Jimmy (Schnozzola) Durante, who became one of America's best-loved comedians as a gravel-voiced song-and-dance man with a heart as big as his native New York and a nose to match, died yesterday at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 86.
Mr. Durante was hospitalized Jan. 7 for treatment of pneumonitis, a lung condition. He suffered a stroke in 1972 that left him partly paralyzed and his public appearances since then had been infrequent.
For more than 50 years, Mr. Durante was one of the top headliners of show business. He made it in nightclubs, in the movies, on radio and television, and on records -- a 5-foot-7 mountain of energy who took antic liberties with the English language, interrupted himself and his audiences, tore up his piano as he brought down the house, and left them rolling in the aisles with an exit line that became famous:
"Goodnight, Mrs. Calalbash, where ever you are!"
Mr. Durante entertained through a genius for zaniness. He was a wonderful song-and-dance man who couldn't really sing or dance in the usual sense, a piano player who played by ear, and a comic whose chief props were his nose and the hat on the back of his head. He delivered his lines in an accent unchanged from his boyhood on New York's Lower East Side.
"M'nose was born foist," went a Durante line. "I arrived on da scene two weeks later."
His performance in the first show of a successful television series he did for NBC starting in 1950 was typical.
"Ya gotta start off each day with a song," he sang. "Ya gotta start off each day with a song . . . ."
Suddenly he started yelling.
"Stop da music! Stop da music!," he said. "Which one of dose cameras is showin' da pitcha in Schenectady? I once knew a goil in Schenectady."
Then back to the song. "You gotta start off each day with a song . . . ."
The telephone rang.
"Wait a minute," Mr. Durante cried. "WAIT A MINUTE!"
He picked up the phone. "What's dat?" he said into the receiver. "I'm not comin' in cleah up deah? How's dis?"
He moved a couple feet on the stage.
"No good, eh? How's dis?"
He moved again.
"Still no good? What's dat?"
He pitched the phone over his shoulder to Eddie Jackson, his longtime colleague and sidekick.
"Why, da bum ain't even got a television set!" he yelled at the audience.
And then back to the song. "You gotta start off each day with a song . . . ."
For all his feigned rages there was something about Mr. Durante that his audiences seemed to understand instinctively: He might be baffled by the world, but he was never really angry with it. He was, as one critic wrote, one of "those comic spirits who make the world seem worth bothering about again."
Of course, Mr. Durante knew who he was as well as his audience did. This awareness came through in the titles of some of the dozens of songs he wrote, including "I'm Jimmy That Well-Dressed Man," "I Know Darn Well I Can Do Without Broadway (Can Broadway Do Without Me?)," "Did You Ever Have the Feelin' That You Wanted To Go, Still You Have the Feelin' That You Wanted To Stay?" One of his best known songs was "Ink-A-Dink-A-Do."
His quips made their way into the American language: "Everybody wants tuh get inta duh act!" "I've got a million of 'em," "I'm mortified," and "Dat's duh conditions dat prevail."
There was "Umbriago!" an exclamation of his own devising. It is said he partly made it up and partly took it from an Italian folk tale he learned from his parents. Originally it was said to have referred to a happy gent who always was the life of the party. It came to be used as a mild expression for cuss words.
With such gentle wit, Mr. Durante could rail at fellow-performers, musicians ("Dat trumpet player's only usin' one lip!), waiter, bus-boys, and his audiences and never got out of his essentially modest, good-guy character. And he could break up his pianos and the rest of the furniture.
A measure of his standing in his profession is to be found in the list of people who apeared as his "guests" on radio and television. They included Margaret Truman, Helen Traubel, Ernest Borgnine, John Wayne, Fred Allen, Carol Channing, George Jesserl, Donald O'Connor, Gloria Swanson, and Eartha Kitt.
He made fun with all of them.
Mr. Durante kept up a hectic pace of appearances -- Time Magazine once called him "probably the hardest-working millionaire extant" -- until he had the stroke that crippled him in 1972. Nothing could hurt the place he had made for himself with the public.
James Francis Durante was born in New York City on Feb. 10, 1893. His parents were Barthelmeo and Rosa Durante, both of whom emigrated from Italy.
His father ran a barbershop and there the boy worked while attending school (he never got through the seventh grade), lathering the faces of customers and cleaning up. He also delivered newspapers.
But as he recalled years later. "I'm passin' the joints on Fourteenth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. I peeps under the swingin' doors and thinkin' that duh swellest job in the woild is duh guy what bangs away on the piano. I wants to be him."
His father bought him a piano and so it came to pass that the young Jimmy began banging away on the piano. He worked hard at it while running errands, washing dishes and learning to be a photoengraver. His first break came when he was 17.
He got a job in what he described as one of "the wildest joints" on Coney Island -- Diamond Tony's Saloon.
"Twenty-five bucks a week," Mr. Durante said. "Hours from eight in the evenin' until unconscious."
He had other jobs around New York and in one of them he played piano for a singing waiter named Eddie Cantor. His style was classic Ragtime -- lots of razzmatazz with heavy chords in the bass and light touch with the melody in the treble.
The Durante-Cantor combo earned a good part of their income in the form of tips from customers who asked for favorites. If they didn't know the song, Mr. Durante recalled, they would make one up. When the customer complained, Cantor would say, "You mean there are TWO songs by that name?"
By 1916, Mr. Durante had organized his own five-piece band. During World War I, he played at functions selling Liberty Bonds and one played in a parade down Broadway.
In early 1920, Mr. Durante was playing in the Club Alamo in Harlem. On day a singer named Jeanne Olson walked in by mistake -- she was really looking for the place around the corner -- and Mr. Durante hired her. In 1921, they were married.
It was while he was at the Alamo that Mr. Durante met two other lifetime associates, Eddie Jackson, a singer, and Lou Clayton, a dancer. In 1923, they opened the Club Durant, and their act was a smashing success. It was there that Mr. Durante learned that he really was a comemdian, not a musician. Clayton is credited with thinking up the nickname Schnozzle, or Schnozzola, for Mr. Durante.
By the time the club was closed by phohibition officers six months after it opened, the trio of Clayton, Jackson and Durante was making $3,000 a week.
The demand for Jimmy Durante never really stopped after that. He made his Broadway debut in 1927 in Ziegfield's "Show Girl" and made his first movie, "Roadhouse Nights," in 1930. This was followed by another film, 'Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford," script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
Mr. Durante made numerous movies throughout the 1930s, most of them forgettable. But is popularity on Broadway and in nightclubs remained as strong as ever.
He did two successful shows with Ethel Merman in this period and made a successful tour of the British Isles. In 1943, he played a sensational engagement at the Copacabana nightclub in New York.
In 1944, he was cast in the Hollywood production "Two Girls and a Sailor." This was the beginning of a Durante "comeback" in films. He played an aging vaudevillian who made his way back to the top.
Bosley Crowther, the critic of The New York Times, said of Mr. Durante's performance: "There . . . emerges . . . a sort of undertone of sadness which all great comedians usually have . . . Jimmy never was wanted for affection, but he should be overwhelmed with it after this film."
Mr. Durante was equally successful on radio and television. His radio program with Garry Moore was one of the fixtures of the 1940s and 1950s, and he was the star of several television shows in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1951, when he won the Peabody Award, the citation said:
"Durante's warmth, sincerity and wholehearted joy in what he is doing have done more to raise the spirits of television audiences than any single program in the memory of the Peabody Award Committee."
Mr. Durante's first wife died in 1943. In 1960, he mamrried is longtime girlfriend, Margie Little. They adopted a daughter, Cecelia (CeCe) Alicia. Both survive.
Also surviving is the mystery of Mrs. Calabash's true identity. There were stories that she was Mr. Durante's first wife, but he used to say, "A fella's gotta have some secrets, ain't he?"