Sunday, March 7, 2004

“You gotta start off each day wit’ a song…”

The legendary Jimmy Durante has been gone for close to a quarter of a century, but even those people who have never heard of “Schnozzola” are familiar with his unforgettable catchphrases like “Ev’rybody wants to get inta da act!” and “I got a million of ‘em!” His lengthy show business career encompassed stage, screen and television—but it was radio that made him a household word during the 1940s.

Born on New York’s Lower East Side in 1893, Durante learned to play the piano at seventeen, and managed to eke out a living pounding the keys in beer gardens and nightclubs (he once worked at a club with a singing waiter named Eddie Cantor). In 1923—with his partners Eddie Jackson and Lou Clayton—he opened up the successful Club Durant, a thriving hot spot that soon ran afoul of the law and was closed by Prohibition agents. By that time, the trio of Durante, Clayton & Jackson had a toehold on Broadway, and though they disbanded the act in the 1930s, the three remained friends for life—both Clayton and Jackson became Durante’s business managers when he took his solo act to Hollywood.

Durante’s first radio gig had him substituting for his singing waiter friend on his phenomenally popular The Chase and Sanborn Hour from September-November 1933. He then replaced Cantor on a permanent basis in April of the following year, inheriting Eddie’s sixty-minute show with announcer Jimmy Wallington and orchestra leader Dave Rubinoff in tow. By this time, however, the show was drawing its last breath, and it departed NBC on September 30, 1934.

His next venture appeared a year later in October 1935 with The Jumbo Fire Chief Program—one of the most notorious flops of Radio’s Golden Age. Based on impresario Billy Rose’s stage musical (which Durante was concurrently appearing in on Broadway), it was a lavish spectacle whose weekly $15,000 bill was paid for by the good folks at Texaco. Its extravagance was naught, however—its rating was a dismal 4.1 in January 1936 and it departed the airwaves a month later, following by the stage show which at that time was also awash in a sea of red ink. (Durante would later appear in a film version of the musical in 1962.)

Although he continued on in the public eye, mostly with a series of second-rate films, it wasn’t until 1943 that Durante was presented with a pair of opportunities that would allow him to pull himself out of his then-financially dismal straits: one was a booking at the Copacabana in New York (where he soon packed the place every night) and the other a guest appearance on NBC’s Camel Caravan. On that broadcast, producer Phil Cohan noticed a contrast between the veteran Durante and a young comic also on the program named Garry Moore. Moore had been tapped as the summer replacement for Camel’s The Abbott & Costello Show, but Cohan approached both men with an idea of teaming up for a possible fall series. Fate stepped in when Lou Costello was struck down with a case of rheumatic fever, which forced him off the air and necessitated a quick replacement—the agency, a little nervous about Garry’s youth and lack of name recognition, found themselves sold on Cohan’s idea on a Durante-Moore teaming, and rushed the show into production in only two weeks.

It took some time to catch on, but Durante and Moore found their niche, moving to CBS in the fall of 1943 with The Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore Show. It lasted four seasons before “The Nose” (Durante) and “The Haircut” (Moore) agreed to an amicable parting of the ways. So Durante found himself back at NBC on October 1, 1947 with The Jimmy Durante Show, a half-hour comedy-variety program sponsored by Rexall Drugs. Announcer Howard Petrie would introduce the star as “Rexall’s prescription for a pleasant evening” as Roy Bargy’s orchestra broke out into a rendition of “Inka Dinka Doo” (Durante’s theme song, which he had introduced in the 1934 film Palooka).

Listening to Durante’s Rexall program made me a convert to his unique brand of music and comedy; before that he was always kind of an acquired taste for me. (This stems from the fact that my exposure to Durante was in a series of cringe-inducing MGM “comedies” in which he co-starred with silent comedy great Buster Keaton—though 1932’s Speak Easily is The Blind Squirrel Film Theory™ exception here.) Jimmy’s supported by fine writing, exuberant musical numbers (I love “I Know Darn Well I Can Do Wit’out Broadway, But Can Broadway Do Wit’out Me?”), and a superb cast of stooges including Florence Halop (who specialized in a Mae West sound-a-like named “Hotbreath” Houlihan), Candy Candido (“I’m feelin’ mighty low…”), Alan Reed, and Arthur Treacher, who played Durante’s butler (I guess Jack Carson let him go as a result of The Sealtest Village Store). Later in that first season, comic actor Victor Moore also joined the show as Durante’s foil and “the Lothario of the lumbago set.” There’s even the presence of a young Peggy Lee, who was the show’s female vocalist. I sampled a broadcast from April 7, 1948 last night, as announcer Petrie engages in a little banter with the Schnozzola:

PETRIE: Ah, Schnozz…I’ve never seen you so happy…what’s the cause of all this gaiety?
DURANTE: It’s ineveritable, Howard—you can’t help be…(the audience laughs at Durante’s mispronunciation of “inevitable,” so he ad-libs) that’s what it says…it’s ineveritable, Howard—you can’t help bein’ jolly when ev’rybody is nice ta you…why, this mornin’ on da bus I gave my seat ta a little ol’ lady…and as she sat down, she grabbed my nose and said “As long as you’re standin’, I’ll hold your bundle”…chivalry is not dead…
PETRIE: Durante the politician…always mingling with the people…uh, but Jimmy—do you think it’s wise for someone running for office to openly support another candidate?
DURANTE: Whaddya mean?
PETRIE; Well, look at you…you’re wearing Dewey buttons all around your waistline…are you supporting him?
DURANTE: No, he’s supportin’ suspenders are busted! If da Dewey buttons give out, I’m in trouble…all I got is a Hoover button holdin’ up my undies…
PETRIE: Well, Jimmy…now that your name is on the ballot, I suppose you’ll start campaigning in earnest…what’s the main plank in your platform?
DURANTE: Howard, I got an idea that’ll non compos your mentis…if I’m elected, I’m gonna move all da men outta the state of South Carolina, move in nuttin’ but women and appernt myself Honorary Governor…
PETRIE: But, Jimmy…if you did that, you’d be the only man among ten million women…
DURANTE: Dat’s what I like—even distribution! (laughs) Ah, Durante—you musta been readin’ Oliver Twist, you’re full of the dickens tonight!

On this broadcast, Jimmy’s guest is “sarong girl” Dorothy Lamour:

DURANTE: Ah, Dorothy—seein’ you again fills me wit’ more joy than da tinkle of da Good Humor wagon…whaddya been doin’ wit’ yourself?
LAMOUR; Oh, same old thing, Jimmy…in Hollywood, a girl gets so bored…out every night with men that are tall, glamorous, exciting, debonair…I’m tired of going out with that type of man!
DURANTE: You are?
LAMOUR: Yes…what are you doing tonight?
DURANTE (laughing): I know dere’s a million good lookin’ guys but I’m a novelty…but, Dottie—you and I were made for each udder…can’t ya picture us on a desert island…livin’ an exotic, lazy life beneath da banana trees…just you…me…and Lana Turner…
LAMOUR: Lana Turner? What’s she doing there?
DURANTE: Somebody’s gotta peel da bananas…!!!

Most of Durante’s solo shows available today are from his 1947-48 season for Rexall (I think there’s only about a half-dozen missing), which are populated with guest appearances from the likes of Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball, and Boris Karloff. There’s even a brief four-week period where Durante is off the show due to his being hospitalized, and several big-names fill in during his absence, including former partner Garry Moore, whose December 31, 1947 broadcast with co-guest Red Skelton is a hysterical half-hour of fun.

I also listened to a rare December 24, 1948 show—rare in that apparently only three programs are in circulation of Durante’s 1948-50 series for Camel Cigarettes, which began on October 8, 1948. Bargy, Reed, and Halop made the transition to the new program, and Durante inherited both a new announcer (Verne Smith) and a co-star in comedian Alan Young. Young, who had previously headlined his own series on ABC from 1944-47, brought back memories of the previous Durante-Moore partnership, and even though NBC gave him his own show in January 1949, he stayed with Durante until April, when he was replaced by Don Ameche. The 12/24/48 program is, of course, a Christmas Eve-themed broadcast:

YOUNG: Jimmy, I guess now’s a good a time as any…here’s my Christmas present to you…
DURANTE; Aw, Alan—you shouldn’ta done it…it’s a beautiful gift…I’ll lift da cover (SFX: cover opens, music plays) ah, just what I wanted—a musical garbage can…
YOUNG; Well, Jim—with all your important friends I’ll bet you forgot about poor little me…
DURANTE: Alan (laughing, then ad-libs) he said dat kind of shy…Alan, you’re laborin’ under a mispreaprehension
YOUNG: Jimmy, I’m afraid you’re laboring under a mispronunciation…
DURANTE: Wait a minute…but dat’s neither Kris nor Kringle…here’s my present to ya…don’t spread dis around, but I knitted it myself
YOUNG: Well! That’s a lovely tie—but what’s this lump hanging on the side of it?
DURANTE: Dat’s da big toe…it started out ta be a pair of socks…

Jimmy and Alan are joined by Rose Marie—who, in the 1930s, was the Brenda Lee of her day; a young girl (billed as “Baby Rose Marie”) with an adult voice who appeared on radio with Rudy Vallee and several programs of her own. Rosie does a cute Durante impersonation (Durante: “How do you like dat—I’ve been transcribed to a more convenient body!”) and sings a great duet with the Schnozz to boot. It’s a wonderful seasonal show, with appearances from Arthur Q. Bryan and Ruby Dandridge (on loan from The Judy Canova Show?), and it’s a treat to enjoy both Young and Rose Marie, years before their successes on Mister Ed and The Dick Van Dyke Show, respectively.

June 30, 1950 brought an end to radio’s Jimmy Durante Show, giving the veteran entertainer one more chance to close with “Good night, Mrs. Calabash…wherever you are” before conquering television with All Star Revue (1950-53) and The Jimmy Durante Show (1954-57). The “Calabash” line was for many years the subject of speculation as to just who the mystery woman was; Durante’s widow revealed after his death in 1980 that it was simply something Jimmy had created for radio—but as George Burns observed. “She gave Jimmy one of the most important things any entertainer can have—a great finish.”

I’m a big fan of The Jimmy Durante Show, and what ultimately makes the program so entertaining is the man himself—his gregarious manner and infectious good cheer makes the proceedings an absolute joy to listen. I’ve learned that it’s practically impossible to dislike Durante; he mastered the art of malaprops (I chuckle when he remarks that a gesture “warmed the cocktails of my heart”) long before Jane Ace married husband Goodman or Leo Gorcey became a Bowery Boy. His singing voice, growly and ragged, certainly wasn’t the finest (“I got dat note from Bing Crosby—and boy, was he glad ta get rid of it!”) but could nevertheless put across a ballad that would bring a tear to your eye and a lump to your throat (I think his version of “Young at Heart,” featured in the closing credits of the 1976 film The Front, is miles and away better than Sinatra’s). His partner Lou Clayton succinctly sums up the unique person that was Jimmy Durante: “You can warm your hands on this man.”

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