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The one and only


What’s dat? You wanna know what’s the greatest moment of my life? I’ll tell ya what’s the greatest moment of my life! Was it the moment I was six inches away from John Paul II in New Orleans? No! Was it when, as a little boy, I saw Gene Autry in Macy’s? No! Here it is.

There I was standing on the steps of the Fordham gym late at night in the early 1950s. Inside the band was playing for the junior prom.

Then this car pulls up and, like all the clowns pouring out of a Volkswagen in the circus, out pops this little guy, 5-foot-7, and his entourage. He sweeps up the steps and into the bright lights of the show.

It was the one and only Jimmy Durante. Live and in person!

Somehow the student running the prom had an in with the Copacabana, where Durante was doing his stint, and between acts Durante had agreed to drive up and take Fordham by storm.

They swarmed across the dance floor and onto the stage like cowboys taking over a Dodge City bar.

Jimmy sits down and pounds out some notes on the piano. “What’s this?” he exclaims in his gravelly Brooklyn accent. “No apostrophes!” So he tears the top off the piano and throws it into the orchestra, where his personal drummer, Jules Buffano, catches it before it kills anyone. Then he takes all the sheet music and throws it into the air. And starts to play:

Once upon a time
they sang the vodee-o do.
But that was long ago.
Then they started in
to boop boop adoop.
They got tired of that, you know.

But the tune for you and me
is that swingin’ symphony --
Ink a dink a dink a dinkadink a dinkadoo …

Then they were gone as quickly as they had come. Down the steps, into the car, back to the Copa.

According to the obituary in The New York Times for Jan. 30, 1980, by their star reporter Murray Shumach, Jimmy Durante died the day before. His parish church had both a rosary service and a Mass before he was buried in Holy Cross cemetery. The rosary made sense. I had heard him on Father Peyton’s radio “Family Hour” -- “The family that prays together stays together” -- where Peyton gathered Hollywood stars like Robert Mitchum and Jimmy to recite the rosary over the air: “Hail Mary fulla greats, da Lord is wit’dee.” Except the Times was wrong about Jimmy dying in 1980. He keeps showing up on TV.

First, there’s that commercial for a very expensive car where his hoarse, grandfatherly voice, from a series of recordings he made in his late ’70s when he had lost the physical energy for tearing up pianos on TV, somehow sooths you into buying the car. Whenever the soundtrack of “Sleepless in Seattle” is played, there is Jimmy’s song “Make Someone Happy” setting the mood.

And when National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” was finally ready to say goodbye to 2001, they could pick nothing better than Jimmy’s rendition of “A kiss is just a kiss … a sigh is just a sigh … as time goes by.”

Raised on the old “you-gotta-start-off-each-day-with-a-song” that Durante sang a lot, I never cottoned to the sentimental balladeer. But here I could see the attraction: his articulation, with every word as clear as if he was looking you right in the face as he played and you and he were the only ones in the room. You believed him.

We probably didn’t know that his singing of “September Song” -- “For it’s a long, long while, from May to December … ” -- mirrored his second marriage, in 1960, to the almost 30 years younger Marjorie Little, 16 years after the death of his first wife, who, some suggested, was “Mrs. Calabash.” Though his adopted daughter CeCe said Mrs. Calabash represented all the lonely women in the world.

This very night, as I write, in a Turner Classic Movies documentary on William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (who was pilloried as a ditzy bimbo in “Citizen Kane,”) there was the young 40-ish Durante swooning in Marion Davies’ embrace.

Most important, public TV stations across the nation have been playing a Durante special to boost their fundraising drives. “Pick up the phone and send us money,” they say, “and we’ll shut up and put Jimmy Durante back on.”

“The Great Schnozzola” (Crew Neck Productions) is a little heavy on nose jokes and chorus girls, but Jimmy’s schtick with Donald O’Connor, Sinatra and Liberace transcends space and time. Above all, he comes across as what he really was, a genuinely good and lovable person.

Vaudeville dancer Lou Clayton said, “You can warm your hands on this man.”

Born Feb. 10 in 1893, Jimmy never got beyond seventh grade (where, according to The New York Times, he met his childhood sweetheart, “Mrs. Calabash”). His parents had hoped he’d be a concert pianist, but he went honky-tonk and played in New York bars, forming the team of Clayton, Eddie Jackson and Durante, which became a vaudeville sensation. A string of movies didn’t let his talents show, but his TV show of the 1950s, based on the intimate style and material of his night club and vaudeville acts, though meticulously rehearsed, recaptured the chaotic spontaneity that made him both hilarious and lovable.

But Durante sensed that this new medium was devouring 30 years of material in a few months. He warned, “That box could be the death of us.” Nevertheless, the box that killed his act also recorded it so another generation can discover it today.

It would be an oversimplification to say that 1950s TV was better than today’s. Inevitably the screen reflects, if not the world watching the screen, then rather the commercial powers that control media content by what they are willing to advertise and back.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, upper-, middle- and lowbrow-taste cohabited in the same box. The great comedians and the vaudeville-inspired Ed Sullivan and Colgate Comedy Hour, and the Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca shows knew they were but a breath away from the Voice of Firestone. Audiences would hear and see Wagner and Puccini in network prime time -- right after the trained seals and before Señor Wences who made a puppet’s face with his hand. Nelson Eddy could sing grand opera one moment and be insulted by Charlie McCarthy the next.

Like Durante, comedians were often accomplished musicians as well. Steve Allen, who invented the late-night talk show, was a pianist and songwriter.

In short, the public had access to a wonderful mix of classical, semi-classical and popular entertainment, enjoyed it all, and had a higher level of musical literacy than they have today, when vulgarity reigns on the networks and we must turn to public TV for either a good tenor or a good dead comedian.

Durante could bring on the robust Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel for their duet, “The Song has Gotta Come from the Heart,” and make her strut around like a chorus girl -- and have the time of her life.

True, the networks as well as public TV are showing a sudden interest in their archives. There was a very popular Carol Burnett retrospective a few months ago, and similar shows are planned. New York’s Channel 13 shows Ed Sullivan and Red Skelton after midnight on weekends.

The light opera composer Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote “The Lost Chord,” to assert himself as a serious composer, lest the silly stuff of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” and their other works undermine his reputation. I have recordings of “The Lost Chord” by the greatest singers of the 20th century: Enrico Caruso and Nelson Eddy. ’Tis a solemn work. “Seated one day at the organ, I was weary and ill at ease … ” The musician finds a magnificent chord, then loses, it -- knowing, alas, he will never hear it again until he enters heaven and hears that “grand amen.”

Jimmy Durante’s experience was a little like that:

Sittin’ at my pianer the other day,
my mind was ill at ease.
I was by meself in a mellow mood,
improvisin’ symphonies.
Then, suddenly: Bing! bing!

I’ve found it.
I’ve found the lost chord!
So let’s celebrate
’cuz I’m feelin’great.
I’m the guy that
found the lost chord!
Then suddenly: bong! bong!

What’s that? I’ve lost it.
I’ve lost the lost chord.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I’m gonna’ sit down on
this piano keyboard
until the chord is returned.

Dat’s funny. I usually play by ear.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is author of Dante to Dead Man Walking: 50 Essays on Spiritual Classics (Loyola Press).

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002