Jimmy Durante was perhaps the greatest song-and-dance man we ever had who couldn't sing and couldn't dance.
Essentially, his act was to come onstage and be beloved. He did it so well you could never tell he was trying.
How will we tell the children what it was that Jimmy Durante did? Jokes -- he had a million of 'em, but they weren't exactly sensational. Songs -- he said "you gotta start out each day" with one, but his voice was purest Brillo.
"I got that note from Bing Crosby," he would say after hitting a high one, "and boy, was he glad to get rid of it!"
And his dancing, it was mainly a strut, with hat held high, mouth wide open, eyes beaming, nose erect. What made it, while we watched it, the greatest dancing in the world?
Durante was boffo in vaudeville -- he started at Coney Island in 1910 -- stormed through a number of MGM movies, and was a smash on radio with Garry Moore. But it was television that, in the '50s, extended the performing lives of Durante and many other great vaudevillians whose careers had been interrupted by the invention of talkies.
In the '50s, on television, personalities dismantled by radio and reduced only to voices were put back together again, and in our living rooms they populated a thriving archive of entertainment history. We had Eddie Cantor, Bert Lahr, Ed Wynn, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, Abbott and Costello, and Jimmy Durante. became Mr. Television, once said that a career's worth of material could be used up in a few weeks of TV exposure, but these entertainers came out of traditions so rich and experience so seasoned that they were welcome beyond the usual limits of audience appreciation.
One knew precisely what to expect of George Burns and Gracie Allen, week after week on CBS, but how masterfully and with what elegance those expectations were fulfilled each week. It was never precisely a shock when Jimmy Durante yelled "Stop the music! Stop the music!" in midsong, when he slammed down the lid on a piano or simply tore it asunder, when he brought out from the wings -- of the studio, of vaudeville and of memory -- the spectacularly entertaing and tirelessly reptitious act known as clyaton, Jackson and Durante.
I still don't know exactly what it was they did. I only know that it brought down the house. My house.
There was always a sentimental appeal to Durante's performances and he was persistently endearing for the role he played -- the Brooklyn wiseacre who worked his way uptown, who rubbed elbows on the air with the highfalutin' likes of Helen Traubel and Ethel Barrymore, who took arms against a sea of pomposities and, by opposing, sank them.
But the real tug came at the end of his appearances, particularly the bi-weekly half-hour he shared with Donald O'connor on NBC, when Jimmy the Well-dressed Man, the radiantly ugly cuss who never ran out of barbs for his own celebrated proboscis, bid adieu to the camera, the audience and the mythical Mrs. Calabash ("where-ever you are") and walked off into four pools of light that trailed into the dark distance.
In his trademark hat he would sing his good-night song which went, with inventive redundancy, "Good night, good night, good night; it's time to say good night. Good night, good night, good night; it's time to say good night. Good night, good night, good night; there's nothing left to say but good night . . ."
It was the sweet, simple, agreeably corny benediction that followed a half-hour of purest rampage. The anarchic streak in Durante's comedy was that of the rambunctious poor kid who crashed a Park Avenue party but who won every heart in the place by the time it was over the guests poured out into the night.
Durante had many careers, really, but they all depended on the irreverence and audaciousness of his appearance -- until the early '60s, when he momentarily became a best-selling recording artist with programs of sentimental songs about times passed, growing old, loving and losing, and remembrance.
The raspy voice and the fractured language didn't impede the effectiveness of these tunes ("September Song," "This Is All I Ask"); it enhanced it. Only Durante could sing "and here is the best part, you have a head start, if you are amongst de very young at heart . . ."
Each time we lose another performer this venerable and this venerated, it's hard not to fear for future generations, and present generations, and the pale notions they will have of what entertainment is.
Today is seems there are only types of performers; constituencies form around one type or another. Faces and styles within the types are vague and intechangeable. The idea that any one of these artists is capable of being fascinating, engaging and enrivhing all alone under a singel spotlight is ludicrous and unthinkable.
Jimmy Durante was one of a kind in a day when there were lots of ones-of-a-kind. You certainly couldn't mistake him for anybody else. And through all those careers of his, he remained steadfastly apolitical and immune to transitory controversies. The only vaguely topical remark I can recall him making was during one especially acrimonious period when he asked rhetorically, "Why can't everyone leave everyone else the hell alone?"
Good night. Good night. Good night. There's nothing left to say but "Good night."