James Francis “Jimmy” Durante was an American singer, pianist, comedian and actor. His distinctive clipped 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 the 1970s. His jokes about his nose included referring to it as a “Schnozzola”, and the word became his nickname.
Durante was born in Brooklyn, New York, the third of four children born to Italian-Americans Bartolomeo Durante and Rosa Durante. He served as an altar boy at New York City’s Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church also known as the Actor’s Chapel. Durante dropped out of school in the eighth grade to become a full-time ragtime pianist. He first played with his cousin, whose name was also “Jimmy Durante.” It was a family act, but he was too professional for his cousin. He continued working the city’s piano bar circuit and earned the nickname “Ragtime Jimmy,” before he joined one of the first recognizable jazz bands in New York, the Original New Orleans Jazz Band. Durante was the only member not from New Orleans. His routine of breaking into a song to deliver a joke, with band or orchestra chord punctuation after each line, became a Durante trademark. In 1920, the group was renamed Jimmy Durante’s Jazz Band.
Durante became a vaudeville star and radio personality by the mid-1920s, with a trio called Clayton, Jackson and Durante. Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, Durante’s closest friends, often reunited professionally. Jackson and Durante appeared in the Cole Porter musical The New Yorkers, which opened on Broadway on December 8, 1930.
By 1934, he had a major record hit with his own novelty composition, Inka Dinka Doo. It became his theme song for the rest of his life. A year later, Durante starred on Broadway in the Billy Rose stage musical Jumbo, in which a police officer stopped him while leading a live elephant and asked him, “What are you doing with that elephant?” Durante’s reply, “What elephant?”, was a regular show-stopper. Durante also appeared on Broadway in Show Girl, Strike Me Pink, and Red, Hot and Blue .