National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Elsie M. Warnecke
Born New York City
Just sixteen when he broke into show business by playing ragtime piano in honky-tonks from Coney Island to Harlem, Jimmy Durante found his true calling as a comedian in the early 1920s when he teamed up with two other performers to create a comic cabaret act. With the irrepressible Durante taking the lead, the madcap trio quickly made its way to Broadway. By 1927 the group was playing to capacity crowds at vaudeville’s top venue, the Palace Theatre. Singled out by critics for his show-stealing antics in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Show Girl (1929), Durante launched his career as a solo performer in 1931 when he signed a five-year contract with MGM. Although the "Schnozzola" made twenty-nine films and returned often to Broadway, he achieved his greatest success on radio and television, where his self-effacing humor, mangled syntax, and hoarse-voiced renditions of songs like "Inka Dinka Doo" endeared him to millions.