Jimmy Durante was born on February 10, 1893 to Italian immigrants, Rosa and Bartolomeo Durante. He became famous during the 1920’s doing vaudeville and radio and his popularity continued all the way through to the 1970’s. He had a distinct sound and had many jokes about his “Schnozzola,” which referred to his big nose.
Jimmy Durante only made it to the eighth grade, when he dropped out to become a ragtime pianist. He became known as, “Ragtime Jimmy” on the New York City piano bar circuit. He was an early white jazz musician and his was a wild crowd. In 1917, when New Orleans Jazz arrived in New York in the form of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Jimmy was in the audience and immediately invited them to perform at the Alamo in Harlem, where he also performed. It wasn’t long until he was forming his own New Orleans Jazz band and he called it, “Durante’s Jazz and Novelty Band.” His band went through a few different names such as, “New Orleans Jazz Band,” “Original New Orleans Jazz Band” and then, “Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band.”
He began in vaudeville in the 1920’s, performing with two other gentlemen and the comedic trio was known as, “Clayton, Jackson and Durante.” The trio ended up in a movie and a Broadway play. Jimmy Durante got solo roles in the movies and on Broadway, become quite popular. In 1933, he appeared on The Chase and Sandborn Show, hosted by Eddie Cantor and in 1934, he took over the show when Cantor departed. He would often joke that he was writing a symphony and what he would call the finished masterpiece is, “Inka Dinka Do.” He wrote the music and fellow songwriter, Ben Ryan wrote the lyrics of “Inka Dinka Do” and for the rest of Durante’s life, this was his theme song.
In 1935, he starred in The Jumbo Fire Chief Program. In 1945, he and Garry Moore starred in The Durante-Moore Show. Durante became even more popular and penned the catchphrase, “Dat’s my boy dat said dat!” In 1947, Moore left the show and the show was called, “The Jimmy Durante Show.” At the end of his radio shows, he would sign off with the catchphrase, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” For quite a few years, he told no one what it meant and there were many speculations as to what this meant. Finally, in 1966, he revealed that Mrs. Calabash was his petname for his first wife, Jeanne, who died in 1943. During their marriage, they drove cross country and visited a small town that was called Calabash. Jeanne loved the name and this was his secret name for her.
Just like other radio stars, when television came along, he easily made the move and starred in his own show, as well as appearing as a guest on many other popular shows that were popular in the golden age of television. He continued making guest appearances throughout the sixties and seventies. He narrated the Rankin-Bass version of Frosty the Snowman. You can still see the reruns during the Christmas season on television. He also became very well-known for his Kellogg’s Corn Flake commercials during the 1960’s.
He recorded a best-selling album in 1963, called September Song, which was filled with pop standards, such as, “As Time Goes By” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Durante had a stroke in 1972 and he retired from show business at that time. In 1980, at the age of 86, he died of pneumonia.