Actor, Comedian. He was an actor, comedian, and vaudeville star for over 50 years. He is fondly remembered for his trademark large nose (which he referred to as the Great Schnozzola), gravel voice, and slaughter of words. His signature sign off, "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are" was a tribute to his first wife, Jeanne Olsen, who had died in 1943. Born James Francis Durante in New York City, he served as an altar boy at St. Malachy's Catholic Church in Manhattan. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade when his schoolmates made fun of his big nose, large ears, and stuttering; he would later reveal that he made up his mind never to make fun of anyone else, but to laugh at his own looks. He initially worked the city bars, clubs, and vaudeville shows as a ragtime pianist. Eventually, he hooked up with the Original New Orleans Jazz Band (where it was said that he was the only band member not born in New Orleans) where he polished his routine and timing, using songs to introduce his jokes. By 1920, he had become so popular that the band renamed itself as Jimmy Durante's Jazz Band, and made him bandleader. With the advent of radio in the 1920's, Jimmy became part of a music and comedy trio called Clayton, Jackson, and Durante. His whimsical song, Inka Dinka Doo, was introduced on radio in 1934; it would become his signature song for the remainder of his life. He began to appear in motion pictures, often in cameo roles playing himself, including such films as "The Passionate Plumber" (1932), "Palooka" (1934), "You're in the Army Now" (1941), and later, on a number of television shows during the 1950's and 1960's. Jimmy married his first wife, Jeanne Olsen, on June 19, 1921; when she died on Valentine's Day, 1943, he was extremely distraught, and added the famous signature signoff line to his act; the name Calabash is a typical Durante mispronunciation of Calabasas, a town in California where they last lived. He would later remarry. He married Margaret Little at the famed St. Malachy's, the "actors' church," in New York City on December 14, 1960. Margaret was a hatcheck girl at the Copacabana Club, whom he would court for 16 years before she agreed to marry him. He was 67 and she was 41, but they never looked back upon their age difference except with humor and love. They would adopt a daughter, Cecelia Alicia Durante, whom they nicknamed "Ce Ce." He was well known for his love of children and he often volunteered his services to help raise money for handicapped and abused children. His free work with the Fraternal Order of Eagles was so well known that they named the children's fund after him. In his later years, he would continue to work in television, narrating the children's Christmas special, "Frosty the Snowman" (1969), adding his voice talents to the such cartoons as the bulldog Spike who's puppy son is always getting into trouble (adding yet another Durante quote to posterity "Dat's my boy"), and doing occasional guest appearances. He was often caricatured in film and television by other comedians, since his trademarks were so easy to mimic. He died of pneumonia in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 86.
Bio by: Kit and Morgan Benson
Husband & Father