Wednesday, 29 August 2012

America’s Most Beloved Showman

Why is Jimmy Durante great? I’ve been pondering how to word the answer to that but, in the process, discovered some anonymous newspaper headline writer in 1954 did it for me. In one sentence. It reads:

Jimmy Durante, The People’s Choice For Title Of America’s Most Beloved Showman, Is Real

Durante was around in an era where there were plenty of hammy, corny people on stage—and they wanted you to know they were on stage. They were among the top acts, too. Durante was somehow different. He was hammy and corny too, but there was something down-to-earth about him. He laughed at himself as much as anyone else did. And while he loved to put on a show, it seems he was doing it for the hell of it and not to leave you with the impression he was the epitome of show business in capital letters.

The headline above was one of the many that were printed above a weekend newspaper feature story on Durante by noted reviewer James Bacon, then of the Associated Press.

Perhaps to the dismaying ego of the writer, wire service stories are written to be edited. Writers can’t predict how much space a subscribing paper has, so their stories are generally structured to allow an editor to choose X number of paragraphs and drop the rest. Bacon’s piece on Durante, which appeared in American papers as of December 5, 1954, was no different. So I’ve played news editor and cobbled together all the paragraphs from about a half-dozen differently-chopped versions. I’m sure Bacon—and fans of Durante—would be happy I’ve tried to restore his full story as best as possible. The stock photo of Clayton, Jackson and Durante accompanied the article; I’ve substituted others from the internet for the rest.

‘Goodnight, Mrs. Kalabash’
(Editor’s Note—Things were exceptionally rough for young Jimmy Durante. He not only had to fight his way up New York’s East Side, but he had to do it with the extra handicap of taking piano lessons. Now, at 61, he’s not only one of the world’s great pianists, he’s quite a guy besides.)
By James Bacon
Associated Press Newsfeatures Writer

HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 4 (AP)—WHO IS THE MOST BELOVED person in show business?
At least a score in Hollywood, New York or Las Vegas lay claim to the title and all have the press agents to prove it. But the rightful claimant, in most minds, is a little guy with a heart as big as his nose — and no press agent.
Jimmy Durante would be the first to deny that he deserves any such affection. Yet on the wall of his Beverly Hills den hangs a plaque from B'nai B'rith which bestows the accolade on him in gold engraving. It may be significant that the donor is Jewish, the recipient Catholic.
There are a number of reasons why folks feel the way they do.
Durante’s kindness is legendary, his loyalty has a memory that reaches all the way back to his boyhood. He may die broke as a result.
Stagehands get $100 tips after his TV shows. A few years ago he played the London Palladium for four weeks at $10,000 a week. The trip cost him $50,000. He took along 11 friends, only five of whom were needed in the act.
“It was probably da foist and last time any of dese guys would ever get to see Europe,” Jimmy explained.
At 61, an age when he should be slowing down, he still does as many or more benefits than anyone in town. But he avoids the big star-studded affairs, concentrates his talents in such places as obscure parish churches where a pastor needs a little help in building a playground or adding a classroom to a school. As for the big affairs where studio bosses try to outdo each other in commanding talent to appear:
“Dose benefits got too much entertainment,” Durante says. “Why should I knock myself out for millionaires who can afford to pay for entertainment while dese little places that ain’t got none are screamin’ for it? Me and Eddie Jackson always work better in de little spots anyhow."
Jackson is an example of Durante's loyalty. Years ago he and Lou Clayton joined Durante and put on a club act. When Clayton was stricken a few years ago, Durante spent hours at his bedside, was crushed when he died.
Jackson isn’t essential to Durante’s act those days, but he’s on the bill for a steady spot. Jimmy is proud of Jackson’s success on TV, and fades into the background for a moment when he introduces “Eddie Jackson of Clayton, Jackson and Durante.”
HE'S SORRY that Clayton didn’t live to make a comeback in this new medium.
“Lou would have added class to da act,” Jimmy says.
Durante’s boyhood may provide the answer to his character today.
His Lower East Side neighbourhood was as tough as any in New York, and a spawning ground for many hoodlums. Growing up, Jimmy had an extra cross to bear. He was known as the kid who took piano lessons. But now he’s grateful for the insistence of his Italian father that he keep up with his music. Otherwise, he thinks, he might have wound up in Sing Sing, as some of his school chums did.
He could quit with the jokes today, and still be a big star.
“Wit hair,” he conceeds, “I cud be anudder Liberace.”
He’s a legitimate musician, a composer who has written hundreds of songs, including some he made famous. His early years were spent playing in honky tonks, where he was billed as “Ragtime Jimmy, the King of Harlem.” Once, in a Coney Island spot, he teamed up with a singing waiter, a fellow with pop eyes who bounced ail over the floor as he sang. The waiter was Eddie Cantor.
CANTOR RECALLS that musicians from other places used to gather after hours to watch Durante beat out barrelhouse and ragtime rhythms.
“Jimmy was a piano player’s piano player,” says Cantor now. “There was no greater compliment. He was the greatest jazz pianist of that era.”
He still could be, except that his comedy routines won’t let him play more than a few bars at at a time.
Durante and Cantor used to boast to customers that the number never was written that they couldn’t sing and play. It was a gimmick that brought big tips from homesick drunks.
“We could make good 95 per cent of the time,” recalls Cantor, “but once in a while someone would ask for some piece like ‘South Dakota Blues’ which we never heard of. Jimmy would compose the melody on the spot and I would do the same with lyrics. Most of the time, the drunks were happy but once in a while one would squawk. Our stock answer was: ‘Do you mean there are two songs with the same title?’”
When World War I came, Jimmy went in the Army but his knowledge of music got him in the band instead of the Infantry.
“Here I was leadin’ a band I down Broadway to sell liberty bonds. What a war dat was!”
Jimmy took up bandleading after the war, made friends with a strutting singer by the name of Eddie Jackson. Prohibition came and a waiter approached Durante with the idea of opening a speakeasy.
They hired a sign painter to hang up a sign. He couldn’t spell any better than Durante and thus the Club Durant was born. Durante and Jackson didn’t have enough capital to put the extra E on the sign, so it stayed Durant and became one of the landmarks of the prohibition era.
Clayton, one of vaudeville’s top soft shoe dancers, came in later to form the famous team.
At first Durante confined himself to playing the piano and greeting customers. His natural friendliness caused the club trouble in those shaky days. Jackson recalled the time two customers couldn’t get by the doorman.
“Jimmy waved them in, shook hands with them, bought them a round of drinks and the next morning the place was padlocked. They were revenue men.”
Durante played piano for awhile then decided he should try for laughs, too. His roughhouse comedy was timed for that rowdy era. He started playing the piano less and throwing the furniture at drummer Jack Roth more.
Roth, who has been the target for Durante's wild antics for 30 years, claims he's never missed a beat no matter how many things Durante threw at him.
“He only hit me once with the piano top,” says Roth. “It took four stitches to close my head but I kept right on drumming.”
Clayton, Jackson and Durante, along with Texas Guinan, became the top attractions of this giddy period. Sime Silverman, the founder of Variety, became a booster of the three. Soon they were out of the club and playing the Palace.
In this period of 1928-29-30 they would play three shows a day in such legitimate vaudeville theaters as the Palace. In between those legal shows and after midnight they would double into floor shows of such famed Broadway speakeasys as the Silver Slipper and Frivolity.
Their energy was unbelievable. Between the Palace and the speakeasy clubs they were playing from six to eight shows a day between noon and 2 a.m.
Next came Broadway shows and in the early ‘30s the movies beckoned — but only to Durante.
Characteristically, he brought the whole bunch along. Clayton became business manager and when personal appearances or benefits came up, it was Clayton, Jackson and Durante again. Only Clayton’s death in 1950 split them.
DURANTE may have been the big star of pictures and radio but when the trio performed, he was just one of the act.
The town is full of stories about him, some of the best told by Jimmy himself.
‘Way back in 1933, Jimmy met Ethel Barrymore in the MGM casting office.
“A hell of a nice dame,” recalls Jimmy. “She told me how much she and her brudder Jack liked my woik. I told her if dere’s anyt’ing I can do for ya’ — put in a word or somethin’ — I'll do it.”
Durante’s abuse of the king’s English is no affectation. He was brought up on New York’s Lower East Side and quit school in the seventh grade.
But when the Jesuits who run Loyola University of Los Angeles needed somebody for a TV short to plug the educational advantages of the school, they chose Durante.
“The fodders had a lot of trouble with me,” says Jimmy. "I couldn’t pronounce the name of the school. They kept telling me it’s Loyola but I couldn’t say Loyola so I kept calling it Lyola. How about dat? I changed the name of the university.”
ONCE GARRY MOORE, a radio partner of Durante’s, tried to educate Durante so he would pronounce the words right on the radio. It was a hopeless effort and finally one day Durante took Moore aside and said:
“You mean well, kid, and tanks, but if you teach me to say dem words right, we’re both out of a job.”
Durante’s memory, or lack of it, with scripts is famous in television.
“I’m de only comic who don’t need no cards or prompters,” he boasts.
“No wonder,” chimes in partner Eddie Jackson. “You can’t read.”
When Jimmy loses his place in the script, the laughs still fall because no one can get confused quite as hilariously as Jimmy — but it can be a tough spot for a straight guest star.
John Wayne went on one night with Durante in two separate sketches. Jimmy remembered his lines all right, but not in the proper order—or sketch.
"Here I am standing there with egg on my face in the first sketch. If it had been anyone else I would have walked off the stage, but I love the guy so I just stood there looking silly—and an actor with nothing to say can look pretty silly.”
The rabid Durante fan, and there are millions, couldn’t care less about scripts where Durante is concerned. To them, Durante only has to appear and do the same thing week after week — and he often does.
WHAT OTHER COMIC could get by for years, as Durante has, with the same opening and ending and little variation in between? It may come as a revelation to many constant viewers that Durante always starts off with “Ya gotta start each day wid a song,” and then segues into “Let me hear dat note” and “stop da music.”
And his ending, “Goodnight, Mrs. Kalabash, wherever you are,” is easily the most poignant — and oldest — ending in show business.
And who is Mrs. Kalabash?
No one, not even Jackson, knows.
“Many years ago,” confides Jackson, “I asked Jimmy who she was and all he said was, ‘Eddie, be a pal. Don’t ever ask me again’ and I never have.”
Many, who claim to know, say it is just a piece of smart showmanship to put a little heart into the act, also a little mystery, but that it is wholly fictitious. Others say that it is a greeting to a long ago boarding house matron who befriended Jimmy when he was a hungry piano player.
BUT BEST GUESS — and I base that on a reporter’s intuition after asking him the question many times — is that it’s the pet name for his wife, to whom he was very devoted. She died in 1943.
Durante married Jeanne Olson, then a beautiful singer in the night club where the not-too-handsome Jimmy was the pianist. That was 1921.
Other than one rift — when she sued him for separate maintenance for breaking up the furniture — they were much in love. During the last year and a half of her life when she was very ill, Jimmy gave up his career to be at her side.
He never has remarried though in recent years he has squired red-haired Margie Little to premieres and openings. But like anyone else who is friendly with Durante, she must share him along with the rest of the Durante entourage of Jackson, pianist Jules Buffano, drummer Jack Roth, writer Jackie Barnett and a half dozen others.”
“Where Durante goes, everybody goes,” asserts The Schnoz.

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