On Aug. 19, 1959, the entertainer Jimmy Durante sat down in a makeup artist’s chair in Hollywood determined to create a lasting gift for the nation. What the Smithsonian Institution needed, Durante decided, was a plaster cast of his magnificent nose.
It was doubtless Durante’s press agent who cooked up the scheme. There’s nothing a press agent loves more than a good gimmick, and as it was the entertainer’s 50th anniversary in showbiz, this seemed to fit the bill.
Durante (1893-1980) was a singer and comedian who rose through the ranks of vaudeville, starred on Broadway, and found success on radio and in motion pictures. Because of his outsize nose — an appendage of truly Cyrano de Bergerac dimensions — Durante was known as the “Great Schnozzola.”
On that August day 57 years ago, makeup man John Chambers measured Durante’s nose with calipers and a ruler — 77 millimeters from bridge to tip (about three inches) — then slathered the olfactory organ with liquid rubber that hardened in place. Into this mold was poured synthetic stone.
When that had dried, the cast was removed from the mold. The finished product was the size of a Bartlett pear and resembled a miniature Easter Island statue.
The press agent was able to get photos of Durante holding his plaster nose into papers around the country. Mission accomplished.
The Washington Post called the Smithsonian to ask what people there thought of the nose.
“That size is probably exceeded among certain tribes,” one staffer said, “the Papuans in Melanesia, for instance. But it’s not the length of Mr. Durante’s nose that’s astounding. It’s the saliency.”
A quote from a Smithsonian official in another paper seemed open to the possibility that the plaster nose would be accepted: “While this certainly is different, it is very definitely part of Americana.”
The Post’s story was less receptive. “We assume it’s coming,” an official said. “Heavens only knows what we’ll do with it.”
I’m sure the Smithsonian’s curators knew they were being used. They were men and women of science, little concerned with the silly world of celebrity public relations. When Frank M. Setzler, the head curator in the anthropology section, was asked by The Post whether Durante’s nose had a place in the collection, he said: “Heavens, no. Who would want that? The only place we could use it would be in the elephant display.”
A good line that. It would have been doubly resonant back then. In the 1935 Broadway musical “Jumbo,” Durante’s character led a live elephant across the stage. When stopped by a police officer and asked, “What are you doing with that elephant?” Durante would respond, “What elephant?”
In the end, the Smithsonian declined Durante’s plaster nose. Of course, even being refused made good press. Now stories appeared about the museum saying no.
“My nose ain’t never been snubbed before,” Durante said. “It’s mortifyin’. Maybe a fellow Californian like Vice President Nixon could help.”
Nixon himself had a rather glorious nose, a ski-jump proboscis loved by editorial cartoonists.
John Chambers made as big a mark in his corner of the entertainment world as Durante did in his. In the years following the publicity stunt, Chambers became one of Hollywood’s most accomplished makeup artists, specializing in prostheses. He created Mr. Spock’s pointy ears for the “Star Trek” TV show and the lifelike simian prostheses for “Planet of the Apes.”
In 1973, Chambers was involved in another bit of Tinseltown PR. While in Washington on a press tour promoting the latest “Apes” installment — “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” — he turned Washington Post writer Tom Shales into an orangutan. Shales wrote that looking in the mirror left him “slightly traumatized by the whole experience.”
The CIA recognized Chambers’s skill and hired him to make disguises for its agents and operations, including the scheme to spirit hostages out of Iran. John Goodman played him in the movie “Argo.”
As for Durante’s plaster nose, Chambers kept it, or at least one cast of it. He painted it gold and glued it to a green felt backing. In 2011, this nose was sold by a Beverly Hills auction house, along with a scrapbook of nose-related clippings Chambers had kept. The collection fetched $1,100.
It is currently on sale at a different online memorabilia site. Should you care to pick Durante’s nose, it will cost you $1,495.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.