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Happy Birthday, Danny Kaye!

The date was June 9, 1986 and the borough of Brooklyn was awash with the celebrative gaiety of its Back to Brooklyn Day Festival.  The individual chosen to be the festival’s “King” was a native son born on this date in 1911 — and if there was a worthier candidate than David Daniel Kaminsky, the committee that made the decision certainly didn’t let on.  We know Mr. Kaminsky as Danny Kaye—one of show business’ true “Renaissance men.”  Kaye could sing, dance, act, and make audiences laugh…and he did so on stage and radio, and in movies and TV.  But to call Danny an entertainer would be a severe understatement. In addition to his better known talents, Kaye was a gourmet chef, an accomplished golfer, a licensed pilot, a baseball enthusiast (he was at one time part owner of the Seattle Mariners), and an honorary member of both the American College of Surgeons and the American Academy of Pediatrics.  (I’m willing to bet he was one of those kids you knew in high school who signed up for every curricular activity.)

Jacob and Clara Kaminsky welcomed Danny into the world as the youngest of their three sons (and the only member of the clan to be born in the United States).  In Brooklyn, he attended Public School 149 (later renamed after Kaye as tribute to their famous alumnus). But when his mother died unexpectedly while Danny was still in his teens, he set out with a friend to Florida, where the pair made a living as amateur musicians.  Danny would eventually return to New York and, while he expressed an interest in attending med school, his family simply couldn’t afford the money for his education.  Kaye embarked on a “jack-of-all-trades” career with jobs as a soda jerk, insurance investigator, and office drone—all of which he was fired from. (His stint with the insurance company found him responsible for an error that cost the firm $40,000.)  Since he had entertained his classmates during his school days with jokes and music, Danny thought a career in the footlights might be more to his liking. He received his education in that vocation performing at various venues (as a “tummler”) in the Catskills.  He got his big break as a member of The Three Terpsichoreans, a vaudeville act that started in Utica, NY (where he used his new name for the first time). He went on to tour the U.S. and Asia in a revue entitled La Vie Paree.

After a six-month tour of the Far East, Danny Kaye returned to America to discover that show business bookings were in short supply.  (One of his most unusual gigs was working with burlesque legend Sally Rand; Kaye was hired to make sure her fans were always in front of her.)  Danny got work in several two-reel shorts cranked out by Educational Pictures (Getting an EyefulDime a Dance), and worked on a Broadway show entitled The Straw Hat Revue with his soon-to-be-wife Sylvia Fine. That production had a brief run, but the good notices Kaye received got him hired at La Martinique, a NYC nightclub.  While performing there, Danny attracted the attention of playwright Moss Hart, who cast the entertainer opposite Gertrude Lawrence in his 1941 production of Lady in the Dark.  The highlight of Lady was Danny’s showstopping performance of “Tchaikovsky,” in which he rattled off the names of fifty-four Russian composers (in thirty-nine seconds!) during the course of his song.

Lady in the Dark and his nightclub engagements afforded Danny Kaye a second try in motion pictures (even though Samuel Goldwyn swore that he was unaware of the entertainer’s previous Educational oeuvre at the time of Kaye’s hiring).  Goldwyn was, however, enthusiastic about Kaye appearing in Up in Arms (1944; a remake of Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee! [1930]), because Danny performed a Sylvia-penned tune entitled The Lobby Number. When the duo auditioned this for Goldwyn, the mogul was reduced to helpless (and uncharacteristic) laughter. Sylvia later recalled that Sam never quite enjoyed the other movie songs she created for her hubby to the degree of The Lobby Number.  (Up in Arms also featured Melody in 4-F, which Danny had originally performed in his starring stage musical Let’s Face It.)

A string of successful movie vehicles produced by Sam Goldwyn followed for Danny Kaye: Wonder Man (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), and A Song is Born (1948).  (All four of these musical comedies featured Virginia Mayo as Danny’s leading lady.)  At the same time, Kaye was starting to make headway in front of a radio microphone as well, though he had originally dabbled in the medium with appearances over Brooklyn’s WBBC in the early 1930s.  He would reprise his movie roles on programs such as The Camel Screen Guild Theatre and The Lux Radio Theatre and showcase his incredible performing talents in venues like The Big ShowCommand PerformanceForecastJubilee, and Mail Call.  Kaye was a two-time guest on Suspense (“The Too-Perfect Alibi” and “I Never Met the Dead Man”) and an in-demand guest star on shows headlined by the likes of Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Jack Benny (who was a big fan).

But Danny Kaye’s largest contribution to radio was the appropriately-titled The Danny Kaye Show, which premiered over CBS on January 6, 1945.  Sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon (”33 fine brews, blended into one great beer”), it allowed Danny to cut loose with his trademark scat-singing patter while supported by the likes of a pre-Our Miss Brooks Eve Arden, Lionel Stander, Frank Nelson (as the sponsor, Mr. Pabst), and bandleader Harry James.  (The program originated in Hollywood but then later moved in New York, allowing such pros as Kenny Delmar and Everett Sloane to show up from time to time.)  While there was no denying Kaye’s talent, the program failed to catch on with the listening audience (Goodman Ace, the head writer, charitably referred to the Kaye show as “a bomb”)and departed the airwaves in May of 1946.

Danny Kaye continued his work in motion pictures with features like The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (1951), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), and Knock on Wood (1954).  With Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen, Danny appeared in 1954’s White Christmas—a film that has become an annual Yuletide viewing tradition favorite even today (it was a remake of Bing’s 1942 musical Holiday Inn).  1956 saw the release of The Court Jester, a delightful comedy that may have disappointed at the box office but remains a classic among fans…even those who don’t care for Danny Kaye.  While continuing to make movies (Merry AndrewThe Five Pennies), Kaye became the hardest working man in show business: wowing audiences across the pond with appearances at the London Palladium (and even a Royal Command performance!); scoring hit chart records like Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo) (performed with the Andrews Sisters) and C’est Si Bon (It’s So Good); and becoming the first ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

Danny Kaye’s 1960s filmic output included On the Double (1961) and The Man from the Diners’ Club (1963), but he was perhaps best remembered for his television variety show that was a staple on CBS’ schedule from 1963 to 1967.  The Danny Kaye Show was never a huge Nielsens hit (attributed to the network’s scheduling of the show in the later hours of primetime, robbing Danny of his large younger audience). However, it collected an Emmy statuette in 1964 (for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series) and the prestigious Peabody Award.  Kaye would later appear in two acclaimed TV presentations in the 1970s, Pinocchio (1976; as Geppetto opposite Sandy Duncan’s puppet) and Peter Pan (1976; as Captain Hook).  Danny also received rave critical notices for his performance in the 1981 TV-movie Skokie and for guest turns on The Twilight Zone (the 80s revival) and The Cosby Show.  After a lifetime of following his motto “Life is a great big canvas—throw all the paint you can at it,” Danny Kaye left this world for a better one in 1987 at the age of 76.

On January 18, 2013, as Turner Classic Movies celebrated Danny Kaye’s centennial with a daylong scheduling of his movies. Kaye’s daughter Dena revealed to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz that contrary to what her famous father claimed for many years, he was not born in 1913…but 1911.  So, on the anniversary of Kaye’s 108th birthday, Radio Spirits invites you to check out a trio of classic musical numbers from our birthday boy on our 3-CD collection You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet! ShowstoppersAnatole of Paris (from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Ballin’ the Jack (On the Riviera), and Tchaikovsky.  You’ll also find this latter number on our compilation Some Enchanted Evening: The Greatest Broadway Hits, and on The Best of Christmas, Danny joins Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, and Trudy Stevens for the delightful Snow (a number from White Christmas).  Since we shouldn’t neglect our old-time radio roots, we’ll politely point out that you’ll find Mr. Kaye guesting on his good friend Jack Benny’s program with Jack Benny & Friends.  On behalf of Danny, I can say nothing more than “Git gat gittle giddle-di-ap giddle-de-tommy riddle de biddle de roop da-reep fa-san skeedle de woo-da fiddle de wada REEP!”

4 Comments

  1. Margo says:

    Faboo as usual, Ivan!

  2. Thank you. That was a very nice tribute to a great entertainer. As a lifelong fan it’s so nice to have a tribute for his birthday filled with facts and information. As the founder of the Facebook page Danny Kaye-King of Jesters I shared this last night along with several remembrances. His radio work is in need of more exposure and re-evaluation. Just getting to hear him sing in front of an audience is great plus, as with many, he does songs on the radio shows he never repeated again.

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