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Happy Birthday, Danny Kaye

The following is an excerpt from I’m the Greatest Star: Broadway’s Top Musical Legends from 1900 to Today by Robert Viagas.

Danny Kaye
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There are a lot of photos of Danny Kaye, and not one does him justice. Oh, he looked like that, all right. But Kaye existed in a frenzied world of scats, squeaks, pops, thrums, oofs, and gargles delivered at rat-tat-tat velocity and with Olympic-class mug- ging no still image could hope to capture. Sharp-featured, with an explosion of red hair and a manner that could be sweet and shy and retiring one minute and wildly bombastic the next, his specialty was high-speed verbal and physical gymnastics performed with almost supernatural energy. Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill were intrigued enough by his special abilities that they wrote musicals to showcase him. Adorable onstage, Kaye had a tendency to temperament and temper offstage, vigorously encouraged by his wife and frequent writer, Sylvia Fine. He was beloved by audiences for decades and was such a tireless fundraiser for UNICEF that the children’s organization chose him to accept its Nobel Peace Prize. Yet in the end his restless running from one form to another left him not only with a spotty record on Broadway (just four musicals and two special concert appearances), but overall a career in film, variety, and television that was great, but not as spectacular as everyone who experienced him live in those early years would have predicted.

★ ★ ★

Kaye was born Daniel David Kaminsky (“Kominsky,” according to some sources) on January 18, 1913, into a family of Ukrainian Jews who immigrated to Brooklyn three years earlier. His father was a tailor, not much different from Motel in Fiddler on the Roof, and like Motel, he made sure his family didn’t starve—but couldn’t do much beyond that.

The family had the immigrant’s near-worship of doctors, and young Daniel harbored a lifelong dream of becoming a surgeon. But there was no hope, financially, of medical school, so he dropped out of Thomas Jefferson High School when he was fourteen and worked at a soda fountain before creating a little singing vaudeville act called Red and Blackie, with his friend Louis Elison. They sang and danced, and Kaye began displaying his facility with physical comedy, silly voices, and funny faces.

But his entry into vaudeville came just as the art form was expiring, partly due to the Great Depression. He toured the United States, adopting the shortened name “Kaye,” and even traveled to East Asia, where he developed his unique style of double-talking gibberish, which, combined with his nonverbal clowning, helped him transcend the language bar- rier. It would become his trademark.

Returning to the United States, and finding little employment in vaudeville, he took his skills to the ’Skills—the Catskill Mountains northwest of New York City, where middle-class “campers” with any money at all retreated to leafy resorts to escape the pre-air- conditioning summer heat. His job was to serve as “tummler,” a combination emcee, social director, and street performer, who kept things lively by bringing people together for out- door activities by day and entertaining onstage by night. It was a good training ground for Kaye.

In his quest for employment, Kaye traveled to London to perform in music halls there, beginning a lifelong love affair between Kaye and the British. Back in New York in 1938, he auditioned for Saturday Night Vanities, a small-time revue. There he met a dark-haired pianist and songwriter named Sylvia Fine. She penned parodies of classic songs, along with original material of her own. “I walked in and saw Danny doing a song called ‘Vultures of Culture,’” she later told a magazine interviewer. “He terrified me. I was never naive and before I had left that day, he made offers of a suggestive nature.”

They were married within a year. It was the turning point for both of them. She understood his abilities, and they matched her satirical instincts. For the rest of their lives she was his most reliable writer and he was her most reliable interpreter. She crafted (sometimes with help) many of his signature songs, like “Anatole of Paris,” “Lullabye in Ragtime,” and “Melody in 4-F.” She also served as his business manager, earning a reputation for as- sertiveness (and sometimes brusqueness). Later, she coproduced his films The Five Pennies (earning an Oscar nomination for her songs) and The Inspector General. They also produced a daughter, Dena.

While both Kaye and Fine bristled when one commentator snidely remarked that Kaye “has a Fine head on his shoulders,” the truth remains that the Danny Kaye known to the world was in a great part the creation of Sylvia Fine. He was her masterpiece. But it’s not easy being someone else’s masterpiece. Though they stayed married until death, there was no small amount of friction in their relationship. They even separated for four weeks in 1947. There were rumors of affairs over the years, with Kaye, at various times, being connected with Eve Arden and even the pre-Fosse Gwen Verdon.

The most sensational claim came in Donald Spoto’s 1992 biography of British master actor Laurence Olivier, with whom he alleged Kaye carried on a ten-year homosexual relationship—an assertion backed by Olivier’s wife, Joan Plowright. However, in a 1994 biography of Kaye, Nobody’s Fool, Martin Gottfried rebutted the story, saying, “There is no evidence of, and there are no witnesses to, a Kaye–Olivier sexual relationship.”

Whether the stories are true or not, the Kaye–Fine alliance survived the difficulties and lasted more than forty years.

Danny Kaye in Wonder Man:

I’m the Greatest Star: Broadway’s Top Musical Legends from 1900 to Today by Robert Viagas (Applause Books)

Here is the first major survey of Broadway musical theatre stars, telling the life stories of 40 stage luminaries from Al Jolson, Fanny Brice and Gwen Verdon, to Nathan Lane, Patti Lupone and Audra McDonald. Author Robert Viagas describes each star’s most important stage roles as well as the triumphant, tragic, inspiring, and cautionary tales of how they achieved – and maintained – their status as top Broadway stars. I’m the Greatest Star is available on Amazon, B&N, independent bookstores, and from Applause Books.