A Love Letter to Danny Kaye
“Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can.” – Danny Kaye
According to my baby book, my first crush was Donny Osmond. Don’t judge – it was a different time. I think it was a combination of “Puppy Love” and assuredly the big teeth. But undoubtedly, my next crush was Danny Kaye. Well, in a way. My crush on Cary Grant was much stronger, in the attraction sense. But with Danny Kaye, it was more of a profound admiration. I wanted to BE him. Get it? Got it. Good.
As a kid, my first Danny Kaye film was Melvin Frank’s/Norman Panama’s The Court Jester (1955). When I first witnessed Kaye’s silliness and heard his jet-speed linguistics with a mastery of accents, I knew no one could possibly compare. He kept me in stitches. I was fascinated by his ease in swiftly switching from one accent to another, often in the midst of a song and dance, while performing physical comedy with hilarious precision.
I was privileged to see Fred Willard and Illeana Douglas introduce the recently restored version in all the glorious Technicolor jewel tones up on the mega screen at Grauman’s TCL Chinese Theater at the 2016 TCM Film Festival. The Court Jester remains his most popular film, with good reason. Stylistically similar to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), this vibrant, medieval-styled comedy showcases Kaye’s myriad of talents, by splitting him into multiple characters via impersonations and hypnosis. Thus allowing him to flip in and out from his standard coward to the dashing hero and back again with lightning speed. Highlights include the infamous “The Pellet With The Poison” scene:
Danny Kaye: The pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true, right?
Mildred Natwick: Right, but there’s been a change. They … broke the chalice from the palace.
Danny Kaye: They … broke the chalice from the palace?
Mildred Natwick: … and replaced it with a flagon.
Danny Kaye: A flagon?
Mildred Natwick: … with a figure of a dragon.
Danny Kaye: A flagon with a dragon.
Mildred Natwick: RIGHT.
Danny Kaye: But, did you put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle?
Mildred Natwick: Noooo, the pellet with the poison is in the flagon with the dragon, the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.
Danny Kaye: The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon, the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.
Mildred Natwick: Just remember that.
Danny Kaye: Yes, thank you very much.
Other big screen vehicles allowed this musical dynamo to express his array of special assets. In hits such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), On the Riviera (1951), and the holiday classic, White Christmas (1954), he proved he could be a bankable mix of leading man good looks, a uniquely talented clown, and he could act, dance, and sing, too!
Kaye’s talents were too big to be limited to the big screen. He dazzled the bright stage lights with multiple musical appearances- from his Broadway stage debut in The Straw Hat Revue in 1939, to Two By Two in 1971. Another medium that served as a top-rated outlet for Kaye was radio. He aired a popular program in his own namesake for two seasons, starting in 1945. He drew major stars such as Orson Welles and it co-starred Eve Arden. But he discovered the physicality of his style of entertainment was best experienced visually.
While much of the 1930s was devoted to stage work, and he spent the bulk of the ‘40s and ‘50s performing in popular film roles, he also tackled the ever-booming medium of television starting in the early 60s. His appearances on TV specials were so well received that he was given his own regular series. The Danny Kaye Show was wildly successful (he won an Emmy in its first season), and ran for four seasons. A variety show format with skits, dancing, and musical numbers, it attracted the biggest stars of the time such as Lucille Ball, Louis Armstrong, Vincent Price, and Mary Tyler Moore.
After the ‘60s, he continued working in TV but less frequently. His last television roles were memorable; such as his rare dramatic role in Skokie (1981), with his incredibly poignant performance as a Holocaust survivor in the cross-hairs of a legal debate of assembly rights vs. hate speech with neo-Nazis, and as late as 1986, as Dr. Burns the dentist in The Cosby Show, less than a year prior to his death.
But what’s most impressive about him is everything he accomplished that has nothing to do with acting, singing or comedy. Danny Kaye was an extremely devoted activist and humanitarian, especially in regards to children and social justice and he committed much of his life to charitable work. As a liberal Democrat, he opposed the witch hunt activities of the HUAC Hollywood blacklisting and joined others like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, and Paul Henreid in the Committee for the First Amendment’s formal protest in Washington in 1947. Kaye served as the very first Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), starting in 1954. He traveled the globe for over 33 years, until his death in 1987, to raise support for UNICEF and millions of children in need.
“Children are the same the world over,” Kaye once said. “They may have a different culture, but an ache or a laugh is universal.” He joined UNICEF’s official delegation in Oslo in 1965 when the organization received the Nobel Peace Prize. He received two Academy Awards~ an honorary Oscar in 1955, and again in 1982, with the Jean Hersholt Academy Award for his humanitarian work.
According to the UNICEF site, “he promoted the ‘Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF’ campaign by flying his own plane on whirlwind tours to enlist volunteers. The last such trip, in 1968, touched down in 65 US and Canadian cities in five days and put Kaye in the Guinness Book of Records as the World’s Fastest-Flying Entertainer.”
He was also a master chef in Chinese cooking- hosting celebrities and world-class French chefs, an early owner of the Seattle Mariners’ baseball team – known for rattling off baseball stats like an encyclopedia, and was a licensed commercial pilot for single, multi-engine, and certain business class planes, including Boeing 747 and DC-10. To the delight of critics and fans alike, he often conducted renowned orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, raising MILLIONS of dollars for charity. Yet surprisingly, he couldn’t read a single note of music- he was able to do it all by ear. In his true Kaye style of physical comedy, he famously would trade his baton for a fly swatter while conducting “The Flight Of The Bumble Bee.”
Not too shabby for a kid from Brooklyn who dropped out of school by age thirteen. His parents, Jacob and Clar Kaminski, were Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. The youngest of three sons and the only one born in America, Danny Kaye was born on January 18, 1911, named David Daniel, or as his parents called him, “Duvidelleh.”
He got his first taste of showbiz from touring the “Borscht Belt” Jewish resorts of the Catskills in his teen years, eventually making his way to clubs and bigger stages in NYC. Samuel Goldwyn’s wife Francis would be the talent scout who discovered Kaye on the NY stage, and who insisted his natural red hair be dyed into a golden strawberry blonde.
By 1939, during his first Broadway show, he met another former kid from Brooklyn, Sylvia Fine, and married her in 1940. Sylvia was the wife and supportive business partner to Danny, not unlike Alma Reville was to Alfred Hitchcock. Sylvia wrote the music and lyrics to many of the songs he performed and essentially managed most of his career. Sylvia was a Hollywood success in her own right, working in production (often on his shows) throughout her long career, earning two Oscar nominations and two Emmy nominations, and she was awarded a Peabody in 1980.
Their only child, Dena, was born December 17, 1946. Danny and Sylvia were separated the very next year, blaming their busy careers. Interestingly, they remained married yet separated, while working together professionally, for forty years, until his death. Sylvia died a few years after Danny in 1991 and is buried aside him at the Kenisco Cemetary in Valhalla, NY. What’s also interesting about Danny and Sylvia is that while they didn’t meet until 1939, they grew up in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn. At one point in his early days before his rise to stardom, Danny unsuccessfully worked a string of odd jobs. He worked for a dentist but was fired in short time for using the dental drills for creative carpentry. Unknown to any of them at the time, that dentist would later become Danny’s father-in-law.
I realize that my love for Danny Kaye’s zany style of comedy and lyricisms may not be matched in equal measure for everyone. Humor is very subjective, after all. But I imagine it’s nearly impossible to find anyone not impressed by the variety and magnitude of the accomplishments of this rapid-fire, tongue-twisting, brilliant, and deeply compassionate Renaissance man. You were truly one of a kind, Danny Kaye. XO…
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing and social media as her day gig, Kellee Pratt writes for her own classic film blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com). Kellee teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Screwball Comedy this Fall). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, Social Producer for TCM (2015, 2016), and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayHawk66.