Entertainer, Humanitarian, Renaissance Man
“If Danny Kaye had not been born,” a Hollywood writer once observed, “no one could possibly have invented him. It would have been stretching credibility far past the breaking point”.
A virtuoso entertainer, UNICEF’S first Goodwill Ambassador to the world’s children (1954), a Renaissance man who was a jet pilot, baseball owner, master Chinese chef, symphony orchestra conductor, a performer honored with Oscars, Emmys, Peabodys, Golden Globes, the French Legion of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Danny Kaye was one of a kind. There was no one like him. If versatility, skill, passion and joy are necessary elements of genius, then Danny Kaye deservedly ranks among that elite class.
Unique among show business headliners, he starred on Broadway and made such film classics as White Christmas, Hans Christian Andersen, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Court Jester. He appeared on television and radio. He was a box-office magnet on the one-man concert stage. Life magazine called his reception at the London Palladium “worshipful hysteria”.
A successful recording artist, Kaye also broke records in supper clubs. He was an actor who danced, (he performed a role originally slated for Fred Astaire in White Christmas) and a dancer who sang. He rattled off riddles, like the legendary “vessel with the pestle” from The Court Jester. He elicited tears and belly laughs. He was a disciplined free spirit, a master of foreign accents and a double talk known only to himself. He held your soul in the palm of his hand. He was graceful, playful and elegant, even when zany. “I am not so much amused,” said the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, “as I am moved”.
His humanitarian efforts were legion. As UNICEF’S first Goodwill Ambassador, a post he cherished until the end of his life, Kaye was a role model for celebrities to support a charity. “He related to children with a child’s lack of inhibition”, said his daughter Dena. He rubbed noses, made funny noises, crawled on the floor and danced with lepers. He received two honorary Oscars for his humanitarian work, including the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1982. In 1965, he joined UNICEF’S official delegation in Oslo when the organization received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Danny Kaye couldn’t read a note of music–he learned the scores by ear–but he regularly conducted world-famous orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic. He raised close to $6 million, mostly for musicians’ pension funds, without ever accepting a fee for his services. He got a “sound” that was highly praised by noted critics, musicians and conductors. But Danny Kaye was also “Danny Kaye’’. He traded the baton for a fly swatter to conduct “The Flight of the Bumblebee”.
He entertained troops from WWII to Korea and Vietnam and was devoted to the young state of Israel. He visited kibbutzim and hospitals, toured several continents with the country’s youth symphony and received virtually every honor awarded by that nation.
Danny Kaye, Renaissance man, didn’t adhere to the conventional meaning of the word “relax”. Relaxation generally meant following passions outside his profession. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball, and was part owner of the Seattle Mariners, though his heart remained with the Dodgers. He was a licensed pilot with instrument, commercial and jet ratings. He could fly Piper Cubs and executive jets, a Boeing 747 and a McDonnell-Douglas DC-10.
He read cookbooks like novels, mastered the art of Chinese cooking, and built a kitchen with a multi-wok stove in the alley of his home. On one occasion, Kaye cooked a meal for three of France’s most eminent chefs. A friend asked if he wasn’t terribly nervous about cooking for such a distinguished trio. “Why should I be nervous?” Kaye replied. “What do they know about Chinese cooking?”
In his prime, he was an athletic 160 pounds. Although he appeared on various “Best Dressed” lists during his early years of stardom, he generally wore polo shirts, loose-fitting (and not necessarily matching) cardigans, a black leather jacket, odd-looking shoes custom made to the shape of his foot, and a variety of soft, shapeless cloth hats. Traditional dress for Danny Kaye was a comfortable tweed jacket, soft-collar shirt, a black knit tie and grey flannel slacks. Only an important personal appearance got him into black tie, and he wore tails only while conducting symphony orchestras.
Danny Kaye disliked small talk. He had high standards but wasn’t a snob and lived by a credo of his native Brooklyn. “Everyone born here liked a person for who he was, not for where he came from or who his parents were.” Kaye was himself in whatever he did, equally at ease dining with royals or having coffee at his kitchen table with the plumber.
Danny Kaye was born David Daniel Kaminsky on January 18, 1913 in Brooklyn, New York. (His actual year of birth was 1911, but the birthday he celebrated was 1913). The son of an immigrant Russian tailor, his parents spoke Yiddish and Russian at home and he started “entertaining” when he was about 5, singing and dancing at 3-day Jewish weddings. He was a high school dropout who specialized in pole vaulting and playing hookey.
His official debut in show business began as a “tummeler” at summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains. “Tummeling” meant clowning around anywhere, at all hours, for the entertainment of the guests. Further afield, he toured the Far East in 1934 and since most audiences didn’t speak English, he developed the signature “Danny Kaye” style of artful communication, a pantomime of body language and gymnastic face that could express every emotion.
1939 was a year that would change his life. At an audition in a Broadway loft, he met Sylvia Fine. The daughter of a Brooklyn dentist for whom Kaye briefly ran errands, they eloped in 1940. She was an integral and intimate part of Danny Kaye’s stardom. She appeared with him on the cover of Time magazine. A gifted pianist, lyricist and composer, she wrote most of his material for nightclubs, stage and film, and worked throughout his career, often behind the scenes, as editor and producer. Her credits include two Oscar nominations for best song and in 1979, Fine won a Peabody for the first of three specials she produced, created, wrote, and hosted on PBS, Musical Comedy Tonight. She would have celebrated her 100th birthday in 2013.
Their daughter, Dena, graduated from Stanford University and became a respected freelance journalist, radio and television broadcaster. Her book, The Traveling Woman, was published by Doubleday and Bantam Books. As president of the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye Foundation, she is dedicated to continuing her father’s legacy of helping people around the world.
Danny Kaye first caught the world’s attention in 1941 with a small role in Moss Hart’s Broadway show, Lady in the Dark. Reeling off the names of 50 Russian composers in 38 seconds in a song written by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill, Kaye became an overnight sensation.
From this platform, Kaye jumped to star status in his next Broadway appearance, Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It. In 1943, he made a longer jump to Hollywood, under contract to Samuel Goldwyn. In his first starring role, Kaye appeared in Up in Arms, opposite Dinah Shore.
Danny Kaye became an international star with his SRO performances at The London Palladium. The frenzy of fans surrounding his appearances equaled the fervor generated by The Beatles, Elvis or Frank Sinatra’s “bobbysoxers.” Kaye was called the greatest entertainer in the history of the London music hall. For the first time ever, the British Royal Family left the Royal Box to sit in the front row of the orchestra.
The early 50s was a fertile time for Danny Kaye, with such definitive films as On the Riviera, Hans Christian Andersen, Knock on Wood and his sold-out, one-man shows in New York. In 1952 he hosted the 24th Academy Awards. Kaye made the timeless film, White Christmas, with Bing Crosby in 1954, a year that opened a new chapter in his life when he became UNICEF’s first Goodwill Ambassador.
In 1955 he received an honorary Oscar, relating to the documentary, Assignment Children, about his work around the world with UNICEF. In 1956, he was privileged to star in one of legendary Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now specials. The Secret Life of Danny Kaye won a Peabody Award and focused largely on his role for UNICEF. “Children are the world’s most valuable natural resource,” Kaye said. “All you have to do is hold out a hand and embrace a child and you will have a lifelong ally.”
In the late 50s, before joining the world of television, he made two successful movies that showcased, once again, his protean talents. In Me and the Colonel, (Golden Globes Best Actor), he played a WWII Jewish refugee. The Five Pennies, the Oscar-nominated story of coronet player Red Nichols, offered a dramatic and musical role. He pulled out all the stops with Louis Armstrong in a parody written by Sylvia Fine of When the Saints Go Marching In, a current YouTube favorite.
The Danny Kaye most familiar to audiences made his foray into television entertainment in 1960 in the first of three An Evening with Danny Kaye specials, including one co-starring Lucille Ball. In 1963, Kaye began his own, Emmy-winning weekly variety hour on CBS.
Danny Kaye returned to Broadway in 1970 as Noah in Two by Two, with music by Richard Rogers. Though he injured his leg and hip, he still performed every night—from a wheelchair.
Kaye’s television appearances included Pinocchio, Peter Pan, The Twilight Zone, The Muppet Show and The Cosby Show. The Emmy-winning special, Look-in at the Met, from the Metropolitan Opera, explained opera to children. Live from Lincoln Center: An Evening With Danny Kaye and the New York Philharmonic won a Peabody. In the CBS movie, Skokie, Kaye played a memorable dramatic role, as a refugee from a Nazi concentration camp. His co-star, Carl Reiner, observed that no matter how many takes he did, they were all heart wrenching. “Danny was that guy.”
In 1979, Kaye celebrated his 25th anniversary as UNICEF’s first Goodwill Ambassador, and made The Guinness Book of Records by piloting a private jet to 65 cities in the U.S. and Canada in 5 days, stopping at each city’s airport to greet thousands of UNICEF volunteers for Halloween’s Trick or Treat campaign. Not many people have two theaters named after them, but in his case, there is The Danny Kaye Theatre at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York, (stove center stage), and the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York.
When Danny Kaye died on March 3, 1987, not only had he lived the American Dream, he had lived a bucketful of dreams. He stood for excellence in his profession, had reached a level of intellectual, artistic and humanitarian achievement attained by few individuals. The son of immigrant parents, product of the streets of New York, ambassador of laughter to an entire world and Pied Piper to its children, Kaye was an authentic giant of his times.
At the close of the distinguished Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, a choir of children from The United Nations International School sang, “Long live Danny Kaye.” May the events of this Centennial year bring Danny Kaye to all generations and help realize that wish.