Our Inductees: Jimmy Durante

Biography

Jimmy Durante was the 7th Inductee into the Official National Comedy Hall of Fame®. Durante was an American comedian, singer, pianist and actor. He was most popular between 1920-1970 and was easily recognizable Schnoz, which became his nickname. Durante became a vaudeville star and radio personality in a trio called Clayton, Jackson and Durante. He starred in popular comedies such as Speak Easilty, the Passionate Plumber and What! No Beer?

By the mid-1920s, Durante had become a vaudeville star and radio personality in a trio called Clayton, Jackson and Durante. Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, Durante’s closest friends, often reunited with Durante in subsequent years. Jackson and Durante appeared in the Cole Porter musical The New Yorkers, which opened on Broadway on December 8, 1930. Earlier that same year, the team appeared in the movie Roadhouse Nights, ostensibly based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest.

By 1934, Durante had a major record hit with his own novelty composition, “Inka Dinka Doo”, with lyrics by Ben Ryan.[5] 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. A scene in which a police officer stopped Durante’s character—who was leading a live elephant across the stage—to ask, “what are you doing with that elephant?”, followed by Durante’s reply, “what elephant?”, was a regular show-stopper. This comedy bit, also reprised in his role in Billy Rose’s Jumbo, likely contributed to the popularity of the idiom the elephant in the room. Durante also appeared on Broadway in Show Girl (1929), Strike Me Pink (1934) and Red, Hot and Blue (1936).

Buster Keaton, Thelma Todd and Jimmy Durante in Speak Easily (1932)

During the early 1930s, Durante alternated between Hollywood and Broadway. His early motion pictures included an original Rodgers & Hart musical The Phantom President (1932), which featured Durante singing the self-referential Schnozzola. He was initially paired with silent film legend Buster Keaton in a series of three popular comedies for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Speak Easily (1932), The Passionate Plumber (1932), and What! No Beer? (1933), which were financial hits and a career springboard for the distinctive newcomer. However, Keaton’s vociferous dissatisfaction with constraints the studio had placed upon him, his perceived incompatibility with Durante’s broad chatty humor, exacerbated by his alcoholism, led the studio to end the series. Durante went on to appear in The Wet Parade (1932), Broadway to Hollywood (1933), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942, playing Banjo, a character based on Harpo Marx), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962, based on the 1935 musical), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In 1934, he starred in Hollywood Party, where he dreams he is ‘Schnarzan’, a parody of ‘Tarzan’ who was popular at the time due to the Johnny Weissmuller films.

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