Bartolomeo Durante and Rosa Lentino, both from Salerno, came to New York in the 1870s and 80s, respectively. They had four children. Their youngest, James “Jimmy” Francis, was born on February 10, 1893. As soon as he could, their little boy pecked at the keys on any piano he came across. It was clear that he was a natural. By the time he was 16, Jimmy was playing in bars and clubs all around New York City.
By the late 1910s Jimmy had teamed up with entertainers Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson. The three performed at various vaudeville shows and opened their own place, Club Durant, in 1919. They quickly made a name for themselves and were seen on Broadway and on the big screen in Show Girl, The New Yorkers, and Roadhouse Nights. After being approached for solo gigs Jimmy decided to go out on his own.
While Jimmy continued to perform on Broadway and in movies, he found his celebrity while acting on the radio. In 1933, he began to appear in Eddie Cantor’s NBC show and eventually became its host. Jimmy was also asked to guest star on a variety of popular shows during that time. In 1943, Jimmy teamed up with Garry Moore for The Durante-Moore Show which proved to be an instant hit. After Garry left, the show was renamed The Jimmy Durante Show which broadcast for three years.
Following the decline of radio, Jimmy made the switch to television in 1950 and co-starred in the variety series The Big Show and Four Star Revue. In 1954 he was given his own series The Jimmy Durante Show which aired on NBC from 1954-1956. His last film role was a few years later in the critically acclaimed movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Jimmy was later asked to provide his voice and likeness for the 1969 CBS special Frosty the Snowman. The classic film and title song continues to be broadcast on television and radio every holiday season.
Jimmy retired from performing in 1972, and passed away in 1980. From the 1920s to the 1970s he became one of the most popular and recognized entertainers in America. His gravelly voice and New York accent were part of his niche, and his distinct voice is still cherished by new generations every year.