV made him a sensation because people could see him; he wrote many songs for the piano and his comedy made him a household word in humor.

Jimmy eventually married 17-years after Jeanne’s death.  Marjorie Little was 39 and Jimmy was 67.  They adopted a little girl they named Margie and called her CeCe. Jimmy died in January 1980 when she was 18;  on his casket was a worn and battered fedora–his long time trademark.  As I write this I still can see him singing “Young at Heart” and his final curtain call, GOOD-NIGHT, MRS. CALABASH-WHEREVER YOU ARE.

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