Three chapters from Klavierzerstörungen
exlusively in English translation
(illustrations in the book are not reproduced on this

The Anarchy of Vaudeville
Destructivity in Slapstick

The book can be ordered from Reimer Verlag

The Anarchy of Vaudeville
Jimmy Durante

Jimmy Durante (1893–1980) was a popular American pianist, singer and comedian. By the time he was just seventeen he had already begun playing ragtime piano in clubs, cabarets and beer halls. This, presumably, was where the young Durante gathered the elementary experience that later turned him into the first artistic destroyer of pianos in the history of the performance arts. Prostitution, alcohol abuse, criminality and violence created a general mood of crudeness in the lower-class milieu of popular entertainment. Entertainment, David Backish tells us in his biography of Durante, not only aimed at creating sentimental effect but also resorted to slapstick and offensive humour to participate in the carnivalesque rowdiness.[1] Yet Durante would never have been the successful showman he later became had he merely stuck to the mores of his environment. Over the years, he not only adjusted his musical style but he began to sing and add comic banter to his routine; together with the singer Eddie Jackson and the dancer Lou Clayton he launched a career in vaudeville that finally propelled him to greater glory in Broadway musicals. His stage success in turn opened the doors for his appearances in Hollywood and TV productions.

Unlike his supporting roles in cinema, Durante’s early stage performances were marked by a great measure of intensity, insanity and anarchistic explosiveness, qualities that distinguished him from other entertainers of that period.[2] A childhood spent in an Italian immigrant milieu, an unschooled proletarian setting and his early experience in the subculture of the entertainment world concocted the ferment from which, very early on, Durante nurtured his delight in “language butchery”[3], which at times was reminiscent of Dadaist wordplay and was later to become his hallmark.[4]

This brief reference to Dada and vaudeville, two ostensibly remote cultures, each deploying aggressive humour with keenly provocative attitudes, is, to begin with, only to suggest that an appetite for attacking the symbols of conformity was not unique to the aesthetic avant-garde. In both cases we find signs of vulgarity, infantile expressiveness and desublimated articulation that sought to be seen as atavisms against a backdrop of sophisticated high culture and appeared to menace the seemingly solid foundations of what is considered serious art. Fired by an irreverent proletarian mode of behaviour, from the mid-1920s onwards Jimmy Durante’s performances took a direction that by comparison even make the Dada insurrection appear harmless, while seeming to anticipate later Fluxus events. Any proximity to Fluxus suggested here stems from the fact that Durante was the first performer to include the dismantling of pianos in the repertoire that built his fame – a practice several Fluxus artists also adopted with success. In an environment that tended to favour physical means of expression, the transition from playing piano in his characteristically loud, syncopically fragmented style to launching unmusical attacks on the instrument is nothing if not consistent. The idea that these staged acts of frenziedly dismantling pianos conveyed a sub-cultural anti-bourgeois attitude should, for the time being, only be treated as a hypothesis. This, nevertheless, seems plausible since the conventions of decency, controls over urges and respect for values – also in a pecuniary sense – are thereby suspended. The gesture of destruction was accompanied by the aforementioned linguistic demolition (slang, meaningless onomatopoeia, misuse of elaborately erudite language, hybridisation of various international languages). Language, music and musical instrument are invested with enhanced corporeality while, as a logical consequence, their symbolically urbane contents are aggressively subjected to an acid test.

In seeming contradiction to these physical attacks is the almost wholly positive response from audiences and critics. The press told of his “uninhibited violence, exaggerated anger”[5], describing him with metaphors of destruction: “Durante is sharper than a GI Bayonet”[6]; “Jimmy Durante’s cyclone puts the place in shambles. He knocks a piano apart for the finale, and long before then he has the house rocking and rolling.”[7] The tumultuous exultation and frenetically physical display were generally experienced as funny and liberating. “It was its wild, loud, physical quality that made the Clayton, Jackson, and Durante act so popular”, David Bakish suggests. This view is vindicated by the American screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas in her autobiography, where she describes her visit to a New Year’s Eve show in New York in the 1920s:

“The highlight of the evening’s entertainment was the young comedian Jimmy Durante and his incomparable stooges, who helped him demolish the upright piano at which he had been performing. It was a hilarious act, and I arrived just in time to catch it”[8]

In 1949 the magazine Billboard reported on Durante’s shows in New York, recalling his history of destruction in the following account:

“There wasn’t much that he did Thursday that he didn’t do before. But the drive, the urgency, the sheer madness, so long a Durante trademark, was still there, undiminished by the years. He still broke up a couple of pianos. He still ripped up music sheets and threw them at the band. This time he even threw a goose-necked lamp at Jack Roth, the drummer […]. It was bedlam.”[9]

In 1949 an article appeared in Life magazine that could be taken as a fully-fledged eulogy of destruction: “Jimmy Durante’s lust for violence is a source of comedy as universally popular and as durable as his outsize nose. The most spectacular violent of his acts, and one of the best-liked in the 24 years that he has performing it, is the fearful piano-wrecking number shown on the pages.”[10] A twelve-part photographic series (figs. 1a & b) show Jimmy Durante and Eddie Jackson in the process of dismembering a piano, apparently staged specially for the magazine. But even these relatively stilted documents are evidence of the anarchic fury and underlying sombre mood described in the article: “The full demoniac frenzy that grips him in his best performances can never be better seen than when he starts to pound and maul apart a baby grand.” The impression gained from the pictures is reinforced by the captions that record Durante’s exclamations in the course of each action. As the piano lid is torn off, Durante shouts, “No wonder da notes sound smothered up. […] They can’t breath.” The piano is a coffin containing other notes other than obediently rehearsed arpeggios: “Listen, there’ll be no more arepijos out of dis box.”

Announcing the liberation of musical notes stands metaphorically for a straitjacketed existence passionately yearning for unrestrained vitality. Such statements reveal typically clownesque ambiguity; the assault upon highbrow culture comes in the guise of dressed in a restricted linguistic code and with childlike insouciance which allow us to laugh at the comedian. But it is precisely this regression that conveys a libidinal undercurrent. Evidently, the insanity, wildness and violence repeatedly mentioned by commentators – attributes that seem so alien in the context of present-day conventions of entertainment – served to release concealed tension. Humour offered a risk-free opportunity to live out one’s desire to exercise aggression. In a comment about humour in relation to this economy of release, Sigmund Freud observed, “It [humour] means: ‘Look! Here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children – just worth making a jest about!’”[11]

The gradual transfer of proletarian crudity into accepted formats of entertainment can be viewed as a compromise formula. The surrogate actions on stage and their incorporation in comical carnivalesque contexts allowed these to be perceived as allegorical devices for holding reality at a distance. Laughing at clowns let one forget that this concurrently signalled consent to vandalism.

The factors that motivated artists and their delighted audiences to articulate their aggression in such a way will be discussed later. First of all, we need to examine more closely the forms of the performances and explore their semantic dimensions. What the photo sequence in Life does not show but again emphasises their proximity in formal terms to the Fluxus actions performed later on is the theatrical integration of the piano destruction, which from the late 1920s onwards represented one of Durante’s most spectacular routines. Wood, the sketch’s title, began with Durante’s fellow performers accusing him of having a head made of wood. He retorts that they are paying him a compliment. The inversion of an insult into self-praise was prompted by quotes from a wide range of timber products listed in a wood industry brochure. All of a sudden, wood assumed the form of construction material, not only the stuff that things were made of, but ultimately that with which American culture was built. This was followed by Durante calling on his fellow actors to hurl wooden objects onto the stage or the dance floor. This mode of summoning evidence culminated in nothing less than a virtual massacre of the furnishings that had been ripped out from somewhere or flung across from the orchestra pit, then piled up like garbage. One eyewitness report commented:

“Clayton, Jackson and Durante were at what they called the Chez les Ambassador on top of the old Winter Garden. There was one stretch where I was there every night to see Jimmy Durante, who was the hottest thing in town, do his famous number Wood. That was the number in which he’d break up everything that had wood in it, starting with the piano, and pile it in the middle of the floor. He’d pull out the fixtures, everything, and every night he’d seem to find something new. And all the time he’d be chanting like maniac: ‘Wood … wood … woood. …’”[12]

The poeticisation of banality (product leaflet), instructions for destruction, handling everyday objects and the musical setting – all of this could have been seamlessly integrated into a Fluxus event. And even if Wood was precisely not this but “a burst of high-energy vaudeville”, the number still enjoys the status of a “pièce de résistance”, as Bakish observes.[13] This term describes something that overrides conventional perceptions and can be considered unique. We must concur with Lewis A. Erenberg who recognises this act as shifting the boundaries of what is socially acceptable: “They [Clayton, Jackson, Durante] took the sacred principles of order, success, and propriety and turned them upside down. They turned the formalities topsy-turvy.”[14]

This oscillation between affirmative entertainment and subversive clownery can be clearly observed when one considers the fate of Durante’s destructive practice in the context of the Hollywood culture industry. In This Time for Keeps, an MGM musical from 1947 starring Esther Williams, the dramatic element of the polarity between high culture and popular entertainment (opera vs. water show) drives the action. Figures from both milieus meet, fight and make up. In the course of the film Durante performs a song, a parody on the healing force of classical music. It is about how the lyrical self, in a sad mood, begins to improvise symphonies on the piano. The singer describes how his right and left hands simultaneously play different pieces from the classical repertoire before he then announces that he has found the lost chord. The chord consists of a dissonance played in descant, in other words, contradicting the tonal conventions of Mozart and Bizet, whose music is the subject of the song’s lyrics. Yet the joy of making this discovery is short-lived because the chord inadvertently goes missing again. In desperation, Ferdi Farro (Jimmy Durante) sets out looking for the sound, beginning by sweeping the scores off the top of the piano and then tearing off several sections of the piano’s casing.[15] (Fig. 2) After a small boy, squatting on the piano, exhilaratedly proclaims, “He’s crazy”, and Durante has hurled away the last section of the lid, the performer turns around and sits down on top of the keys to wait for the chord’s return. But precisely the sound he makes as he plonks his behind on the keys transpires to be the purportedly lost chord. Durante rounds off the sketch with the punch line, “I usually play by ear”.

Not only does the humour in this scene tame the prevailing craziness and wildness but in the end the piano also remains unharmed, allowing the song to be performed fully and without constraint.[16] The lyrical, acoustic and performative assault against classical music does not trigger shock; instead, the revue girls standing around simply laugh in amicable approval.

The vehemence manifested by the Life photo series is no more than hinted at in the film. Evidently, Hollywood had a feel for Durante’s anarchistic potential, which was used as basic material for vivacity and wit, yet without allowing the harmonious world of the musical to be downed out in so much turmoil. Furthermore, Ferdi Farro remains the clownesque character whose role is ultimately to underpin the upper-class sophistication of the film’s heroes.

Little about this analysis is surprising since it touches on a familiar pattern. But in the case at hand, a dimension is opened up that summons major cultural parameters and whose significance points to further-reaching issues. As the film begins, the subject of war is introduced and illustrated in two ways. The male hero is a war veteran returning home who hopes to recover from his terrifying experiences. For this reason he does not want to be a singer in his father’s opera house. In the first swimming scene we see a group of war invalids enjoying the show with Leonora Cambaretti (Esther Williams). The intradiegetic element refers beyond the fiction to the reality of the Second World War that finished just two years before the film came out. This link raises the question about how a culture deals symbolically with the real experience of violence – by creating idylls or featuring depictions of violence? The socio-psychological reactions that occurred in the immediate post-war period have frequently been diagnosed as repression. Against this backdrop, Durante’s performance, which at the time of the film’s making had been part of his repertoire for over twenty years, also undergoes changes. The line of conflict between high- and lowbrow culture represents only one point of reference in this assessment. The invasion of the placid world of the musical by violence accompanied by the aesthetics of vandalism would have felt to many like the memory of some unbearable experience. Cultural criticism has often exposed the lies of the culture industry and described repression as pathogenic. The fact that repression also serves a function as a means of healing and self-preservation needs only be mentioned in passing. The shallowness of popular jazz tunes as opposed to the troubling emotionality of opera made for better medicine in times of need. For piano demolition, this change in historical context meant a growth in semantic value, but one that for the time being could not yet be played out. This was not to happen until several years later. As will be discussed in the following chapters, the destruction of instruments acquired renewed verve and intensity during the 1950s – especially in cartoons and, later on, in the art world. But there is a document also showing Durante in this period that bears witness to some of his original exuberance and ferocity. In an appearance on the TV show Sunday Showcase, Durante and the actor Ray Bolger perform a musical buffoonery. Bolger begins the rollicking sketch by sitting down at a drum kit and instantly bashing the drums, knocking over parts of the kit. While Durante and Bolger are playing a song they keep getting into brawls on top of the piano like two juveniles embroiled in uncouth horseplay. At one point a messenger boy interrupts their song to deliver a letter. It is from a certain Mr Steinway requesting that his name be scratched off the distinguished piano. The performance is evidently considered an insult to the iconic piano builder and his instrument. Durante immediately fetches a wood plane and shaves the venerable name off the lid of his piano (fig. 3), which simply compounds the progression of crude gags. Finally, he tears off the casing of the instrument and both actors set about removing small unidentifiable components from inside the piano which they heedlessly throw aside. Durante brings the sketch to a close with the statement: “We’ve entitled ourselves to a little autopsy.”[17]

Humour and destruction, rebellion and mirth, music and noise – these elements represent the basic attributes of a strategy for coming to terms with violence that finds articulation in further forms of popular culture. Jimmy Durante’s actions focus attention on precursory, parallel or subsequential phenomena that will be examined in the chapters ahead. Initially, however, to trace back their origin it is worth examining in detail one scene in This Time for Keeps, which contains an inter-cinematographic reference to an earlier film. Starting from this source material, one can find further filmic evidence that to a surprising degree uninhibitedly celebrates the destruction of this “bourgeois and romantic instrument”.[18] All such instances date back to the period before World War II and can thus be attributed to the original complex from which Jimmy Durante also emerged. So what exactly is this episode in This Time for Keeps about? Located at the centre of a pool where the water ballet with synchronised swimmers is being performed is a small stage. Durante is seated at the piano, playing and singing. The number ends with the stage slowly being lowered until, half way through the performance, Durante and his piano are fully submerged under water. (Fig. 4)

It is worth noting that this idea prefigures a Fluxus performance from 1963, “Event for the Twilight” by the Japanese artist Mieko Shiomi. Without any narrative context the instruction for the pianist states: “Steep a piano in the water of a pool. Play some piece of F. Liszt on the piano.”[19] Both piano drownings were inspired by an early short film by Charlie Chaplin which was not only paradigmatic for later demolitions in slapstick but also stood for the strategies championed by George Maciunas for Fluxus art. Before this study moves on to discuss the connection between slapstick and Fluxus I first wish to describe the milieu and habitual orientation featured in this short film.

Translation: Matthew Partridge

[1] David Bakish: Jimmy Durante. His Show Business Career, Jefferson, North Carolina, London 1995, pp. 11–13.

[2] Stanley Green: The Great Clowns of Broadway, New York, Oxford 1984, pp. 50–66.


[4] Exemplary for this destructiveness: “When I go to woik on an infinitive, I break it up in little pieces.” Quoted: Gerald Nachman: Raised on Radio, Berkeley Los Angeles 1998, p. 48.

[5] Billboard, March 13, 1943, p. 12.

[6] Las Vegas Review, December 27, 1946, quoted: Rose Marie: Hold the Roses, University Press of Kentucky 2002, p. 108.

[7] Billboard, June 20, 1953, p. 22.

[8] Frederica Sagor Maas: The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. A Writer in Early Hollywood, Kentucky 1999, p. 29.

[9] Billboard, November 26, 1949, p. 41.

[10] Speaking of Pictures. Jimmy Durante shows how to wreck a Baby Grand, in: Life, September 20, 1948, pp. 14–15.

[11] Sigmund Freud: Humor (1927), in: Standard Edition, Vol. 21, London 1961, p. 166.

[12] Leo Durocher: Nice Guys finish last, Chicago 1975, p. 65.

[13] Bakish: Jimmy Durante, p. 28.

[14] Lewis A. Erenberg: Steppin’ Out. New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890–1930, Chicago 1984, p. 249

[15] In the movie Music for Millions (1944) Durante starts to dismantle his piano while performing the song Umbriago, but with much more decency than in This Time for keeps.

[16] The repression of aggressivity becomes even more obvious in the performance of Wood during a TV broadcast in 1967. See


[18] Theodor W. Adorno: Dissonanzen. Musik in der verwalteten Welt, Göttingen 1991, p. 105.

[19] Ken Friedman, Owen Smith, Lauren Sawchyn (ed.): The Fluxus Performance Workbook, Performance Research e-publication 2002, p. 95, online: