Jimmy Durante (February 10, 1893–January 29, 1980)
When Jimmy Durante was born into an Italian immigrant family in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he was cursed and blessed with a physical curiosity: a bulbous nose. In his early years, he hated his nose because it was often the center of ridicule. One day, several bullies beat him up and broke his nose. When it didn’t heal correctly, his anomalous nose became more pronounced. Despite often being the brunt of jokes, Durante never lost his sense of humor; it was his humor, along with his nose, that would make him a 20th-century entertainment icon.
When Durante’s father bought him a piano at the age of 12, he took to it like a fish to water. He soon dropped out of school and began playing ragtime tunes in local saloons, earning the moniker “Ragtime Jimmy.” In his early 20s, he performed at the Club Alamo in Harlem with his band, Jimmy Durante’s Original Jazz Novelty Band. It was during this time that he obtained a new nickname: “The Schnozzola.” The name in reference to his nose would not only stick, but it would also become a prominent part of his schtick.
Durante and his “Schnozzola” were quite the pair. When he joined the famous Original New Orleans Jazz Band as its only non-New Orleans member, the band began inserting Durante jokes into the show with orchestral emphasis.
As one critic noted, Durante “acted like a heckler from an audience who had finally decided he could do a better job himself and, upsetting all conventional show business decorum, had snuck into the spotlight.”
His dynamic piano playing and perfect comedic timing rocketed him to vaudeville stardom. His rise convinced him to open his own club. He and his two best friends, Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, opened Club Durant (lore has it that the three ran out of money for the “E” on the neon sign), performing their own vaudeville acts. Club Durant, however, was short-lived with Prohibition.
The trio took their show on the road, where they performed on Broadway and on the Silver Screen. But it was Durante who stood out the most, for more reasons than the obvious. He became a radio star and a major draw on stage and screen. He signed a contract with MGM, where he featured in over 40 films.
Durante and Jackson brought back Club Durant as a variety show on the new medium of television. He would sing, dance, and joke his way into the hearts of the American public.
“He didn’t sing good, he didn’t look good, and he had the audacity to keep bringing it up,” wrote music critic Michael Koda. “[But] no one won the hearts of his audience by simply being himself—a comic Everyman from the poor side of town—than did one Jimmy Durante.”
Durante understood that his appearance was unique, and everything he did followed suit. The way he talked, the way he sang, the way he smiled and made a joke: all unique. Durante never let his nose get in his way. In fact, it helped lead the way for him to become the definitive character among 20th-century characters.