A nose for the limelight.
JIMMY DURANTE MAY BE the only singer in history to be remembered less for his voice than for his nose. Making fun of what he referred to as his "schnozzola" was a staple of a charming, self-deprecating shtick peppered with malapropisms and mispronunciations.
Life on the stage began for James Frances Durante at a Chinese restaurant near his boyhood home in Manhattan's Bowery District. Classically trained on piano but also steeped in black musical traditions, he earned $25 a week as a teen playing ragtime for diners as they fumbled with chopsticks over chicken chow mein.
Durante performed consistently over the years and at age 30 settled into the friendly confines of his own venue, Club Durant, a speakeasy he opened in 1923. There, his act transformed from straight music to vaudeville. But he had to move on when police shut the place down the following year.
Broadway was the next stop for Durante's developing sing-dance-joke routine. He made his debut in 1927's Show Girl, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., of Ziegfeld Follies fame, and starred in six shows before war came to the United States. Meanwhile, he discovered Hollywood.
The war years were peak years for Durante. He starred in four popular movies, showing off his signature vocals in all of them. You're in the Army Now came out right after Pearl Harbor. Playing a vacuum cleaner salesman who accidentally lands in the army, he sings "Vacuum Cleaner of the Day," which he wrote for the occasion.
Durante's greatest moment on film was also his greatest moment in music. It came in June 1944's Two Girls and a Sailor, when he broke into his nonsense tune "Inka Dinka Doo." Anchored by the recurring gibberish line "Inka dinka doo, a dinka dee, a dinka doo," it was classic vaudeville Durante.
Besides his movie work, Durante also kept a popular radio variety show going through the war--the Durante-Moore Show, a pairing with his You're in the Army costar and straight man Garry Moore. Every episode featured Durante singing "Inka Dinka Doo" and ended with him saying "Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." The signoff remained a mystery for years until Durante explained it as an homage to his wife, Jean, who died at age 46 in 1943. On a road trip years earlier, the couple had stopped in a town called Calabash, and he borrowed its name as her pet name.
Durante's success continued long after the war. He remained on the radio, added television, and even toured once with operatic soprano Helen Traubel. In the end, he was still known for his nose, but it was really his dese-and-dose Bowery accent, delivered in that gravelly baritone, that cinched his fame.
editor of America in WWII