As the folks over at the History Channel reminded me, the Schnozz got his first whiff of the airwaves on 10 September 1933. A replacement for fellow vaudevillian Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante headlined the Chase and Sanborn Hour for several weeks, then returned as host the following spring. Having already appeared in about a dozen films (including The Phantom President, costarring Claudette Colbert and George M. Cohan, pictured right, with Durante center stage), the radio newcomer was further cross-promoted in MGM’s Meet the Baron, in which he stars opposite “Baron Munchhausen” (comedian Jack Pearl), one of the most popular radio personalities of the day. By the end of 1934, Durante was a household name; and when the musical Anything Goes opened that November, Cole Porter certified the comedian’s fame with these lines from “You’re the Top”:
You’re a rose,
You’re Inferno’s Dante,
You’re the nose
On the great Durante.
To be sure, “You’re the Top” proved more durable than the “great Durante.” Still, at that time, the Schnozz was at the top of his game; and those with a proboscis for show business—Billy Rose and the Texas Oil Company—decided to take him to the Big Top. As I discuss in “Etherized Victorians,” my doctoral study on so-called old-time radio, the growing influence and commercial appeal of network radio led to the development of big-budgeted programs that, to encourage repeat listening, were becoming more tightly structured than the loosely formatted musical-variety programs.
After the success of NBC’s Maxwell House Coffee-sponsored Show Boat, a musical comedy-drama serial was believed to be the ticket. The Texaco financed Jumbo Fire Chief Program (1935-36) was one of the most extravagant serials to go on the air. It was broadcast live on Tuesday evenings from New York’s 4500-seat Hippodrome, the site of Billy Rose’s production of Jumbo, a star vehicle for the Broadway experienced Durante.
With a book by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, a score by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, and a large orchestra conducted by Adolph Deutsch—assets the radio announcer did not fail to point out—the nostalgic Jumbo romanticized the empires of show business that talent consuming Depression-era radio—including programs like Jumbo Fire Chief Program—raided and all but razed.
“However dark the clouds,” press agent “Brainy” Bowers (Durante) insists in the premier broadcast (29 October 1935), “people can always pay fifty cents for a peek at the pomp and glitter of old Roman days. The circus—what a spectacle, what a gold mine!” The series’ central story line (of a tax-burdened circus struggling to survive) suggested otherwise—and even though radio listeners did not have to pay as much as a nickel to take in the big show, the program fizzled and the whole venture failed to pay off for either Billy Rose or Texaco.
What struck me when I first listened to the program was that the audience inside the Hippodrome was asked not to applaud so as not to interfere with the broadcast. Soon, of course, such background noises of approval were understood to be an asset (they still reverberate today on the laugh tracks of sitcoms). But all that hadn’t quite been worked out yet when the Schnozz took to the soundstage. Imagine, there stood Durante before a crowd of thousands—and not one among them was to give him a hand . . .