Most people think of Danny Kaye as an actor and a comedian, but he was of course much more than that. Kaye was an entertainer and music (and dance) was a major part of his early act. Indeed, he initially gained fame (on Broadway) as the first man ever to sing a song in which he named 54 Russian composers (real and imaginary) in 38 seconds. The song was “Tchaikovsky,” and Kaye first performed it in Moss Hart’s musical, Lady in the Dark, in the Alvin Theater on January 21, 1941.
Moss Hart had discovered the still-young Kaye performing in a small basement club in Manhattan, and wrote him into his play with an 11-minute part built around a temperamental photographer who had developed the ability to perform tongue-twisters – a natural for Kaye, whose trademark would become the staccato delivery of tongue-twisting lyrics.
Kaye was born David Daniel Kaminksy, on January 18, 1913, in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a Ukrainian tailor who worked in New York City’s garment center. But Kaye had other ideas for himself, and had no intention of following his father’s trade. Indeed, he dropped out of school at 13 to launch his career as an entertainer as a clowning busboy in the “Borscht Circuit” – the summer camps and vacation resorts of New York state’s Catskill Mountains, where many a young vaudevillian got his start.
Success did not come quickly or easily for the young Kaye. He took jobs working behind a soda fountain and as an insurance agent to pay the bills while trying to get a toehold in vaudeville and in night clubs as a singer-dancer-entertainer.
Kaye made a few early two-reel film shorts, notably Dime a Dance, with Imogene Coca in 1937, and Money Or Your Life (listed by some as Money On Your Life) in 1938. (These can be found in such film collections as Comedy Masters of Yesteryear, volumes 2 and 14, Comedy Shorts volumes 2, 9 and 13, and Chasing Those Depression Blues – all of which use one or the other of those two shorts.) But these preceded his movie stardom.
In 1939 Kaye made his Broadway debut, appearing in The Straw Hat Review with Imogene Coca. But it took his subsequent stint in Lady in the Dark to bring him real acclaim. Kaye had married a young woman named Sylvia Fine in 1940, and this marked another turning point in his career, because Sylvia Fine would become not only his manager, but the author of some of his best gags and routines, as well as his lyricist. It was she who wrote the tongue-twisting songs and monologues with which Kaye had captured Moss Hart’s attention.
Kaye also caught the attention of movie mogul Sam Goldwyn, who reputedly tried for at least two years to sign Kaye to MGM before succeeding in 1943. Goldwyn showcased Kaye in a series of highly successful Technicolor musical comedies, beginning with Up in Arms, which was released in 1944. (Interestingly, Kaye’s hair was died blond for most of his movies, since it was felt that his natural red hair did not photograph well.)
His movies brought Kaye enormous popularity in the 1940s. He projected a sunny personality, which, combined with his ability to do broad pantomime and clever impersonations, and his vocal virtuosity, made him a very likeable performer. He made a number of films, including Wonderman, The Kid from Brooklyn, The Court Jester, Merry Andrew, Me and the Colonel, The Inspector General, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Hans Christian Anderson, White Christmas (with Bing Crosby), and The Five Pennies (the film bio of jazz trumpeter Red Nichols). He was awarded a special Academy Award in 1954. Collectors will be interested in the posters from these movies. The poster for The Five Pennies (1959) is currently being sold for $85. But the poster for Merry Andrew (1958) is going for only $25, and On the Double (1961) for $40. A number of his films are available on VHS, and many are available for auction at reasonable prices (under $10). A framed autographed picture was offered for $30.
But Kaye did not abandon the stage. He mounted a one-man concert revue and took it to London in 1948 for an instant success at the Palladium. Not only did the Royal Family go to see him, but for the first time in history left the royal box to sit in the first row of the orchestra. Life magazine characterized the English reaction to Kaye as “worshipful hysteria.”
Kaye also conducted major symphony orchestras although he claimed to be unable to read a single note of music. He sometimes conducted with a fly swatter and on other occasions would lie on the podium on his back, keeping time by kicking his feet in the air. He first took up the baton at the invitation of Eugene Ormandy, the conductor of the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra, at a time when Kaye was playing in a stage show in a Philadelphia theater a block away. Kaye’s stints as a guest conductor were done for charity fundraisers, and his concerts raised more than $5 million.
In the 1960s Kaye hosted The Danny Kaye Show on CBS for four seasons (1963-67), and he returned to Broadway in 1970 in Two by Two, in which he appeared for 10 months either in a wheelchair or on crutches after injuring his hip.
Kaye died on March 3, 1987, of hepatitis and internal bleeding, the result of a transfusion of contaminated blood during a 1983 quadruple bypass heart surgery. He was 74.