Known as one of the nicest guys in show business, the legendary Jimmy Durante touched many lives—including mine. I worked for Jimmy as a publicist for 29 years, and I have many wonderful memories of him.
People across the country recall Jimmy’s comic performances, which often began with a musical fanfare. “Stop the music! Stop the music!” he’d insist, striding on stage and pointing at the band. “Da trumpet player’s only usin’ one lip!”
Or, wisecracking while running a comb through his thinning hair, Jimmy would quip, “It may not be much, folks, but every strand has muscle!”
Funny as Jimmy’s performances could be, my most durable memories are of him off-stage. One in particular stands out. One day in 1952, Jimmy and Eddie Cantor were rehearsing for a television show. “C’mon,” said Jimmy, “let’s take a break and get some tea.” He, Eddie and I walked to a small coffee shop down the street.
We chatted as Jimmy sipped his tea and Eddie and I drank our coffee.
“I know Eddie always wanted to be an entertainer,” I said to Jimmy, “but what about you? Did you always want to be a comedian?”
Jimmy was staring out the window at the rain. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a ragtime piano player. That was really all I ever wanted outta life.”
“But Jimmy,” Eddie cut in, “wasn’t it your former partner, Lou Clayton, who told you to sing and not just play the piano?”
“You’re right, Eddie,” Jimmy replied. “If it wasn’t for Lou, Eddie Jackson and I would still be playin’ joints on Coney Island.”
Jimmy continued, talking about his most famous feature. “Those days, I was ashamed of my big schnoz. I was always touchy about the nose, even as I started makin’ it in the clubs and later in movies.
“But one day, I get a letter from a kid who tells me he has a big nose, too. Up until then, he was always ashamed of it. But now, when he sees me makin’ fun of my nose, all of a sudden he feels proud to have a ‘Durante nose.’
“So, by clownin’ around, I was able to make this kid proud of his. Right then, it was like a big chunk lifted off my back. After that, I kept on laughin’ about my nose, and now I never even think about it. What a load it was off my back.”
The rain stopped as we left the cafe, and as I walked between the two old friends, passersby smiled at us and left us to our thoughts. Mine were good ones, and today, when I hear how many stars are never seen on the streets, I marvel at the freedom Jimmy and Eddie had to live their lives as normally as possible.
How accessible was Jimmy? One morning while I was at his small home in Beverly Hills, we heard a horn honking outside. Jimmy hurried out the front door, dressed in his bathrobe and slippers.
I went out to see what was happening. A tour bus had stopped, and Jimmy was standing on his lawn signing photographs, having his picture taken, waving and talking with everyone—and loving it.
“The drivers know that when I’m home, I’ll come out and say hello,” Jimmy explained later. “It makes people happy, and I don’t mind. They always love it!”
Jimmy and Eddie and others of their generation never let their stardom get in the way of their lives. You saw them all over—shopping, at the races or at a small cafe on a rainy day. I not only miss them, I miss that way of life.
By Joe Bleeden
Las Vegas, Nevada