Probably the most beloved entertainer in show business was Jimmy Durante. It is just as difficult to find a disparaging remark made about him, as it is to find one attributed to him.
Durante’s career and longevity were unique in the respect that he was born in 1893 and entertained in vaudeville, theater, radio, movies, television, records and nightclubs.
The Club Durant, of which Jimmy was part owner, opened in 1923. “”If I didn’t open dat club, and become a boss, I wouldn’t a stood up and started singing. . . . I knew everybody, started to give dem da big hello. . . .” The team of Clayton, Jackson and Durante was initially formed here, with Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson. It broke up officially in 1931, but Jackson and Durante would occasionally reunite for a special appearance.
As for Durante’s singing, he personally composed most of the songs that would become associated with him throughout the years. These included “I’m Jimmy That Well-Dressed Man”, “Who Will Be With You When I’m Far Away, Out in Far Rockaway ?”, “Did You Ever Have the Feelin’ That You Wanted To Go, Still You Have the Feelin’ That You Wanted To Stay ?”, “I Know Darn Well I Can Do Without Broadway (Can Broadway Do Without Me ?)”, and “Inka Dinka Doo”.
The Voice and Da Schnoz had appeared together on radio and then on television, in 1953, on NBC’s “Colgate Comedy Hour”. While most people immediately think of the Sinatra-Durante connection with “The Song’s Gotta Come From The Heart” in MGM’s ‘It Happened In Brooklyn’, there’s also a bit of what-might- have-been… and from an almost unlikely place.
Director Frank Capra worked with Sinatra on the film, “A Hole In The Head” in 1959, and wrote: “I disappointed the press by extolling both Sinatra’s talent and his cooperation. Whatever tales of woe other directors had to relate about Sinatra’s intransigence did not apply to my experience— as witness the fact that we finished Hole under schedule and under budget.”
“…Frank Sinatra invited Lu and me to be his guests at the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas, where he was giving solo performances. Important conference, he said. It was during late supper in one of the lounge booths that Sinatra stunned me with his sudden question, ‘How would you like to produce and direct a film with me, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby ?’
‘Geez, Frank !’, I stuttered. ‘Throw in Garbo and I’ll consider it.’
‘Ain’t that the greatest ? Sammy Cahn came up with it. The life of Jimmy Durante and his two pals, Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson. The ups and downs of the greatest team of laff-getters to ever hit show business. You like ?’
‘Does Jimmy Durante like ?”
‘Wild about it. And so is Dino, and so is the Bingle. But we need you, Cheech, to pull it all together. Even-steven four-way split—you, me, Dean and Bing—on everything. I’ll take last billing. We’ll kill ‘em, Cheech ! With that combo, we’ll murder the people—“
“For Abe Lastfogel and the William Morris Agency, putting together a Sinatra-Martin-Crosby package was like trying to stuff four jacks-in-the-box into a cigarette case. Hold one down, the other three would spring out. The preliminaries alone were staggering. Four corporations were involved. Four wrangling over-officious sets of agents, lawyers, and tax experts split fees and infinitives. To appease and coordinate them, a disinterested fifth firm of legal minds was hired. In Hollywood, there was no business but big star business now.”
“Months passed while lawyers haggled, and the three stars busily made millions in recordings, radio, television, and other films. But I, merely the producer and director, twiddled my thumbs and took solace in John Milton’s comforting line ‘They also serve who stand and wait.’
“My old friend and ex-partner, Sam Briskin, had offered the best deal for the Durante story. I phoned Sinatra’s office. Would Mr. Sinatra arrange a meeting of the principals ? He did. Crosby, Martin, Sinatra, and I met for lunch at Sinatra’s Puccini Restaurant on South Beverly Drive. “
“I gave them the highlights of the offer:
1) Columbia will put up $5 million to make film, without approval of script, and without interest.
2) Columbia agrees that Crosby, Sinatra, Martin, and Capra shall each draw $250,000 in salary from the venture.
3) Durante to receive $250,000 for life story, clearances from his partners or heirs, all music rights to Durante’s songs, and film rights to Gene Fowler’s book Schnozzola.
4) Film to be made at Columbia Studios as a co-venture between five corporations: Columbia’s, Sinatra’s, Crosby’s, Martin’s, and Capra’s.
5) Each of the five corporations to own one fifth of the film.
6) Columbia will distribute the film—domestic fee: 25%, foreign: 35%.”
“There was much jubilation and pumping of hands. Greatest deal ever offered. ‘Take it !’ all said. A couple of toasts. All agree verbally. I’m instructed to move into Columbia Studios to prepare the production. The Durante story was on. Hallelujah !”
“I began preparing the screenplay with two pretty good handicaps. One, there were no writers available; the Writers Guild had called a strike. And, two, strike or no strike, I could only hire people with my own money. My wealthy star partners would not advance a dime to the project until their convention of lawyers had arrived at a consensus.”
“On November 11, 1959, I sent my partners a seventy-five page treatment, interspersed with key dialogue scenes. Anyone who had been in film production for over two weeks would have immediately seen that the treatment contained the ingredients for one of the great pictures of all times. But my partners were stars ! Big business ! Presidents of many corporations ! They had flunkies to read for them. Silence. No comment on my treatment nor on my numerous memos.”
“On the fifteenth day of January, 1960, eleven months after Sinatra had called me to Las Vegas… the mob of lawyers, agents, and tax experts that had conceived so diligently in Sinatra’s office for months, now labored mightily and brought forth an agreement that was as binding as the kiss of a whore. Any partner could veto paying any bill. If said male star not agreeable to others, ‘this joint venture shall terminate at the option of any party’.”
“When my temperature cooled to 103, I wrote the following letter to Abe Lastfogel: ‘This agreement calls for four producers. It’s tough enough for one producer to prepare and complete this picture, but with four I can only see confusion compounded… Therefore, Frank Capra and Frank Capra Productions are withdrawing from the co-venture forthwith. Whatever material has been written by Capra… will remain the property of Frank Capra Productions… Will you please notify the other members… of my decision.”
“In Sinatra’s letter (January 26), to Bing, Dean, and Frank, he admits he had four producers in mind at all times: ‘While Frank Capra was to be the individual producer and director, I always thought of this project as one in which all four of us would make the basic decisions…’ “
“A great, great film was killed by stars. Jimmy Durante was heart-broken about the blow-up, but never a harsh word out of him. ‘I guess dey can’t find nobody who looks like me or sounds like me. We had another problem, too—dose tree guys are too busy… dey got too many irons in da fire.’ “
We get a brief glimpse of the potential of Sinatra-Martin-Crosby as Clayton, Jackson and Durante during the finale of Sinatra’s Timex special in October of 1959. After announcing the upcoming film, and a Durante-esque routine, the Jackson-styled version of “Bill Bailey” includes a curtain call with Durante himself making a cameo appearance.
While Durante would live until 1980, the proposed picture of his life was never revisited or resurrected by anyone. But the impression that he made on the entertainment industry was a lasting and indelible one.
And goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are…